On a rainbow pilgrimage to Navajo Mountain

Ernie Atencio
Posted 11/24/12

"The trailhead is around here somewhere," our Navajo shuttle driver assured us as we bounced along rough roads in the middle of the Big Rez, his four-wheel-drive Ford crew cab spinning here and there in sand.

After a couple of wrong turns, we …

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On a rainbow pilgrimage to Navajo Mountain

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"The trailhead is around here somewhere," our Navajo shuttle driver assured us as we bounced along rough roads in the middle of the Big Rez, his four-wheel-drive Ford crew cab spinning here and there in sand.

After a couple of wrong turns, we finally picked a spot and told him that this would be fine. We could see the notch on the horizon that we needed to get to and would just strike out cross country. I reminded him again about our pickup at a different trailhead five days later.

He said that he would have to remember to write that down when he got home and promised to leave the all-night ceremony by 9 a.m. to be sure to get us on time. And so our hike began, the group including my old friend Jim from Glenwood Springs, Gordon from Truchas and Ross and Bowe from Taos.

We decided to travel around Navajo Mountain in a clockwise direction, even though the logistics proved more difficult, because that is the direction of circumambulation pilgrimages in many cultures. We were walking around a sacred mountain and heading to the fabled span of stone called Rainbow Bridge, so this trip had the feel of pilgrimage.

Years ago my wife and I found ourselves in the weirdest job in the world: leading Elderhostel houseboat trips on Lake Powell. It was weird because we are not houseboat types, preferring the of backpacking to petroleumfueled floating. Weird also because we shunned what we considered the atrocity of Lake Powell, knowing the exquisite labyrinth of Glen Canyon that lay drowned below. But we came to love it.

Rainbow Bridge is a short walk from a dock on the lake and we visited many times during those years, but always imagining the sense of discovery we would feel walking to it from the other side of Navajo Mountain. We left the truck and found our trail, high along the flanks of the mountain and in and out of numerous steep canyons. Late in the day we reached Yabut Pass and peered into Cliff Canyon, our destination for the night.

Only another two miles and a 1,600-foot descent to go. We knew our first day would be a long one, but we were stumbling in the dusk on rounded river cobbles by the time we finally reached water about 10 miles in. And a beautiful sight it was. The next day we started to see signs of the cultural history of this old landscape. Navajo Mountain is one of several peaks sacred to the Navajo, considered to be the "head of the earth" from which weather originates, and site of epic battles in the old days of legend between monsters and the monster slayer twins. Over thousands of years the area has been occupied by other Native cultures, as well.

On a sunny, south-facing cliff, some painted pictographs look to be of the "Barrier Canyon" style, 1,500 to 4,000 years old, with more recent Puebloan petroglyphs chipped into the stone and possibly even more recent Navajo images layered on top. At the base of this decorated cliff face, were ruins of two old hogans. In 1864 when Kit Carson was ordered from Taos to capture the last of the Navajo in Canyon de Chelly, several bands escaped to these remote canyons around Navajo Mountain and quietly persisted for several years until the rest of the tribe was allowed to return from Bosque Redondo to their homeland. Maybe some of those people lived here.

After a short day hike we continued over Redbud Pass and to our next camp in Bridge Canyon. The next morning we climbed down the deep canyon, past slickrock pools and massive, echoing alcoves. The first glimpse of Rainbow Bridge was breathtaking — literally, it took my breath away. Some call this the largest natural bridge in the world. Rainbow Bridge is 290 feet high and 275 feet across.

There are apparently several larger natural bridges in China, but it is the perfect proportions, more than the size, that makes this such a stunning piece of erosional architecture. Truly a rainbow turned to stone. It's easy to understand how it is sacred to the Navajo, Paiute, Hopi and Ute tribes. We quietly enjoyed the bridge, ate lunch, then slowly made the couple miles back to camp.

We came in on the south trail and went out on the north trail, past more hogan ruins, another small arch and endless views of wild canyon country. On a path encircling such a sacred mountain, sacred sites must surely abound, but they are for the people who live there, not for us. We saw only two other parties during our six-day trip, one a single client from Florida on his first-ever backpacking trip with two Navajo guides. A fun group, they stopped to share coffee and swap some stories and jokes.

The last day we left camp before sunrise to meet our ride, hoping that he had not forgotten. He was right on time — well, a half hour late — along with his brother and uncle. We piled in and bounced back to the Navajo Mountain community, and our vehicles, cell phones and links to the outside world.

Slowly making our way back, we were quiet, lost in thought about a lost world of wild canyons and legends, a place where rainbows turn to stone.

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