Most people barely notice them as they race by on Highway 491, but I began dreaming of exploring the flat-top Chuska Mountains that saddle the New Mexico/Arizona border after a late-night decision found me at the Chuska Challenge, a yearly gran fondo style ride around towering Roof Butte on the north end of the range.

I’ve spent many years traveling and photographing on the Navajo Nation, but I’ve always ridden my mountain bike cautiously and always with great respect. For one, it is illegal for non-Navajos to camp, hike or bike without some form of approval from Parks and Recreation or the local chapter. Frequently I’ve rode with informal permission from locals or a friend, which is a gray area no doubt, but I’ve always done so with the utmost respect. Secondly, there are no real mountain bike trails on the Nation.
Despite the difficulty in accessing parts of the Navajo Nation, some of the red tape was recently lifted when a group of trail-minded individuals, organizations and affiliated Navajo chapters helped create the Chuska Mountain Bike Route. At the time of the this writing, the official route has not been created, but once completed it will traverse the rugged roads from Roof Butte on the northern end to Mexican Springs on the southern end, a distance of around 90 miles. Perfect for bikepacking.

After a bit of discussion about route options and logistics, Chuck and I decided to do the route as a point to point overnighter. We were able to arrange for a shuttle to drop us off early Saturday morning and pick us up Sunday afternoon (wives are wonderful). While we could have easily came up with a loop that would have allowed us to not rely on a shuttle, we gave in to the allure of traversing a little known mountain range from north to south. While I’m not certain of the fact, I’m pretty sure we would be the first self-supported mountain bikers to accomplish the journey. After hearing of our intentions, our friend Bob decided to join us at the last minute.
We left Gallup early Saturday morning, and after a quick pitstop in Newcomb, NM for burritos, we were on the trail by 9:30am. Our start found us near the base of Bear Butte, the westerly neighbor to Roof Butte. We immediately began a slow climb up a rocky road, passing around Roof Butte to the east. After a couple of miles the road evened out and the pedaling became easy. We coasted gradually downhill for several miles as the mountains opened up and we cruised through lush green meadows dotted with old sheep camps. We dubbed it Navajo Switzerland, thanks to the many springs that formed on the hillsides and eventually formed into Tsaile Creek.

North to south bikepack traverse of the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona/ New Mexico border

North to south bikepack traverse of the Chuska Mountains on the Arizona/ New Mexico border

The scenery was so beautiful and unexpected that we ended up missing a turn. By the time I noticed it was a little too far to turn back, so we opted to re-connect with our route by looping back around to the north, which turned out to be the easier option anyway. We reconnected back to our route and began climbing towards the eastern edge of the mountains. As we traversed the edge, a quick glance at the map presented an opportunity to get a view of Snake Bridge in the red canyons below via a short detour out onto a ridge. We went for it and ended up taking a break at what would be the first of many sweeping viewpoints of the day.

After photos (though we were never able to see the arch) we hit the trail again and immediately ran into some bear hunters with their Navajo guide. We chatted for a bit and learned they had taken two animals that day. They were very surprised to see us with our bikes loaded down and were even more surprised when they learned our destination was Tohatchi. Chuska Mountain bikepacking We were soon riding again when we came across a spring flowing out of a faucet head along the side of the road. Though we hadn’t consumed much water yet, we took the opportunity to fill up. It was great tasting water and I knew there was a chance we would be filtering from livestock tanks at some point. Chuska Mountain bikepacking
Pedals turning again, we settled into a steady rhythm as we knew we had to start clicking off some miles. At this point we were thinking those miles would come pretty easily but we weren’t quite sure. There was definitely some climbing ahead as the terrain trended upwards above 9000ft.

Those miles turned out to be harder than we expected. The road surface was not well travelled and was a mix of chunky, rocky terrain with the occasional sand bar thrown in to keep you moving from one side of the road to the other. There was also plenty of climbing, nothing extremely hard but slow, steady grinds that made me wish for a little extra bottom end. Chuska Mountain bikepacking
After the missed turn earlier, we took a little extra care to navigate as there were often several roads in an area that weren’t on the map and it wasn’t always obvious which was correct. We eventually came to a well-travelled main road that didn’t require much navigation. The rocky climbs continued before a nice descent brought us to a large meadow dotted with several small ranches. We took a short break at another great lookout, this time with a panoramic views of the mighty Shiprock.Chuska Mountain bikepacking
Continuing on, we ground out the last of several climbs before topping at 9200ft. Hungry and tired we were soon looking for a good place to camp with a water option nearby. The area we were in did not seem to have much sign of habitation and had several ponds listed on the map. We found a place right along the edge of the rim and settled in for the night.

The next morning, after watching the sunrise and drinking coffee we refilled our water from a nearby livestock tank. It definitely had heavy use and we were on the lookout for something a little cleaner, especially after the previous days spring. I eventually noticed there was never a shortage of full livestock tanks along the roads.Chuska Mountain bikepacking
Chuska Mountain bikepackingFor the next 16 miles or the terrain evened out a little and we made good time. The continual rockiness made sure it wasn’t just a dirt road grind. The conditions were cool and crisp and the wind blew hard in our faces. As we rode along we saw numerous animals, mostly livestock. Fields of cattle grazing in lush pastures were alternated by herds of sheep protected by packs boisterous dogs that came out to warn us as we neared. There were numerous herds of horses, some startled, some encouraged by our presence. At one point a small herd of joined us in our journey, crossing the road in front of us twice and riding along side. It was idyllic.

Chuska Mountain bikepacking
We eventually found a roadside spring, tucked away in a green, lush patch of grass that had an almost manicured look to it. A bit rusty but good.Chuska Mountain bikepacking
We quickly dropped to Narbona Pass and pavement for a quarter mile, passing a large group of motorcyclists holding an honor ride for a few of their fallen brothers. We nodded in respect and began the climb back up the other side of the pass. After reaching the top, we saw a Big Foot crossing sign on the side of the road. This confirmed something we already knew; the Navajos have many stories of Big Foot sightings and we were in prime territory.Chuska Mountain bikepacking Chuska Mountain bikepacking
We were starting to get to the more populated part of the Chuska mountains as little houses and sheep camps started to dot the hillsides in the valley. That and the road got wider and better travelled, which made the going faster. We were soon at Whiskey Lake, filled to only a fraction of it’s former capacity. It’s a really beautiful spot and sits near the edge of the mountain, so we headed east to the edge to gaze at the desert below once again and eat lunch.

At some point in a trip, you start dreaming of what you’ll be eating for dinner that night. We were at that point as we pedaled the finals miles to a ripping descent down to Tohatchi. Not being able to resist one more viewpoint (plus we needed to call our ride), we headed to the radio towers to look south towards Gallup and the Zuni Mountains. Chuska Mountain bikepacking
From the towers, we began the nine-mile descent, a loose, rough, rocky and sandy beast that drops almost 3000ft to the desert floor. We survived but not without casualty, Bob crashed on the way down and broke his cell phone. There was also a pack of sheep and some very fast rez dogs that nipped at Chuck’s heels. After all the excitement, we rolled into Tohatchi victorious and met my wife at the gas station, where she had Blake’s Lottaburger green chile cheeseburgers and Cokes on hand.

It felt good to complete a route that I had had on my radar for several years now. It was even cooler that the route had some legitimacy and would soon be an advertised route open for all to ride. The Navajo Nation is such a spectacular place and the Chuska Mountains are definitely worth putting on your bucket list.

Be sure to check out Brian’s website for more beautiful photos and other adventures from New Mexico. 

8 Comments

  1. Super cool that advocates within the Nation are creating this access. And super cool that these guys did it and shared it!! Excitement is high.

  2. Thanks for such a great review sounds like an awesome adventure

  3. Bill Siebersma

    Awesome photo of Shiprock panorama!

  4. Hey Guys awesome photos,Two questions ….How does one gain access to tribal lands ? Does one need a permit?
    Thanks

  5. Craig Manning

    Wonderful article and very welcome. Having worked on health projects on Navajo Nation for a number of years, I know there is interest on Navajo Nation in supporting healthy activities like mountain biking. And the land is extraordinarily beautiful. The current Vice President of Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, is very supportive of exercise and good health, and does a fair amount of riding (and running) himself. Tribal government HQ is in Window Rock. I don’t know if bike touring companies have approach the tribal leadership previously, but now is certainly a good time to reach out.

  6. Great trip and a nice write up Brian. I wish I could have been there for that ride.

  7. Wonderful trip and story. Thank you for sharing it. I really appreciate your respectful approach to riding on the Reservation. There is so much beauty there. I am excited the Navajo are willing to share it. I look forward to someday riding the Chuska Mountain Bike Route. Slowly, as always.

  8. Great to hear and observe in photos of the first point to-point documented mtn bike trip across the Chuskas! I’ve ridden portions of the mtn range at various times, even the smaller and more limited areas of the Lukachukai and Carrizo mts too. Makes me elated to hear a mountain bike trail system is in order, and would be happy to help out with future trail building and maintenance if needed.

    Mention of bigfoot: Yes there is much sign of them in the Chuskas. I also belong to a Navajo-based investigation team that has found learned evidence of their presence. Observing a bigfoot isn’t an easy if not likely chance due to their extreme elusiveness, but hearing their vocalizations is fairly common. Whoop sounds along with fake animal calls of coyote, birds and human-like calls can be heard in all parts of the range, more in the darkness. Tree structures in the shape of X-marks and other geometric shapes are another sign of their presence, and dogs will bark excessively & cower at close range if they detect them. Other than that, The Chuskas are a great place to explore and go squatching with a mtn bike!

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