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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.