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December 2007

Over the Rainbow: Finding Red Rock In the Navajo Nation

A rarely-attempted traverse reveals the Navajo Nation's vast red-rock wilderness.

I wheeled around, and the mustang shuddered to a stop, digging its rear

hooves into the sand, its tail flicking in unmistakable anger. I wondered whether

Leo’s friend wasn’t crazy after all. The horse and I were maybe 30 feet from

one another, stuck in a sort of inter-species Mexican standoff.

Finally, the

animal pivoted and galloped away, past Vance and Leo, back the way it came.

"Alright," Vance said, "who’s got the pistol?"

The Navajo

Nation looks great splashed across a windshield, which is a good thing, since

that’s how most people experience it. Countless Grand Canyon-bound tourists

slice through America’s largest rez every year, many no doubt marveling at the

immense blue-sky-red-earth vistas. But few pause to do any on-foot exploring,

instead forging ahead toward the familiar chasm 100 miles to the west. That’s

too bad. (Or not, depending on your perspective.) The Nation straddles three

huge states—Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico—and at 27,000 square miles is as big

as several small ones. With its huge area and tiny population, it contains some

of the country’s most pristine wilderness, from Rainbow Bridge—the world’s largest

natural stone arch and a sacred Navajo site—to Rainbow Plateau, a massive turtle-backed

expanse that rises up to a thousand feet above the ancient rivers that carved


Part of the reason the Navajo Nation doesn’t see as much foot traffic as

some of the Southwest’s hiking hot spots is its somewhat confusing access issues.

As is the case on Indian reservations elsewhere, if you want to hike here, even

on an established trail, you have to get a permit from the tribe. If you’d like

to do a more ambitious, off-trail hike, like what Vance and I had had in mind,

you need to get not only a permit but also, in most cases, permission from the

patchwork of individual Navajo families whose homesteads you’ll be passing through.

This is nothing if not difficult. The easiest way to bypass the access hurdles

is to hire a local guide—someone like Leo—who can handle all of the logistics

ahead of time. And a local guide offers the added benefits of, well, a local


Though Leo might not have had the most up-to-date gear—his idea of hiking

boots was a pair of black Nike cross-trainers, and he wore faded blue jeans

that seemed to mock my quick-dry expedition pants—his skills were cutting edge.

At one point early in the hike, Leo—who could spin tales of prowling coyotes

and mustang fights from faint impressions in the sand—noticed two pairs of days-old

human footprints, and divined that the owner of one had been carrying a heavy

pack and the owner of the second had not.

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