Trip Number: 13035A
Staff: Becky Wong
- Hike almost exclusively on Navajo Land
- Visit remote, rarely accessed desert wilderness
- Discover Anasazi ruins, prehistoric pictographs, fossils, and other
- All meals, commissary, and group equipment
- Boat ride from Rainbow Bridge to Wahweap Marina
- Permits and a donation to the local Navajo Chapterhouse
"On her haunches and behind her, toward the north, is where the girdling
slopes jag off into one enormous oblong; an Olympian commingling of terrifying
sheer drops and distorted upheavals and all manner of cavernous holes and corridors
-- perhaps the roughest, wildest, most disordered conglomeration in a territory
which nowhere and never is what you would exactly call docile." --
Irvin S. Cobb, Arizona Highways magazine, 1940.
Photo: Richard Fite
Early in the 20th century, the well-known southwestern desert guide John Wetherill
led various adventurers -- including author Zane Grey, clothing manufacturer
Charles Bernheimer, and former president Teddy Roosevelt -- through Cobb's "disordered
conglomeration" on the way to Rainbow Bridge. Zane Grey later described
the route as having the most dangerous slopes he had ever seen. Roosevelt described
tilted masses of sheet-rock ending in cliffs and difficult for both horses and
men. Bernheimer, describing the route as "fiendish," wrote to his
wife that there was nothing like it anywhere else.
We will hike to Rainbow Bridge and walk in the shadow of Navajo Mountain, but
we won’t follow John Wetherill’s route. That route, known as the
Rainbow Trail, is today traveled by possibly a hundred hikers every year. Our
route is followed by no one. In comparison, it will make Wetherill's look as
flat as Kansas.
The trip will begin in Rainbow City on the east flank of Navajo Mountain. After
starting on Wetherill's now well-worn route, we will leave that route for the
maze of cracks and slot canyons identified on early maps as Mystery Canyon.
From this point on, our route runs cross-country through a tortuous landscape
that to this day has known very few non-native visitors.
Mystery Canyon is well protected from casual hikers. Its Colorado River terminus
is a long blank wall. At its upper end, the canyon's three branches embrace
a nearly 2,000-foot high sandstone battlement -- which history contains no record
of having been climbed or crossed. All three branches are narrow, vertical slots
with no easy, or easily found, routes in or out.
Our hike will take us into all three branches. All are relatively short and
were it not for the pour-offs, plunge pools, ledges, cliffs and, in some places,
nearly impenetrable vegetation, a motivated hiker could walk the length of each
branch in a day. But the obstacles make this impossible without technical canyoneering
skills and very nearly impossible even with them. We will backpack across the
three branches of the canyon and day-hike in each of the branches where we can
safely do so. We will see Anasazi ruins, moqui steps, pictographs, petroglyphs,
a cave, a dinosaur, miles of slickrock, and more vertical landscape per square
yard than perhaps anywhere in the southwest.
Our last day begins with a short hike to Echo Camp -- now just a few rusting
bed frames and disintegrating wood shacks, but graced with a lovely spring and
a shallow pool surrounded by maidenhair fern. Soon thereafter, we reach Rainbow
Bridge, the destination for John Wetherill’s trips and the highest and
longest natural stone bridge on the planet. The trip ends with a leisurely boat
ride across Lake Powell back to Page.
Photo: Becky Wong
This eight-day hike will begin in Rainbow City on the shoulder of Navajo Mountain.
Our Navajo friends will provide transport (not part of the Sierra Club trip)
from Page, Arizona to our trailhead. The leader will provide detailed information
regarding the meeting location, time, and the Navajo transport. The transport
cost is approximately $70. Because the transport is not part of the Sierra Club
trip, the cost is not included in the trip fee. All participants need to bring
cash for transportation.
Day 1: We will backpack about five miles, crossing Bald Rock
and Cha Canyons, and camping in a large alcove with evidence of ancient habitation
in Nasja Canyon.
Day 2: We descend a canyon named for the Paiute Indian (Nasja)
who originally guided John Wetherill to Rainbow Bridge. After an optional day
hike through a slot with deep water, we climb steeply out of the canyon, crossing
to the upper end of Mystery Canyon where we will spend the night. Although our
campsite is only about a half-mile from the previous night's campsite, we will
need nearly the entire day to get there. We end the day by viewing our prior
campsite from a 800-foot dome.
Days 3-4: We backpack to the other two branches of Mystery
Canyon, camping and day hiking in the canyons.
Days 5-6: We backpack out of Mystery Canyon to Oak Canyon,
and take a side trip to an overlook. We will day hike on the sixth day to a
high butte with 200-mile views if the weather is clear; we may also find dinosaur
fossils and explore a cave with pictographs.
Days 7-8: We rejoin Wetherill's route, backpacking about half
the seventh day to the upper end of Bridge Canyon. On the eighth day, we hike
down Bridge Canyon via Echo camp to Rainbow Bridge. Rainbow Bridge National
Monument is the world's largest known natural bridge. From there we will take
a two-hour boat ride across Lake Powell back to Page.
Photo: Richard Fite
Except for the brief visit to Rainbow Bridge, this trip is entirely on land
within the Navajo Nation. We will enjoy the area as guests of the local Navajo,
and the Sierra Club will make a donation to the Navajo Mountain chapter house
or school to express our appreciation.
The rugged nature of the landscape makes this trip more than an introduction
to hiking the Colorado Plateau -- rather it is a mini-expedition through a rarely
visited desert wilderness. Once we leave the Rainbow Trail, participants are
committed to the entire trip. Other than by helicopter, leaving early is impossible.
It is quite likely that we won't see anyone on this trip, except at the very
The leader will provide travel information for getting to Page, Arizona, and
from Page to the Rainbow Plateau. Great Lakes Aviation provides commercial air
service to Page and has code sharing with several major airlines. The group
will have a pre-trip meeting in Page on the evening of Friday, March 29 at 7
p.m. local time.
Accommodations and Food
All meals are included in the trip cost. We will prepare simple, lightweight,
easy-to-prepare, good-tasting meals from dried and freeze-dried ingredients,
using recipes tested on previous Sierra Club trips. Vegetarian options are possible.
Participants with special nutritional requirements should contact the leader.
Participants will share cooking and clean-up activities with guidance as necessary
from the trip staff. The first meal is lunch on March 30, and the last is lunch
on April 6. As personal preferences in hot drinks and trail snacks differ so
widely, these will not be included in the trip commissary.
Accommodations in Page are not included in the trip. Page has numerous motels;
the leader will provide information and recommendations.
Photo: Richard Fite
This trip is not recommended for inexperienced or acrophobic backpackers.
Although the total backpacking distance (about 30 miles) would perhaps merit
only a moderate difficulty rating, the rugged nature of the terrain makes this
a more difficult trip and participants must be in good physical condition. Stamina
will be less important than a high level of confidence on steeply sloped slickrock.
The trip has no prolonged ascents or descents, and no technical climbing. We
will, however, set up a hand line in places to provide extra support and bolster
confidence. In places, we will traverse on steep slickrock with moderate exposure,
perhaps 30-100 feet. Participants must be agile, nimble, experienced with walking
on steeply inclined slickrock, comfortable with bouldering and scrambling in
steep joint cracks with loose rock, and not distracted by heights. Some days
will include day hikes in shallow water and bushwhacking through dense vegetation
and willow thicket. Participants must be able to carry all their personal equipment
plus a share of the commissary -- perhaps as much as 45-50 pounds in total backpack
weight at the beginning of the trip. The rewards of the trip, in scenery and
solitude, will be commensurate with the trip difficulty.
Mystery Canyon is truly a labyrinthine maze. This topographical complexity
and the fact that we are not following an established trail impose several behavioral
constraints on participants. Most importantly, because individuals who become
separated from the group are likely to become seriously lost, we must hike in
a reasonably close-spaced group. This does not mean a rigid, military-style
formation -- however participants who, for whatever reason, like to hike far
ahead of the group or lag considerably behind should choose another trip. To
avoid becoming lost, solo exploration of the Plateau will be discouraged. Those
who feel they must do so, even if only briefly, must discuss their intentions
with the leader. Consumption or possession of alcoholic beverage is illegal
on the Navajo Nation. We will demonstrate our respect for the Navajo by compliance
with their laws.
Equipment and Clothing
Complete backpacking equipment -- including a reliably dry tent, backpack,
sleeping bag comfortable in the low 30s, sleeping pad, and raingear -- is essential.
Group commissary equipment will be provided. Due to the challenging terrain
of our hiking and the need to carry all our food, lightweight equipment is critically
important. Participants must minimize nonessential items.
Because much of our hiking will be on smooth sandstone or sand, lightweight
fabric and leather hiking boots are ideal. We will not encounter long, steep
slopes with sharp jagged rocks that are common in many mountainous areas, so
heavy mountaineering boots are excessive. Although we will not backpack in deep
water, we will dayhike in shallow water so appropriate footwear for this is
Springtime weather on the Rainbow Plateau is usually sunny, comfortable, and
pleasant, but it is also highly variable and participants should come prepared
for extremes of hot and cold. In early April, pleasantly cool nights and warm
days are likely, but uncomfortably cold or hot weather is possible. Nighttime
lows in the 30s are likely and even in the 20s are possible, as are snow and
rain. Daytime temperatures in the 60s or 70s are likely, but may range anywhere
from 40 to 85.
Photo: Richard Fite
- Bernheimer, Charles L., Introduction by Albert E. Ward, Rainbow Bridge.
This book describes Bernheimer's travels with John Wetherill around Navajo
Mountain and on the Rainbow Plateau from 1919 to 1924, including Forbidding
Canyon (Aztec Creek) and the opening by blasting of Redbud Pass.
- Babbitt, James, Rainbow Trails. Glen Canyon Natural History Association.
A collection of essays by Theodore Roosevelt, Zane Grey, Irvin Cobb et al
describing early day adventures in Rainbow Bridge country. Cobb's essay, Testifying,
O Lord, As to Rainbow Bridge, is particularly entertaining and colorful. This
book is available at the Glen Canyon Visitor Center.
- Grey, Zane, The Rainbow Trail. First published in 1915, this was
his follow-up to Riders of the Purple Sage. The exciting conclusion to this
novel involves the good guys heading to Rainbow Bridge to be picked up and
saved from the bad guys by a friend of theirs heading down the Colorado River.
- Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire. Something of an environmentalist's
classic, Abbey vividly captures the essence of his life during three seasons
as a park ranger in the Canyon lands of southeastern Utah in the mid-1960s.
- Kluckhohn, Clyde, To the Foot of the Rainbow. Described as "A
tale of twenty-five hundred miles of wandering on horseback through the Southwest
enchanted land." It was first published in 1927 and was recently republished
in a version that includes photos of Lake Powell. Kluckhohn is well regarded
for his study of the Navajo.
- Williams, Terry Tempest, Red.
- Preston, Douglas, and Lincoln Child. Thunderhead.
In case you are interested in reading mysteries set in the general area, here
are a few recommendations:
- The Anasazi Mystery series by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael
- The Visitant
- The Summoning God
- Bone Walker
- Rainbow Plateau photos, taken by trip co-leader, Richard Fite: http://www.richardfite.com/rainbow-plateau.html
Photo: Richard Fite
Discussion of conservation issues will focus on conservation of public lands
and water in Arizona and southern Utah. We will specifically discuss the conservation
issues raised by the flooding of Glen Canyon behind the dam.
See the How to Apply for an Outing section for more details on registering for this trip and details
about our Reservation and Cancellation Policy.
The payment of a deposit does not confirm you as a member on the trip. Participants must be approved by the trip leader. After signing up for this trip, you will be sent a confirmation packet containing approval materials (Participant Approval Questionnaire, Medical Form, Liability Release Form). Each applicant (including those on the waitlist) must fill out these forms and promptly mail them to the trip leader. The leader will review the approval materials and notify you of your acceptance in a timely manner.
Becky Wong is from British Columbia, Canada and is an experienced desert backpacker. She is also a marathon pacing coach and runner. This will be Becky's sixth year hiking on the Rainbow Plateau adding to her many years of backpacking on the West Coast of Vancouver Island as well as in the Canadian Rockies. She believes in spending as much time as possible outdoors. "Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit" - Edward Abbey. Becky is a Certified Wilderness First Responder.
Richard Fite has explored nearly every corner of the Rainbow Plateau. He has extensive experience leading backpack trips for the Sierra Club and other organizations, and is certified as a Wilderness First Responder. With 20+ years of backpacking experience, Richard has hiked in many western states and climbed most of the high mountains in his home state of New Hampshire. Richard is employed as a risk analyst for the United States Department of Agriculture.
Laura Bonds Johnson Laura Bonds-Johnson's long-standing hobby of backpacking in the Sierra Nevada, Rocky Mountains, and slickrock canyons of the Southwest has evolved into her quest for conservation activism and outdoor leadership. Laura is a registered nurse and wilderness first responder.
General Notes About Sierra Club Trips