I admit having more trouble writing this entry than any other post I’ve made so far. Usually after the experience, a little reflection, then a review of the photos and video I start with a blank page and the words begin pouring out. It never takes long to find my voice on a subject once I’ve lived it.
But for this one I admit to staring at the page with very little output for a while now.
So I’ve decided just to go with what I have –however meager it may seem.
My lack of inspiration can certainly not be blamed on the scenery. The overwhelming beauty can be plainly seen in the photos. There is no need for a bunch of over the top, flowery descriptions of the area. Considering another benefit was the elimination one more item on my bucket list and the lack of written productivity becomes even more inexplicable.
You see for decades I’ve gazed at Navajo Mountain or Naatsis’áán, the Head of the Earth, from incredible locations like Lake Powell, Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon (among others) and promised myself I would make it to the top someday. Until then I could only imagine how spectacular the views were from the summit.
A few months ago I finally realized the dream. After making contact with a highly recommended Navajo guide named Leo Manheim and coordinating the schedules of friends and neighbors Chris and Sheila Derrick we settled on an expedition date of Sunday, August 30th.
Leo told us to meet him in the lobby of the Best Western in Page at 6 AM. Initially I thought the early starting time was intended to “beat the heat” which would occur later in the day. While it did serve that purpose it was also a great idea for more important reasons.
“Like what?” you might be asking. I’ll get to the primary reason later. But for openers it was nearly an hour’s drive from Page southeast on Route 98 to BIA 16. There we made a left and drove for another forty miles to the base of the mountain.
As with every adventure in the Dinetah the real fun starts after leaving the paved road. At around 6100 feet above sea level, surrounded by lots of red rocks, pinyons and junipers, we began ascending the mountain via a dirt road in the Derrick’s Chevy pickup, the same 4WD “no shovel required” vehicle that had taken us to The Confluence the previous day.
The road goes all the way to the 10,388 foot summit. Although unpaved, it is well maintained for use by the cell phone carriers who have towers at the top. But it is not an easy trip in a truck or any other vehicle with four wheels.
“It’s ironic,” Leo shared with us. “The eight families who live around here are very isolated but they have the best cell phone service on the reservation.”
Whoever designed this jewel of a highway was either ignorant or dismissive of the concept of traversing. I swear the thing went straight up. Well not quite a 90 degree grade, but a maybe a 70 or even 80…Of course I’m exaggerating but it felt that way. My head was constantly bouncing off the back window. (For proof of my claim check out the video below. Sorry for the poor quality but it’s hard to keep a steady hand on the camera when you’re bouncing all over the back seat.)
Alright, I confess to speeding up the movie. We actually ascended at a plodding pace but still reached our destination in a relatively short period of time thanks to the steep, direct trajectory.
As mentioned previously the road goes all the way to the summit. However we stopped and parked the truck at a place Leo referred to as “the bench”. This put us approximately 3000 feet and four miles from the top. From there we planned to hike for the remainder of our journey so we could all feel slightly more challenged and proud of our accomplishment -not to mention the much needed exercise would help with my slowly progressing weight loss plan.
“Do you think we will see any bears today?” Sheila asked after the ponderosa groves became much thicker.
“I hope not,” Leo smiled. “We believe a bear on Navajo Mountain signifies the world as we know it is about to end.”
Fortunately we saw no bears nor, surprisingly, any other mammals except I think maybe one deer. And that was on the return trip. But we did see a Golden Eagle soaring high above the bench immediately after leaving the truck.
Leo was an excellent guide for more reasons than his knowledge of the geography and the significance of bear sightings. He has lived near the mountain most of his life and still grows crops and raises cattle nearby. As he explains on the video below his ancestors were part of numerous small bands of Navajo who eluded capture by Kit Carson’s forces thereby avoiding the Long Walk and subsequent internment in Bosque Redondo. I’ve written in previous posts about Hoskininni and his followers, who also avoided the U.S. Troops by fleeing to the northeast side of Navajo Mountain. It seems for several years in the late 1860s Hoskininni and Leo’s ancestors, who took up refuge on the southwest side of Naatsis’áán, were neighbors.
After Leo’s brief lecture we took a group selfie and began our hike. Chris and Sheila easily buried me and were soon out of sight. I kept a slow but steady pace. Leo was kind enough to stay with me, although I could see the concern on his face that he soon might have to start carrying me on his back. It’s been a very long time since I’ve hiked anything this strenuous at over 8,000 feet and it clearly took its toll.
Ready to Roll…
When I finally made it to the towers Chris and Sheila were waiting. We regrouped and headed over the north side for the best views of the rivers and Lake Powell.
The panoramas were so immense it is impossible to capture the impact effectively with mere photographs. Look at how small and insignificant Rainbow Bridge appears in the second photo below -and I shot that with a zoom lens!
It was on the descent when I realized the primary reason for our early start. We returned to the truck about 2 PM, just in time to see a massive thunderhead approaching from the southwest. By the time Chris had us back to the paved road we found ourselves in the middle of a hard “male rain” and thunderstorm. Had we started even an hour later the descent might have been much more unpleasant and difficult, perhaps even dangerous. Further evidence it’s always prudent to employ a good guide when traveling to the remote areas in the Dinetah.
Before wrapping up let’s correct some misconceptions and inaccuracies currently found on the internet about Naatsis’áán.
Contrary to what is claimed on some internet sites, Navajo Mountain is NOT one of the four sacred peaks of the Dinetah.
One hiking website claims “only the last two miles of the road” are dirt. This is plainly inaccurate. As I mentioned we hiked over three miles on the road and that was after driving for at least four after turning off of BIA 16.
The Mountain was never used as a heliograph station during the Navajo wars of 1863-64. In fact, an 1864 Map of the Military Department of New Mexico doesn’t even show Navajo Mountain. As I mentioned in previous posts, a large swath of southern Utah north of Black Mesa which includes the area where Navajo Mountain is located is described in one word: “Unexplored”. Part of the mountain’s appeal is if not for the few “roads” in the area a visitor today might think the region had yet to be explored. This is some seriously remote country.
But here’s a bit of real military trivia:
Although heliographs were not used during Kit Carson’s 1863-64 expedition, the U.S. Army Signal Corp was established and first implemented by Major Albert James Myer during the Navajo Campaign of 1860. Using flags in the daytime and torches at night, the first expedition in the Corp’s history directed Colonel Canby’s march from Fort Defiance to the newly constructed Fort Fauntleroy (later Fort Davis and finally today’s Fort Wingate) one waterhole at a time. Myer credited his idea to the Comanche warriors he saw signaling with their lances across the plains while he was stationed in Texas.
As always, this information along with $4 will buy the beverage of your choice at any participating Starbucks location.
Many thanks to our Navajo guide Leo Manheim and my good friends and neighbors Chris and Sheila Derrick for helping to make if a great adventure!