Forbidden Heart of the Rainbow, Navajo Indian Reservation, Arizona and Utah

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14166A, Backpack


  • Hike one of the most isolated and beautiful canyons in the Southwest
  • Look for artifacts, petroglyphs, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins
  • See the highest and longest natural stone bridge on the planet


  • All meals and group commissary equipment
  • Guides experienced in Forbidden Canyon
  • A donation to the Navajo Nation, whose land we will be staying on throughout the trip


DatesSep 21–27, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffRichard Fite

Trip Overview

The Trip

But until we develop sucker-discs on our feet and learn to cling to smooth outbulging surfaces like house-flies... I am reasonably sure that none of our species will ever get down into Forbidden Canyon or, having got down there, ever get out again... It is reasonably certain that no living creature, anyway no two-footed or four-footed creature exists in It. - Irvin S. Cobb, Arizona Highways magazine, 1940

Like an arrow through its heart, Forbidden Canyon cleaves Navajo Nation's Rainbow Plateau nearly in half. Irvin Cobb was not quite right about the canyon's two- and four-footed creatures. The canyon has frogs, lizards, beaver, coyote, and other small mammals, as well as evidence that Native Americans inhabited the area for hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of years. But concerning tourist hikers and backpackers, Cobb was dead-on accurate. With very few exceptions, Forbidden Canyon has been and remains undisturbed. We are unlikely to meet anyone.

This week-long backpack will explore almost the entire length of Forbidden Canyon. The canyon is initially broad and gentle, and we will enjoy the canyon's many shallow pools and small waterfalls, pausing as we wish for a brief and welcome swim.  As we descend farther, the canyon deepens and narrows as it squeezes between Cummings Mesa and Navajo Mountain.  With thousand-foot cliffs on both sides of the middle and lower canyon, we will cross and re-cross an inner canyon with near vertical walls and frequent pour-offs, often using a hand-line for assistance.  One of these crossings will require a 40-foot roped descent or rappel (no experience required).  We will admire the canyon's pools, now deep and dark, and will wade -- or, less likely, swim -- through one of these. 

Except for the last day, the entire hike is cross-country and off-trail.  Depending on our precise route, we may see cliff dwellings, pictographs, and long-abandoned Navajo hogans, and we will have two or three layover days to explore the slickrock domelands high above the canyon. The hike ends at Rainbow Bridge, the world's largest natural bridge, where we board a National Park Service concession boat for a 2.5-hour trip on Lake Powell back to Page.

Additional photos of Forbidden Canyon can be seen on the leader's website:


This seven-day hike begins at the rim of Forbidden Canyon on Black Brush Flat, southwest of Navajo Mountain.  Navajo friends will provide transport from Page to the starting point.  The leader will provide detailed information regarding the meeting location and the Navajo transport. The transport is not part of the trip, and the cost, approximately $70, is not included in the trip fee. The day-to-day itinerary will depend on the weather and canyon conditions, the group's progress descending the canyon, and the interest of trip participants.

Day 1: After a 2.5-hour road trip from Page to Navajo Mountain, we begin our adventure with an easy descent on a rarely used Navajo stock trail. We will camp beside a large deep-blue pool that's suitable for swimming.

Day 2: We will explore the upper end of Forbidden Canyon, possibly climbing out of the canyon on a sheepherder's trail to the top of Cumming's Mesa or visiting a remote cliff-dwellers ruin. 

Days 3-5: The terrain will become increasingly challenging as we descend Forbidden Canyon. Depending on our progress, we may have opportunities for side trips out of the canyon.

Day 6: On this layover day, we will explore the slickrock domelands forming the peninsula that separates Forbidden Canyon from Bridge Canyon. With good weather, we should have a 100-mile view, extending as far as the Henry Mountains in central Utah.

Day 7: We will ascend a tributary canyon to reach a semi-maintained hiking trail leading to Rainbow Bridge and the boat ride back to Page.

Except for the brief visit to Rainbow Bridge, the trip is entirely on Navajo Nation land not open to the general public. We will visit the area as guests of the local Navajo, and the Sierra Club will make a donation to the Navajo Mountain boarding school to express our appreciation.



Getting There

The trip begins early on Sunday, September 21. Participants should arrive in Page, Arizona the day before the trip and plan on attending a pre-trip meeting that evening. The leader will provide travel information for getting to Page and getting from Page to the Rainbow Plateau. Page has commercial air service provided by Great Lakes Aviation, and Great Lakes has code-sharing with several major airlines.

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 day one, and the last is lunch on the final day. As personal preferences in hot drinks and trail snacks vary so widely, these are not included in the trip commissary.

Participants will share cooking and clean-up activities with guidance as necessary from the trip staff. Consumption or possession of alcoholic beverage is illegal on the Navajo Nation. We will demonstrate our respect for the Navajo by complying with their laws.

Trip Difficulty

The trip is not recommended for inexperienced or acrophobic backpackers. Although the total backpacking distance of 30 miles would normally merit a moderate difficulty rating, the rugged nature of the terrain makes this a more difficult trip for which participants need to be in good physical condition. Participants must be agile, nimble, comfortable with steep terrain, and, most importantly, not distracted by heights and exposure.  A high level of confidence on steeply sloped slickrock will be as important as stamina. Although the trip will not include technical rock climbing, we will use a handline for assistance in several places. The trip includes a 40- to 45-foot, vertical, roped descent that will be carefully managed by the leaders. No experience with ropes or rappelling is necessary.

We will cross the canyon stream, Aztec Creek, many times. We will walk frequently in shallow water, and in the lower canyon we will float or swim across one waist-deep, or possibly deeper, pool.

Participants must be able to carry all their personal equipment plus a share of the commissary -- perhaps as much as 40-45 pounds total backpack weight at the beginning of the trip. After we leave the canyon rim, participants are committed to the entire trip. Other than by helicopter, leaving early is impossible and even by helicopter would be difficult.

Leader approval is required. After receiving trip registration materials, send the trip approval form to the leader, focusing on recent backpacking experience.  Experience within the last two years and in challenging terrain or on slickrock is particularly relevant.

Because individuals who become separated from the group are likely to become seriously lost, we must hike in a reasonably closely spaced group. To avoid becoming lost, solo exploration of the plateau will be discouraged.

Equipment and Clothing

Complete backpacking equipment -- including a reliably dry tent, backpack, sleeping bag comfortable in the upper 30s, sleeping pad and raingear -- is required. Group commissary equipment will be provided. Due to the challenging terrain and the need to carry all our food, lightweight equipment is critically important. Participants must minimize nonessential items. The leader will provide a detailed equipment list and equipment recommendations. 

Mid-September weather on the Rainbow Plateau is usually sunny and comfortable, but it is also highly variable and participants should come prepared for extremes of hot and cold. Afternoon temperatures may be quite hot, but the potential discomfort is mitigated by the low humidity. Water is almost continuously available while in the canyon and swimming opportunities are available on most days. Nighttime lows in the 40s or 50s are likely. Daytime temperatures in the upper 60s, 70s or 80s are likely but may range from 40 to 90 degrees. Thunderstorms, relatively common in summer, are less likely in September, but are still possible. While we have little risk of being caught in a flash flood because we won't be in a narrow slot canyon, we will need to be alert. The greater likelihood is that a flood might delay our progress through the canyon.



  • Roberts, David, In Search of the Old Ones. For anyone interested in backpacking, the Southwest and the Anasazi, this book is one of the best. Chapter 4 describes Robert's explorations in nearby Tsegi Canyon and Navajo National Monument and includes worthwhile guidelines for visiting wild ruins. Chapter 7 describes Fred Blackburn and the "Outdoor Museum"; and chapter 8 describes a trip to Mystery Canyon, just north of Navajo Mountain. The book begins with Robert's description of his excitement at finding a rare intact Anasazi pot, and ends with discovery of an even rarer basket.
  • Bernheimer, Charles L., Rainbow BridgeThis book describes Bernheimer's travels with John Wetherill around Navajo Mountain and on the Rainbow Plateau from 1919 to 1924, including Forbidden Canyon and the opening by blasting of Redbud Pass. Our hike will include parts of Bernheimer's 1921 and 1922 expeditions.
  • Babbitt, James, Rainbow Trails. A collection of essays by Theodore Roosevelt, Zane Grey, Irvin Cobb, et al, describing early day adventures in Rainbow Bridge country.


Discussion of conservation issues will focus on the preservation of public lands in Arizona and southern Utah.

In 2014 America celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. The Sierra Club, various other organizations with a wilderness focus, and the four federal wilderness management agencies are vigorously planning this celebration. The goal of the effort is to assure that a broader public knows about the concept and benefits of wilderness. Sierra Club Outings is a vital part of the celebrations for wilderness.
While the Act was far in the future when our outings program started, we were already promoting the principle behind it: to forever set aside from human developments certain special places, by civic agreement. This is the basic principle on which the Sierra Club was founded. The wilderness anniversary gives us an opportunity to highlight our organization’s leading role—in publicizing this principle, in passing the 1964 Act, and in achieving more designated wilderness since then.



Certified as a Wilderness First Responder, Richard Fite has explored nearly every corner of the Rainbow Plateau while leading over 30 backpack trips for the Sierra Club. Richard lives in southeastern New Hampshire with his wife and three German Shepherds. He is employed as a risk analyst for the United States Department of Agriculture and is currently serving as an adjunct faculty member and assistant to the dean at Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Assistant Leader:

Paul Gross, an avid outdoor enthusiast, has been a cycling and backpacking vegetarian living in harmony with his surroundings for many decades. Ten years spent building his homestead in the Ozarks and living self-sufficiently have given him a significant appreciation of being connected with nature. Paul has been leading local Sierra Club outings for the past 17 years, and national outings for 10 years. He decided to share his love of the outdoors -- not to mention his zest for life and people -- with the National Outings program. Providing fellow adventures the safety to experience the wonders of nature is especially rewarding. Besides backpacking 5-6 weeks per year, Paul is also an avid cyclist and cycle tourist. He has completed several long-distance, self-supported cycling tours with his wife Melody on their tandem bicycle. When not backpacking or cycling, Paul can be found in his garden, experimenting in the kitchen, or ballroom dancing with Melody. In his spare time, Paul supports himself as a remodeling contractor, carpenter, and cabinet/furniture maker. Paul has and maintains a Wilderness First Responder Certification.

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