Mystery of the Rainbow, Navajo Indian Reservation, Arizona and Utah

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14035A, Backpacking


  • Hike almost exclusively on Navajo land
  • Visit remote, rarely accessed desert wilderness
  • Discover Anasazi ruins, prehistoric pictographs, fossils, and other artifacts


  • All meals, commissary, and group equipment
  • Boat ride from Rainbow Bridge to Wahweap Marina
  • Permits and a donation to the local Navajo chapter house


DatesApr 5–12, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffRichard Fite

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Trip Overview

The Trip

"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.

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, too, 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 several 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 and at the upper end, the canyon's three branches embrace a nearly 2,000-foot-high sandstone battlement. 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, dinosaur fossils, 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.

For more information an photos about the trip, see the leader's website.


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.

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 end.



Getting There

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, April 4 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 April 5 and the last is lunch on April 12. 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.

Trip Difficulty

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. Participants must be able to carry all their personal equipment plus a share of the commissary -- perhaps as much as 40 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 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. The leader will provide guidance on equipment. Due to the challenging terrain of our hiking and the need to carry all our food, modern lightweight equipment is critically important. Personal equipment and clothing should weigh no more than 24 pounds; participants will also be expected to carry up to 12 pounds of group food and commissary equipment. Total backpack weight at the beginning of the trip should not exceed 40 pounds.

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 desirable.

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.



  • 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.
  • Roberts, David, In Search of the Old Ones.  A very readable account of the Anasazi from the perspective of a backpacker and amateur archaeologist. Chapter 8 describes the author's attempt to descend Mystery Canyon with Jon Krakauer.
  • 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.


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.

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 where he enjoys bicycling and playing the French horn. Also serving as an adjunct faculty member at Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine, he is enjoying retirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Assistant Leader:

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.

Assistant Leader:

Michael Jensen

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