Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Navajo Indian Reservation, Arizona and Utah

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14037A, Backpacking


  • Follow a unique, trailless route in a rarely visited desert wilderness
  • Explore remote slot canyons
  • Discover prehistoric pictographs, petroglyphs, manos, sherds, and other artifacts
  • Meet local Navajo friends and their families


  • All meals and group cooking equipment
  • Permits and a donation to the local Navajo chapter house


DatesApr 19–26, 2014
Difficulty4 (out of 5)
StaffMike Abbott

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Trip Overview

The Trip

"I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth." -- Steve McQueen

Seekers of remote, beautiful places need look no further. Between the blue, forested volcanic cone of Navajo Mountain and the town of Page, Arizona lies a high desert wilderness as unvisited and remote as can be found anywhere. Called the Rainbow Plateau, this small corner of our planet is protected by its extraordinary difficulty of access. Bordered on the north by Lake Powell and the south by Navajo Canyon, no roads penetrate the Plateau (no paved road comes even close), and except for a few no-longer-used Navajo sheep trails, there are not even footpaths. Home to Navajo sheepherding families in the early-20th century, the area today is rarely visited even by the Navajo, and almost never by non-Navajo tourist hikers and backpackers. For those who lust for waking up in the middle of nowhere, without the flies and mosquitoes of the great white north, there is no better place.

A labyrinth of twisting canyons, sandstone domes, and high buttes and monuments, the Rainbow Plateau is a feast of scenic magnificence. On this trip "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," we will experience canyons that are narrow, dark, and cold in some places, and sunny and warm in other places, with streams bordered by cottonwood and willow. We will hike through domelands of red Navajo sandstone with cross-bedded slickrock and unexpected dropoffs, and enjoy panoramic views while exploring high mesas close to the original surface of the Colorado Plateau. Every day will test our navigational skill as we find our way through a tangled maze of fractured and eroded sandstone. While we may sometimes find and use old Navajo sheep trails, our route is entirely cross-country, and we will not follow any maintained hiking trails for the simple reason that there are none.

The hike will explore several major canyons, including Sand Canyon and West Canyon. We will discover and cross a large natural bridge, find pictographs and other archaeological sites, and climb to the base of Octagon Butte and perhaps to the top of Cummings Mesa. The interests and capability of the group, along with the weather, will determine the precise route of the hike. The rugged nature of the terrain through which we will travel 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 Page, participants are committed to the entire trip. Other than by helicopter, leaving is essentially impossible.


This eight-day loop hike will begin and end at the home of a Navajo friend and his family -- one of two families living on the edge of the Rainbow Plateau. Because the route between Page and the Rainbow Plateau includes a difficult 4WD track requiring local knowledge, participants are encouraged to use transport services provided by local Navajo friends (transportation is not part of the Sierra Club trip).

Day 1: Starting at the confluence of creeks close to our friend's home, we will backpack 8-10 miles down a major canyon to our campsite. The canyon is used for grazing and we may briefly exchange greetings with a Navajo herder tending his or her flock of sheep and goats, or encounter wild burros.

Day 2: We'll continue to a side canyon, where we begin our climb onto the Rainbow Plateau. We will see the first of many pictograph areas and ruins.

Days 3-4: We'll explore the high areas of the Plateau -- and in doing so, begin to soak in the remoteness of this wilderness area. We will explore canyons and hidden pools, and see pictographs and long-abandoned hogans. We will experience the fine details that are unique to the desert in springtime, from freshly leaved cottonwoods to the various cacti in bloom.

Days 5-8: We will have one layover day to explore West Canyon, described by Michael Kelsey as the "premier" slot canyon on the Colorado Plateau. We will navigate the middle and possibly the upper narrows if time allows by wading and swimming through the narrow passages. On the last day, we climb the slickrock above the head of West Canyon to the base of Octagon Butte, then descend from there to Jayi Canyon, where we meet our Navajo friends for transport back to Page.

Transport between Page and the Rainbow Plateau will be provided by local Navajo and is not part of the Sierra Club trip. Information on these services will be provided. The cost of these services, about $70 per person, will be paid directly to the Navajo and is not included in the trip price.

The trip is entirely on land within the Navajo Nation and through an area normally closed to non-Navajo visitors (as is most of the Navajo Nation). The Sierra Club is able to offer this trip only because of the special relationship between the leaders and the local Navajo residents. Individuals should not attempt this hike on their own. Those wanting more information on areas open to hiking should contact the Navajo Department of Tribal Parks and Recreation in Window Rock.



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 18 at 7 p.m. local time.

Accommodations and Food

All meals are included in the trip cost. Meals will be simple and tasty with an emphasis on high-energy, lightweight foods. We will have no food caches or resupply, so we must carry our entire food requirement for the eight days. Although the menu is not vegetarian, participants who wish to avoid red meats can be accommodated. Strict vegans and others with highly restrictive diets should contact the leader before registering for the trip. Cooking and cleanup will be shared by all participants, with guidance as necessary. The first meal is lunch on Saturday, April 19 and the last is lunch on Saturday, April 26. Because personal preferences in hot drinks and trail snacks differ so widely, these will not be included in the trip commissary.

Trip Difficulty

This is not a trip for beginning backpackers. Although the total backpacking distance (about 50 miles) is not exceptional, the rugged nature of the terrain makes this a challenging trip. Every daylight hour is utilized. Participants should have reasonable stamina, strength, balance, and a high comfort level with heights. Participants must be prepared to physically condition themselves for this trip in order to carry their pack in the full desert sun for most of the day. Participants must be comfortable walking in soft sand, ascending and descending steep sandstone slickrock, bouldering, scrambling in joint cracks with loose rock, and crossing streams. Some days will include walking in water, which will be deep in places and cold. On one day, participants may have to swim short distances using their pack for flotation. Occasionally we will be bushwhacking through dense reeds and willow thicket. Participants must be able to carry all of 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.

While the trip does not include technical rock climbing, we will ascend and descend very steep sandstone slickrock. In at least two places -- and more if necessary -- we will set a handline for assistance and bolstering confidence.

The Rainbow Plateau is truly a labyrinthine maze. This topographical complexity and the fact that we are not following an established trail impose constraints on participants. Most notably, we must hike in a reasonably close-spaced group when we are not in an established canyon.

One leader enjoys playing the flute and recorder and may bring a lightweight instrument on the trip. Other participants are invited to do so if they wish.

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.

Equipment and Clothing

Springtime weather on the Rainbow Plateau is usually comfortable and pleasant, but it is also highly variable and participants should be prepared for extremes of hot and cold. Nighttime lows in the 40s are likely (and low-30s temperatures are possible), as is snow or rain. Daytime highs in the 60s, 70s, or even 80s are likely. In April, warm weather is more probable than cold, but come prepared for both. Parts of some canyons are narrow, dark, and wet, and certain to be cold.

Complete backpacking equipment will be required -- including a reliably dry tent (not a tarp), backpack, sleeping bag that's comfortable in the low 30s, sleeping pad, raingear, a bowl or cup and eating utensils, and hiking boots. Group commissary equipment will be provided. Lightweight equipment is critically important, due to the challenging terrain we will hike across and the need to carry all our food. Participants must minimize nonessential items. The leader will provide a detailed equipment list, gear suggestions, and other trip information beginning in January.

Appropriate footwear for hiking in water and lightweight dry bags with sufficient capacity for personal equipment are also required.



  • Roberts, David, In Search of the Old Ones. Simon and Schuster.



Discussion of conservation issues will focus on conservation of public lands in Arizona and southern Utah -- especially Leave No Trace methods and invasive species impacts. Insight to power generation and Lake Powell, as it relates to the Navajo Nation, will be provided.

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.



Mike Abbott

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:

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.

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