A Moonlight Trail Ride to a Rainbow

Rainbow Bridge, the world's largest natural bridge, on the shores of Lake Powell.

Text & Photos by Marie Moseley

For years I have wanted to take a horseback ride from Navajo Mountain, in southeastern Utah on the Navajo Nation, to Rainbow Bridge, the world's largest natural bridge, on the shores of Lake Powell.

Watch a short video about the bridge

Here, along the Utah/Arizona border, eons of massive upheavals and erosion have fashioned serene, secluded canyons, awesome mesas and one rainbow. The rainbow has some very special meanings to the Navajos, best explained by them. We need to know enough to respect it as a sacred place. Around Navajo Mountain in the 1860s, Navajo leader Hashkeniinii and his followers evaded Kit Carson's assault. The canyons cradle the remains of their hogans and sweat lodges. Their descendants, while adapting to the modern world, maintain traditions here still.

In 1906, Hashkeniinii allowed John Wetherill to open a trading post at Oljato, Utah. In 1909, Wetherill, accompanied by a Ute and a Paiute guide, became one of the first known Anglos to see the rainbow . Although you can boat within one half mile now, the original trip for Anglo tourists like Zane Grey and Teddy Roosevelt required taking a guided, 70-mile tour with Wetherill from Oljato (moonlight in Navajo) Trading Post.

The year before, I rode the section from Oljato to Navajo Mountain with Evelyn Yazzie Jensen, current proprietor of Oljato Trading Post which is closed at the present time. Evelyn invited me to complete the last section of the "moonlight trail" with her. It was her first trip to the rainbow also. Neither of us could leave our jobs except for a 3-day weekend. We hoped to go to the rainbow in one day, a 40 mile round trip, and then explore around the Rainbow Plateau.

Evelyn had arranged for us to camp the night before near the home of Leo and Sara Manheimer on the northeast side of Navajo Mountain. Leo operates a guide service and provides shuttles for hikers. Leo advised us that a one-day trip was impossible, hikers reported the trail was badly washed out, and Evelyn's shoed horses could not negotiate the slick rock. Of course, I knew Evelyn's determination and had seen her horses maneuver seemingly impossible paths. We would make it to the rainbow. Leo did make a good case for taking at least two days. Evelyn would be riding Fry Bread, a young Mustang, strong and intelligent, a lovely photogenic palomino. For me she brought Hashkeniinii, an Appaloosa with great endurance, mature and dependable.

The morning of the trip, Leo's brother-in-law, Eric Atene, saw us off, looking, I thought, a little doubtful about this adventure. He does pack trips through these canyon mazes. He surely understood that Evelyn, a Navajo business woman with her own trail riding enterprise, could do this trip. Maybe he thought she could not do it with that older Anglo woman riding along. He and Leo had already shared stories about those, Navajos and Anglos, who never made it all the way to the rainbow, some with horses, some on foot. As Leo explained, it is not the mileage that makes it a difficult journey, nor even the depth of the canyons, but the continual elevation changes.

Navajo Mountain

On the first part of the journey through Cha Canyon, the sun created rich reds on giant sandstone mounds that stretched for miles from Navajo Mountain to the San Juan River. The horses rotated their ears, curious about this new exploration. After a couple of peaceful hours, we were on the rim of a deep canyon with Navajo Mountain to the south and multi-colored vistas to the north and straight ahead, on the other side of Lake Powell in the far distance, the first plateau of the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument.

Ancient hoganAfter traversing steep slickrock switchbacks with some serious drop-offs to the stream-fed canyon bottom, I understood Leo's concern. Fry Bread and Hashkeniinii, well-trained and in fine condition from doing rides all summer with Evelyn, had no problems. Named Bald Rock Canyon on most maps, this canyon leads to Nasja Canyon and Surprise Valley, immortalized in Zane Grey's Rainbow Trail. Leo is working to get map names changed to the correct Navajo historical names.

We reached the end of Oak Canyon, the fourth major canyon, in the early afternoon, stopping under a piñon pine for some lunch. Deciding to unburden the horses, we left our sleeping bags and food packs in a tree. On the switchback out of this canyon, the trail was partly washed out, and holes had to be filled in with rocks. At the head of the trail was a "giant" step. It was probably only three or four feet, and the horses jumped up like gazelles. I chose to worry occasionally about how my horse was going to jump down that step with me standing in front of him on the way back.

Crossing a sagebrush plain surrounded by monolithic sandstone mesas, we stopped to admire a century-old hogan, a home with a view. Thinking we were close to the rainbow, we left the horses under a piñon pine for a rest and decided to hike the rest of the way. The trail descended a sand dune to a V-shaped side canyon leading into Bridge Canyon. Ethnologist Clyde Kluckhohn described this as a "deep and dark declivity" during his 1940s trek here.

As the walls of Bridge Canyon narrowed and the bends did not reveal a rainbow, Evelyn theorized that it must be a real disappearing rainbow. Then she spotted a tour plane dipping sharply down on the other side of the canyon wall for a close look at something. Finally, we saw it. Another half hour of hiking Full moon risingthe sandy trail around the rim of Bridge Canyon and we were at the park gate. Respecting the taboo against walking under without the appropriate prayers, we went no further. Looking east, the full moon was rising as the last rays of the sun set Navajo Mountain aglow above the darkening salmon sandstone canyon walls. On the lake side of the rainbow we could see a small boat on the waters that back up from Lake Powell, dusk creating a muted tableau beneath the stately rainbow under a silver sky. Reluctantly, we started back to the horses.

In the deepest, darkest depths of the canyon where the sheer sandstone walls blocked out the full moon and the billion stars of countless constellations offered no light, the eerie quavering whimper of an unidentifiable wild animal shattered the serenity. A bird-like sound followed. It repeated itself several times. As we halted to listen, Evelyn grabbed a large stick. I had been in dark canyons with her before on horseback through mazes in Navajo back country. Having enjoyed and survived those treks, there was no instant panic.

The hike in Bridge CanyonThe few facts I knew of her life, born in a hogan, rode a horse off Black Mesa about the time she learned to walk, had embellished themselves into legends. Besides, we had been on the trail since 8:30 that morning, horseback riding through four major canyons, dismounting and leading the horses when the slickrock was too steep or the path too rocky. That and the last few hours of hiking over boulders and hopping stones back and forth across the creek, left me with sore feet and no energy to run. Evelyn, no doubt, could have made a speedy exit. She did not seem tired and glided silently over the rough trail without even displacing a pebble, maintaining her patience with me as I struggled to keep from falling. Our horses were about an hour away. In the daylight, only the fresh tracks of one hiker had been seen, no gigantic paw prints of mountain lions, shy creatures anyway I had been told.

And now, on the return trip, we were not alone. Thankfully, the whimpering grew more distant as we ascended out of the "deep and dark declivity." I did suggest to Evelyn that, since the warm night minimized the danger of hypothermia, perhaps we could just camp near the horses rather than continue on to where our sleeping bags were. I do not recall that she responded. Maintaining her patience, she waited while I resaddled my horse, having gotten one stirrup caught under the saddle the first time. One reason I like to trail ride with Evelyn is that she has not yet laughed out loud at me, the tourist who spends more time working in front of a computer than handling tack.

As midnight approached, we rode across the benchland in the moonlight toward the "giant" step. We dismounted at the head of Oak Canyon. Evelyn went first, stepped down in front of Fry Bread, let him study the jump, which he did for a minute, and then he negotiated it like it was his job. As she instructed, I stepped down, let Hashkeniinii study it, and he sailed down with no problem.

This success had erased the memory of the near perpendicular slickrock face we had ridden up on the way in. Just as my mind was formulating the question of whether we would dismount for this, I saw Evelyn on Fry Bread at the bottom continuing down the trail. Years ago, descending a steep forested ridge in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina, a wrangler had advised riders to stay parallel to the trees. That position worked well as Hashkeniinii did a graceful controlled butt-slide down the slickrock in the moonlight at 1 a.m.

In Oak Canyon, we gathered our sleeping bags and packs. Evelyn remembered a better place to camp a little further on the trail. That sleeping bag on the back of my saddle seemed to grow taller. The last time I got on the horse before we made camp, Evelyn had to help me drag my leg across the pack. At last in Nasja Canyon, we found a closed gate in a narrow draw, a good place to turn the horses loose to graze.

Evelyn, still maintaining her patience with the slow tourist, cleared the rocks off some soft sand in the wash to make a place for our sleeping bags, showed me how to fix my saddle and saddle blankets for a pillow so we could be "real cowgirls," and let me sleep for four whole hours, 17-1/2 hours after beginning the journey. I could have slept soundly on a bed of prickly pear. Gazing at the moon and stars, I momentarily contemplated the beauty of the rainbow and the magnificent "moonlight trail."

Nothing interrupted my rest until the next morning when I heard Evelyn catching the horses. They were eager to hit the trail, thinking about that hay and grain they would get back at camp. A cool wind blew, and clouds worthy of some weather system from a Tony Hillerman novel sailed overhead. We munched on pork chop sandwiches and just then remembered we had not eaten since lunch the day before.

As we rode on, the clouds dissipated, the winds calmed, the rising sun cast shadows halfway across the canyons, purple asters and yellow desert marigolds lined the trail. High desert air that cocoons you in warmth, sandy trails through scrub oak thickets to streams bordered with cottonwoods, endless views from atop slick rock mesas, the goal achieved, vivid history to discuss with a knowledgeable Navajo guide, serenity and a good horse; this is why I was doing the journey and keep coming back to the Navajo Nation.

As we were going down a sagebrush lined trail in Cha Canyon, we met four local gentleman on horseback. Evelyn spoke to them in Navajo. They were on their way to the rainbow, the only people we had seen besides whoever might have been in the boat on the other side of the rainbow. They would be riding in the moonlight, too.

When we rode up to camp shortly after noon, Eric Atene's first question was not, "How did you like Rainbow Bridge?" but, "How far did you get?" Victoriously we reported we completed the journey to the rainbow. We rested a long time and then enjoyed a fiery sunset behind Navajo Mountain. Reminiscing later with Leo about the trip, he identified our wild animal as an owl.

Fry Bread and Hashkeniinii

The next morning, Evelyn and I saddled the horses and explored the Rainbow Plateau. As we left for home, families lined the Navajo Mountain road, cooking lunch over open fires, preparing to gather piñon nuts, a rich source of food for generations. Take away the shiny pick-ups, the blue jeans and designer sneakers, the knowledge that Wal-Mart is 70 miles away, and it might have been a scene from Hashkeniinii's time. Traditions and an appreciation for what the earth offers continue.

Touring most areas of the Navajo Nation requires a guide, and permits are required for hiking and camping the Rainbow Bridge trail. Hikers usually take several days for the trip. These rugged canyons are not to be underestimated. Be aware of the danger of flash floods, carry plenty of water, find out where the springs are from local guides or boil or filter the water. Horses should be perfectly conditioned and experienced in this terrain. Pack animals would be necessary to take feed if staying several days.

Many hikers circumnavigate Navajo Mountain, arranging for a shuttle at the other end. Some take the north or south trail and prearrange to take the boat at Rainbow Bridge to one of the marinas. Tour companies, listed below, offer support making the trek moderate to moderately strenuous, depending on whether or not you use pack animals and how far you go.

Trail rides in Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona are offered by:

The trading post is closed for now. Trail rides are still available.
(435) 727 3390

Information and permits can be obtained for hiking and camping from the following:

LeChee Office Phone: (520) 698-3347 Fax: (520) 698-3360 The office is located next to the LeChee Chapter, 7 miles south of Page, AZ. Call for hours .

Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department P.O. Box 9000 Window Rock, AZ Phone: (520) 871-6647 Fax: (520) 871-6637 Allow several weeks for processing.

Directions to the trailheads:

From Page, Arizona: East on 98 to Navajo Mountain Road (16)

From Flagstaff, Arizona: North on 160, West on 98 to Navajo Mountain Road (16) On Navajo Mountain Road, mostly unpaved but passable by passenger car in good weather, go about 25 miles. Before crossing the Utah state line, take the road to the left to the south trailhead. Continue straight to the north trailhead.

Boat Tours are available from Wahweap, Hall Crossing and Bullfrog Marinas

Lake Powell
Rainbow Bridge

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