Some bikepacking trips are about covering ground and connecting two distant localities on a map. Some may be about cramming in as much delightfully technical singletrack as possible, avoiding roads at all costs and becoming immersed in remote backcountry. And others may be about simply exploring someplace new or experiencing a familiar place in a new way. Earlier this year, I was invited up to the Chuska Mountains on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona for a bikepacking adventure in a place very foreign to me. For my friend Mark, a resident of the diminutive community of Cove nestled against the base of the Chuskas, this would be a supreme adventure in his own back yard and his first-ever bikepacking endeavor.
The sprawling Navajo Nation covers nearly 30,000 square miles of high desert in northeastern Arizona and parts Utah and New Mexico. The population of 200,000 is dispersed across this huge region, living among its mesas, canyons, valleys and isolated mountains. There is currently a major push for wellness among the communities, and The Navajo Nation Trail Initiative was launched last year, supporting the development of trails in nearly a dozen communities, as well as creating several long-distance mountain bike routes on existing dirt and 4×4 roads. More mountain bike and running events are popping up each year and ecotourism is a frequent topic of conversation in some circles, seen as one of the more reliable potential sources of income for some communities.
One of the long-distance mountain bike routes being developed on the Navajo Nation is along the crest of the Chuska Mountains, the narrow mountain range straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border. The Chuska Mountain Bike Route will ultimately traverse its namesake range, winding among lakes and conifers on a rugged 4×4 road thousands of feet above the surrounding high desert. As a geologist, these mountains and their countless natural lakes, a rarity in Arizona, had piqued my interest years ago, so I was eager to join Mark for a five-day bikepacking trip through this region.
We started our ride at his home in the end-of-the-road community of Cove. This former uranium mining town is home to only a few hundred residents and a small school. Sandstone cliffs, arches and slickrock domes give the area a Moab-esque feel. Mark is one of the teachers in town, as well as a trailbuilder and the organizer of the Cove Classic Mountain Bike Race. I showed up with gear to outfit his bike for its first bikepacking adventure, we quickly concocted a plan for a five-day ride along the Chuska Mountains, north through the adjacent Lukachukai Mountains, and then into the remote sandstone canyon country to the north, ultimately ending up in the community of Sweetwater. The sun was already getting lower in the sky as we climbed up a steep, rutted mine road out of town and through red sandstone layers that angled steeply downward into the mountainside. We were both excited to be on the move, a new adventure underway.
Of bustling summer days gone by in the mountains
Mark and I hunkered down behind the trunk of a massive fallen tree along the shore of a small lake that was sprouting whitecaps with each wind gust. It was lunchtime, and our legs were feeling the effects of a long morning of short, steep climbs. We munched on cheese and summer sausage as Mark excitedly heated water for a round of much-needed coffee. Behind us, several abandoned sheep camps were scattered among the bucolic meadows and stately old-growth pines. We had passed countless sheep camps--each with a solidly-built log cabin or hogan, a fire pit, shade structures, a nearby spring and thick green grass for forage. Nearly every meadow had its own sheep camp. Other camps were perched on hillsides along the shores of lakes.
I had expected these mountains to feel remote and far removed from civilization, but these mountains have been a summer destination for generations. Now, though, most of these camps are abandoned. Fifty years ago, summer in these mountains would have been very different. Mark described how fewer and fewer families were bringing their sheep up to graze for the summer, how more people were choosing to spend summers at their homes in the communities below rather than in the forests. Entire families used to come up for months on end, but in recent decades, the ways of life have evolved steadily. Many of these camps now only see use for a few family gatherings each summer.
Despite all the hogans cabins, and corrals, these mountains felt entirely deserted. Sheep were nowhere to be seen, and only a truck or two had passed us thus far. We pedaled in silence after lunch, battling a strong headwind and an uncomfortably rocky road surface. I contemplated this place, how the geology and culture and history of these mountains was so very unique, and how my own naivety was making this experience so much more impactful.
"Have you seen any signs of bigfoot up there?" the storekeeper asked with a grin. She wore a jean jacket and a dark skirt that stretched to the floor and she was visibly eager to hear where we had been.
"No, but we camped near Bigfoot Peak a couple nights ago," Mark replied.
"A hunter got a good look at one out here last fall." She walked to the door, opened it, and pointed up the drainage to the northeast. "Right up there. Real good look."
Bigfoot lives up in the Chuska mountains--sightings and stories are common, and it all feels like more than a legend. I had kept my eyes peeled, but thus far, we had seen only deer and bears.
Chei Yaazh - The taker of wishes
As I reached down and grabbed my pack to sling it over my shoulder, a horned lizard scurried off it and across the rocky ground. The pattern of colors decorating the chunky lizard's back made it nearly invisible as soon as it paused.
"Chei!" Mark exclaimed.
"What?" I asked as I scooted after the lizard, trying to catch it.
"Little grandfather. That's Chei. He's the deliverer of wishes." Mark went on to explain that to the Navajo, these are revered creatures. Pick one up gently, caress its rough back, whisper a wish, say a prayer, and let Chei go on his way, to take your wish to the Creator.
I quietly made a wish for tailwinds, placed Chei in the dirt along the edge of the road, and pulled on my pack. He vanished as soon as I glanced away, probably by simply sitting motionless. By the next morning, the winds had shifted around to the south. Mark and I were treated to a steady tailwind for the following two days.
The legacy of uranium mining
By the fourth morning, we could finally see Mark's house far below among the few dozen blue-roofed residences nestled among the junipers. I stared down at the valley below as I pushed my bike along the vanishing remnants of a sandy bench-cut road. For several miles, we climbed over downed trees and among boulders that had tumbled down from above. This section was the crux of our route, connecting more traveled tracks on opposite sides of the highest peaks in the Lukachukai Mountains. Every single slope below us was deeply scarred by a grid of dozer lines carved into the soft, clay-rich rock. The search for uranium-bearing deposits to supply the military with the raw materials for nuclear weapons was a frantic one, starting in the early 1940s and extending through the Cold War era. Mines on the Navajo Nation supplied the majority of the uranium ore for these war efforts, but local residents and the thousands of Navajo miners knew nothing of the deadly effects of radioactive minerals. Cove was a boom town for those years, but in the decades since, most of the former miners have died of cancer, radioactive tailings have been washed down the slopes and into streambeds, and remediation of the abandoned mining facilities has just begun.
"I practically glow in the dark," Mark's wife Marilyn had told me when sharing a bit about her youth, laughing with an air of uneasiness. She recounted drinking from the streams that drained from these mines as a child and watering the family's sheep with that same water. These unstable slopes were quickly slumping and sliding, obscuring the visible legacy of the uranium boom. But the residents in the community below, living under those blue roofs, would never be able to forget the catastrophic consequences of the invisible dangers of leetso, the yellow monster that is the uranium-rich deposits. I hiked on remorsefully, pushing my bike through the sand in silence.
From the edge of Mexican Cry Mesa
The final leg of our ride descended out of the mountains, across a series of isolated mesas, and down into canyon country. The forces of erosion have been eating into the vertical sides of these narrow mesas, creating a series of gaping amphitheaters and spires with deep canyons extending into the distance. As I led Mark down the steep, rocky descent off Mexican Cry Mesa, this all came into view below me. I nearly crashed as I tried to stop and comprehend this stunning landscape. Standing there next to my bike, it took a couple minutes to fully absorb the enormity and the intricacy of what we were seeing.
"This is why we're up here," Mark said with the biggest grin of the trip. "Look at this. I've been here before, I've seen this before, and I still can't believe that this is real."
I was speechless. But Mark was right--moments like these are exactly what pull at me to explore unfamiliar places, to push my bike for hours on end to get somewhere that I've never before seen and would probably never reach by any other means.