Founded in 2016 by Jon Yazzie and Nadine Johnson, DziłTa’ah Adventures runs bike and packraft tours from their home base in the town of Kayenta inside the Navajo Nation. While we’ve documented multiple experiences with the nascent outfitter – including Hunt’s Mesa, John’s Canyon, Yellow Dirt routes, and others – getting the business off the ground hasn’t been easy for John and Nadine. Last winter, Josh Weinberg reconnected with Jon, along with a group of photographers including Chris Burkard, Jeremy Bishop, and Murray Smith for an unforgettable tour along one of DziłTa’ah Adventures’ most popular routes to learn about what’s next for their guiding operation…
Back in 2019 I wrote about my first time meeting Jon Yazzie and the short yet mind-blowing tour he led for myself and two friends to Hunt’s Mesa overlooking the iconic landscape of Monument Valley. Until that trip, I didn’t know Jon very well. I’d been around him at singlespeed events and we were connected on social media, but I wouldn’t have considered us friends at that point. In response to a request for a photographer Jon put out with friends, I offered to join him on a bike tour and help document one of the routes he was developing for the guiding company he and his partner, Nadine, had recently established. Little did I know that trip would mark the beginning of a great friendship and the first of many memorable cycling trips with Jon to the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas.
Nearly five years after that first trip, I was equally, if not more, excited to push and pedal to one of the most memorable rocks I’ve slept on. Although the trip was originally organized by Lizzy Scully of Four Corners Guides (who Jon has partnered with for joint excursions over the years), Lizzy and her partner, Doom, ultimately couldn’t make it, but the others on the invite list were determined to make it happen. It was early November, after all, and one of the last decent weather windows before the area would become immersed in winter.
“The trip gave unique and stunning views of Monument Valley, with every viewpoint offering something special. The riding was engaging and beautiful. Of course, Jon’s expertise, passion, and storytelling was the highlight of the trip.” – Murray Smith
Returning to Hunts Mesa
It began like most other trips with Jon, where our crew either camps out at his house in Kayenta the night before or arrives on the day of departure and high-tails it out to camp before sunset. I left Phoenix super early in the morning and arrived before noon knowing it would take the latter half of available daylight to make it to our camp spot. When I pulled up to Jon’s house, Chris Burkard, Jeremy Bishop, and Murry Smith were already there. Chris and Jeremy had driven through the night from their homes on the Central California coast and were ready to get moving. If you can’t tell from Chris’ online presence alone, I’ll confirm for you – the man has A LOT of positive energy. He and the others were ready to roll as soon as I arrived. After a quick gear check, we were out.
Photo – Chris Burkard
Hunt’s Mesa is part of a rock formation comprising the southern boundary of Monument Valley Tribal Park. A sparsely populated area, with only a couple hundred permanent residents, Monument Valley encompasses about thirteen square miles and straddles the Arizona/Utah state line. To put that into perspective, the Navajo Nation is twenty-seven thousand square miles with a population of around 250,000. Hunts Mesa forms the southern wall of the valley and is accessed by a network of roads originally cut during the 1950s uranium mining boom. It’s estimated that there are over 1,500 uranium mines within the Monument Valley area alone. Now, the roads are used by tour companies and hikers, as the mesa summit yields incredible views of the valley below. While most people access the mesa from the north, we traveled from the south via a maze-like network of 4×4 roads and bench-cut sandstone cliff sides, many of which have been engulfed by sand dunes in recent years. If not for Jon’s intricate knowledge of the area, it would be impossible to navigate.
“Seen in the distance, above Lime Ridge, is a trapezoidal block of sandstone that looks like a forked hogan. That is where Sun Bearer trapped her disobedient children.” – Jon Yazzie
It’s one thing to see photos of this place, but it’s entirely different to experience its depth, detail, color, and feeling in full resolution. We reached our destination just in time for “golden hour” to blanket the valley below in an aurulent hue to the delight of our group of photographers. The moon was nearly full which allowed us to linger on the edge of the expanse long after sunset, soaking in grandeur. After a short traverse of the roads along the mesa’s edge, we navigated to our camp spot for the night. We didn’t notice any other people on the rim that night and had a nice spread to ourselves complete with a picnic table and fire pit. Jon shared stories and we listened. He talked about his time in the military and how it helped to solidify moving back to the reservation to become an educator. He also told us the creation stories that had shaped the desert towers and buttes seen from our vantage: Dibe Ntsaa, Sun Bearer’s children, Big Snake, Bears Ears, Navajo Mountain and others.
“I’ve traveled throughout the Navajo Nation more times than I can remember; by bike, by foot, and even by hoof. The landscape has, since I was a little kid, captured my imagination and sparked my curiosity. It was these landscapes that first made me want to pick up a camera and try to understand what the word “Diné” actually meant. Until I traveled with Jon, these experiences have felt almost childish in their pursuit of “experiencing” the landscape. Jon’s soft-spoken demeanor and relaxed eyes would give way to surreal viewpoint after viewpoint while also giving context to their meaning and value to his people.” – Chris Burkard
We learned about the number of factors that motivated Jon and Nadine to start a guiding service on their ancestral lands. At the forefront of those is a desire to help explain some of the land management issues to non-Navajo while also trying to work within the existing systems that make it challenging to create outdoor recreation opportunities in the reservation. At a very high level, cultural teachings tie Diné identity back to the land, both in an abstract geographic sense and also the physical topography. Outdoor recreation, then, is seen by many to be damaging to the land and having no direct benefit to the Diné people. Examples of this, as Brian Anderson points out in his USF Master’s Thesis Recreation and the Sacred: A Case Study of Diné Bikéyah, include skiing at Flagstaff’s Snowbowl and rock climbing at Canyon de Chelly. Anderson’s work(which I’d highly recommend reading), mirrors Jon and Nadine’s goals stating: “Promoting outdoor recreation on Navajo Lands have immense economic potential; however, careful planning and consideration is imperative to respect cultural and sacred understandings in regard to place.” Thus, the pair have joined a number of other Navajo groups showing how responsible recreation can be both sympathetic and beneficial. For more context on what’s going on elsewhere in Navajoland related to recreational cycling and tourism, check out our Reportage on Rezduro and Silver Stallion, along with the efforts of NavajoYES and the Diné Bike Project.
After a cold night’s sleep (some of us packed much lighter than others), we headed out the same way we’d come in, enjoying sections of chunky slickrock downhill that we’d pushed up the day before. After traveling so far and with the cold season looming, none of us were in a rush to hurry home and we convinced Jon to extend the tour by a few more hours. Taking the long way out included splashing through a creek crossing, adding some spicy hike-a-bike, and a run-in with a herd of wild horses.
We won’t share routes from within the Navajo Nation, as it is customary to have a Navajo Guide while traveling in the backcountry. While this story is about DziłTa’ah Adventures, and bike touring specifically, there are plenty of other tour operators that make a living from tourism in the reservation using various modes of transportation. Hire a guide if you plan to visit.
“When temperatures rise and evaporation increases, soil’s ability to hold together and absorb water decreases. Soon, plant communities on drying dunes decline, leaving bare soil without protection from the wind.” – NOAA Climate Program
More Sand in a Drying Environment
To ride in Navajoland is to face the impacts of climate change head-on, in real time. In just the few years I’ve been traveling to the backcountry around Kayenta, I’ve noticed the substantial encroachment of the surrounding sand dune’s footprint. Like rising seas and increasingly extreme weather patterns, these expanding dunes throughout the Navajo Nation are indicators of a warming planet and even drier Colorado Plateau. Even in an unusually wet winter, Jon has noticed surface water disappear faster than in decades past. The historic lack of rainfall in the already arid region, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, causes “plant communities on drying dunes decline, leaving bare soil without protection from the wind…[then] dunes begin to shift, physically moving across the land as the sand particles are blown about.” While some native plants remain, Cryptobiotic soil crusts, grasses, and shrubby trees are barely holding on in many places yielding more and more space to sand. It’s unclear how much the dunes will continue to grow within a persistent drought cycle. It is clear, however, that the current encroachment has become a real threat to the health and livelihoods of the Diné and, at the current rate of expansion, will only get worse in the future.
Photo – Chris Burkard
This, of course, has major implications on local communities and ranchlands, but also for us backcountry travelers. As historically stable water sources become unreliable or disappear altogether, and as roads become filled in with sand, Jon’s routes become more complicated. In the future, he’ll start having to cache water, find different access points, and possibly shuttle riders in vehicles. While Murry had the right idea to bring his fat bike, the rest of us were on standard tires up to 29×2.8. Will fat bikes be required to ride in Navajoland in the near future? Sure seems probable to me.
“Loss of control of landscapes as a result of colonialism, recreational tourism has been forced on spaces viewed as sacred by native groups.” – Brian Anderson
Unlikely Advocates for Local Tourism
Despite an ever-evolving list of routes and experiences Jon and Nadine have incorporated into DziłTa’ah Adventures’ offerings, establishing a guiding business within the Navajo Reservation has been full of red tape. Permitting agencies tend to consider bicycles in the same class as motorized vehicle tours, horseback riders, etc, so insurance rates have been exorbitantly high. Additionally, because land ownership is understood in terms of local customs and familial use rights rather than legal documents, gaining permission to travel through much of the reservation is difficult if not impossible. So, Jon and Nadine have gotten creative and tagged onto or modified existing backcountry tour routes originally intended for Jeeps or horses – such as the Hunt’s Mesa route – to make it work on their terms.
They’ve begun planning a few routes that travel primarily established dirt roads that hold both personal and cultural significance. One example is a traverse that links together communities visited by Nadine’s grandfather, who translated for public health officials, during the Tuberculosis outbreak of the 1950s. And I’ll be joining Jon later this summer on a prospective route connecting neighboring communities, via dirt roads, from Kayenta to Chilchinbito and Dennehotso, back to Kayenta. There’s a lot of opportunity to work within the system building a case for cyclo-tourism’s place on the reservation. And despite the hurdles, Jon and Nadine have proven that they don’t get discouraged easily.
While I don’t get the sense the couple originally intended to become outspoken advocates for sustainable tourism, they have joined a larger conversation about its benefits throughout the Navajo Nation. In the case of bike touring, John and Nadine find it both sympathetic to their cultural beliefs and that it promotes a responsible form of ecotourism. Through continuing to champion designated trails and establishing overnight routes, Jon and Nadine are participating in a larger ongoing conversation about the benefits of sustainable recreation and economic empowerment. They are also regularly invited to share their goals and experiences at conferences around the country and Jon delivers keynote addresses at trail conferences off the reservation about success stories and building back the Navajo economy via outdoor recreation. In fact, just a few weeks ago, he participated in the Sea Otter Classic Summit panel Exploring the Intersection of the Cycling Industry, Business, Tribes and Land Management Reform on Federal Lands and the Old Spanish Trail Association’s National Conference last October.
“Jon shared stories of the land, his thoughts on the importance of travel, and his experience living in Iceland as a young man in the Navy tracking nuclear subs underwater. I quickly realized that this Diné man had more worldly experience than I could ever imagine. Having lived what seemed like multiple lives despite being in his 40s, realizing his dream and desire to let others experience his backyard from a more immersive perspective is what drew me in the most. The way a bike can transform one’s experience – allowing for a slow and patient feeling as you move through rock and sand – felt like hymns from the church of Jon Yazzie.” – Chris Burkard
Spending extended amounts of time with Jon, Nadine, and other Diné friends in Navajoland beckons curiosity and introspection. There are very few places I return from that make me want to research or pour over books about the area. While I’ll always read up on destinations prior to travel, I typically move on to the next trip or project once I’m home. But this remarkable region – located geographically very close to where I live, yet socially, politically, and spiritually different – has an undeniable magnetism and has found a permanent place in my psyche. It is full of tension and inspiration; history and opportunity. I can’t thank Jon and Nadine enough for the experiences they have created over the years. I’ll always make visiting a priority as long as they’ll have me. If you’re interested in linking up for a ride or tour, head on over to DziłTa’ah Adventures Website and send them a message; their calendar is booking up quickly!
Referenced Sources and Further Reading
The health care experiments at Many Farms: the Navajo, tuberculosis, and the limits of modern medicine, 1952-1962Monument Valley Tribal Park, Hunts Mesa
Indigenous Environmental Justice (Indigenous Justice)
Navajo Nation: Hotter, Drier Climate Puts Sand Dunes on the Move
Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation, Backcountry Hiking & Camping Permits
Recreation and the Sacred: A Case Study of Diné Bikéyah
Romancing the Wild: Cultural Dimensions of Ecotourism
Sea Otter Classic Summit Agenda
Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos