How an Indigenous-Owned Adventure Company Is Bringing Bike Tourism to the Navajo Nation

It’s been more than a year since COVID-19 halted the Navajo Nation’s tourism, but just this month, popular attractions like Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Four Corners Monument partially reopened—and travelers have a new way to experience these sun-blasted landscapes: by bikepacking. It’s the first iteration of an Indigenous-led effort to bring bike tourism to the Navajo Nation.

Bikepacking, a heart-pumping blend of mountain biking and camping, is well established on long-distance bike routes like the Colorado Trail and Alaska’s Denali Park Road. Similar to backpacking, it’s an immersion into the elements, from camping beneath bright cosmos to cycling through unspoiled wilderness—two natural features the Navajo Nation is blessed with across its 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

But until recently, the reservation’s bike tourism was more than lacking—bike tours weren’t legally recognized as a permitted tourism category. In 2016, avid Navajo mountain biker and former racer Jon Yazzie of Kayenta, Arizona, set out to change that. He and his partner Nadine Johnson slashed miles of red tape, campaigning the Navajo Nation’s parks and recreation department to grant their adventure company, Dzil Ta’ah Adventures, a permit to run overnight bikepacking tours, as well as half-day mountain-biking excursions, on Navajo land. Their wish was granted in early 2020, but celebrations waned swiftly as COVID-19 swept through the reservation.

Instead of using that hard-earned permit to run tours, Yazzie and Johnson spent the pandemic lockdown scouting trails, testing campsites, and spreading bikepacking interest among Navajo youth. Now, with the Navajo Nation’s reopening underway, their bike-tour dream can finally become a reality.

The inaugural bike-tour experience

Navajo Nation bikepacking tours aren’t your average cycle-and-sightsee excursions. Dzil Ta’ah Adventures leads guests deep into the red sands of Navajo Nation’s backcountry, blending adventure with culture as Navajo guides share stories about their ancestors and the land they’re cycling—something the Navajo Nation hopes to see more of across its tourism offerings in the coming years.

“It’s important for Navajo Nation to be in charge of this story, because more often than not, that story has been told for, not by, Navajo people,” says Navajo Nation member Donovan Hanley, a legislative staff assistant spearheading tourism development for Navajo Nation Council’s Office of the Speaker. “Jon’s push to tell stories on bikes, the push for adventure, responsible tourism, and sustainable tourism—it really aligns with the Navajo way of life.”

Dzil Ta’ah Adventures recently launched bike tours run the gamut, with customized itineraries based on comfort level and time, from half-day rides to immersive multi-night bikepacking journeys. Milder overnight trips, like the jaunt up to Hunts Mesa with about 80 percent flat dirt road, promise rare golden-hour views of the sandstone chimneys sprinkled across Monument Valley. As a mountain-bike racer himself, Yazzie also plans hair-raising tours for even the best-trained riders. “We have everything from soft-blow sand to riding on shale shelves, a little bit of single track, a lot of double track, and sandstone everywhere,” he says. (Currently, Dzil Ta’ah is only booking private tours.)

As Yazzie and Johnson cultivate the bike-tourism movement, Hanley says another local organization, Navajo YES, is building new bike trails and infrastructure to further place Navajo Nation on the outdoor-adventure map. The newly designated Chuska Mountain Bike Trail, an 80-mile traverse along the spine of the Chuska Mountains straddling Arizona and New Mexico, is one of many projects likely to amplify Navajo Nation’s adventure tourism, Hanley says.

A Navajo-led movement

These mountain and desert vistas are jaw dropping, but bikepacking here is about so much more than a stellar backdrop. This is one of few Navajo Nation tourism movements that’s entirely Navajo run—with all tourism dollars staying in the Navajo community.

“In Kayenta right now, only a [fraction] of tour companies are Native-owned,” Yazzie says, noting he was initially inspired to start a bikepacking group so he and his friends could get permits to camp on Navajo lands only accessible to registered tour companies. But Yazzie quickly realized these permits could do so much more. By “spreading the bikepack stoke” across the Navajo Nation, particularly among youth, they could ensure bike tourism profits the Navajo people for generations to come.

With full-time jobs, Yazzie and Johnson don’t need the profit from Dzil Ta’ah Adventures for themselves. Instead, they will put tour money toward a Navajo-youth bike program to help the next generation of Navajo bike-tour guides learn everything from riding techniques and topography, to Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA).

On a deeper level, Yazzie hopes welcoming youth into the bike movement will also help them appreciate their connection to this land, their ancestors, and the Navajo creation stories—just like it did for him.

“I was raised with these stories, but they didn’t make any sense until I was actually out there riding,” he says, noting one of his biggest aha moments struck while biking past Bears Ears National Monument. “These stories come from our grandparents and our ancestors, and the tours we run revolve around both the authentic creation stories and our modern-day struggles.”

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