Navajo Mountain Hiking and History

Walking in Beauty: Explore Naa'tsis'aan with a Navajo family and guest archaeologist

Explore and learn about natural and cultural history around Navajo Mountain

Join Canyonlands Field Institute, the Atene family, and a guest anthropologist to explore a beautiful and remote region of the desert southwest. This trip combines a lodge stay with three nights truck supported tent camping to give us access to rugged desert terrain that few people get to see.

Led by Brandi Atene, a CFI guide that grew up at Navajo Mountain, this seminar “Walking in Beauty” is a one of a kind experience into Navajo Culture, human history, and the unique landscape of Navajo Mountain. Brandi’s grandmother, Rose Atene, is a well-known basket maker and has hosted CFI groups since the late 1980’s. Brandi’s extended family carry on this gracious tradition. This all inclusive experience features hearty meals and comfortable base camping, all provided by CFI guides.

Expert Interpretation and off-trail hiking

Your guides will navigate the group through the sandstone domes and canyons that make this area so unique. We will hike to historic sites, picturesque abandoned hogans, and caves used by Archaic Desert Culture up to the present.  Seasonal wildflower blooms and geology features are an extra treat.  Day hikes will be 2-5 miles round trip each, with some routes in dry washes, on sandy jeep tracks,  or up talus slopes to mesa tops. There are few formal established trails. There will be some elevation gain and loss on the hikes. Hiking is moderate to challenging;  you may opt out of a particular hike and spend time at basecamp reading and taking in the incredible scenery. Is this trip right for you? Learn more about the trip narrative, guide staff, and frequently asked questions below.

"I had long wanted to explore the Navajo Mountain area. This trip turned out to be the perfect way to do it. I was again in touch with the Colorado Plateau but experienced a new part of it. Highlights of the program? Being with members of a local Navajo family made the land come alive in a way that would be impossible without their personal knowledge and perspective. The place and the people are woven together."

- Tom W. Denver, CO

Bluff, Utah and Navajo Mountain
April 23, 2023 through April 27, 2023
September 19, 2023 through September 23, 2023
4 nights, 4 days
Group Size:
Minimum: 5, Maximum: 8
$1770; or CFI Members $1682 Plus $60 Navajo Nation Fee
First night in Lodge, then 3 nights camping

This is how we rate the challenges you might face on a CFI trip.

Level 1 - Easy

  • Low level of physical activity, minimal movement required
  • 0 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking or walking 0-2 miles per day

Level 2 - Moderate

  • Medium level of physical activity, some movement required
  • 1-4 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking up to 4 miles per day
  • Flatwater or mild whitewater rapids

Level 3 - Active

  • Medium or high level of physical activity
  • 1-5 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking up to 5 miles per day
  • Class I - III whitewater rapids

Level 4 - Challenging

  • High level of physical activity
  • 1-6 nights spent camping or in the field
  • Hiking 5 or more miles per day
  • Class IV whitewater rapids
CFI's Essential Eligibility Criteria outlines specific challenges that you may face on CFI trips. Please consult the EEC for information on responsibilities of participants.
  • Fee includes $100 donation to youth programs
  • Fee includes lodging and orientation at Recapture Lodge on the first evening.
  • Due to Navajo Nation regulations, this is an alcohol free trip
  • Participants provide their own sleeping gear or may rent tents, sleeping bags,  ground pads or cots from CFI.

See other trips in these categories:

All participants on our adult seminars and on our private trips are required to be fully vaccinated.

Trip Narrative

The Navajo call this place Naa’tsis’aan, which means “Head of the Earth Woman.” Paiutes that live here call this Paiute Mountain. Rugged canyon country has long sheltered the area’s occupants due to challenging access. Recently, a paved road provided access to the town of Rainbow City.

Day 1

Meet your fellow trip mates at 7:30 at the Recapture Lodge in Bluff, Utah. We will orient you to the rest of the trip, talk about what to expect, and answer any questions you may have. Enjoy a night in the Lodge before we venture out the following morning. This night of lodging is included with your trip fee.

Day 2

In the morning, we will make final preparations and load up in CFI 4wd vehicles and drive to Navajo Mountain, highlighting geography, geology, and historical features along the way. Our route takes us on N16 to Navajo Mountain. This road was paved only recently, and until then, the rugged and rutted dirt road made these communities even more remote than they are today. We’ll do a short hike to the old Rainbow Lodge site on the west side of the mountain, and then head to the small community of Rainbow City.  In the afternoon, we will set up our base camp near Rose Atene’s homestead on Navajo Mountain where many residents still live traditionally using livestock, weaving and other arts to form a basis of the economy.

Days 3 – 4

Our hiking takes place along the flanks of Navajo Mountain and the San Juan River, an area seldom explored except by the families that live there. These are working landscapes still utilized by Paiute and Navajo residents. Formal archaeological research of this area started in the 1930’s by University of Utah and continued in the 1960’s as part of the Glen Canyon Survey work conducted by Northern Arizona University and most recently as part of an extensive survey for paving the road N16.  We will hike to nearby sites and learn about Archaic and Ancestral Puebloan cultural history.

Our explorations include the rugged sandstone maze of fins, domes and narrow canyons on the north side of the mountain that served as effective hideouts for Ute, Paiute, and Navajo peoples avoiding capture by U.S. Military. We will also hike a section of the Wetherill (Rainbow) Trail, an ancient route later discovered by Anglo Explorers with the help of Indigenous guides. This is one of the two trails leading to Rainbow Bridge.

The remainder of the trip’s itinerary may vary with current conditions. Our destinations will include Hawkeye Natural Bridge, Lost Mesa, Sand Dune Cave among others and depending on current dirt road conditions. We may see an array of wildflowers, wild horses, and wildlife.

Day 5

We will close out the trip with a morning hike, lunch, and closing reflection and return to the Recapture Lodge before 4:30 that afternoon. Lodging this evening is not included within the trip fee.

Guest Faculty

Ms. Jordan MatsonFall Faculty: Jordan “Jojo” Matson is an ethno-archaeologist currently working for the Navajo Nation Heritage and Historic Preservation Department. Ms. Matson recently completed her graduate degree in Environmental Management for Integrative Public Lands Management at Western Colorado University.  Beginning in graphic design and ending in archaeology, she combines her skills to help reshape how we look at cultural resources. In her work for the Navajo Nation, she is weaving story and science together in the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program.  River. Previous employment has included work as a field technician for Paleo West and Montgomery Archaeological Consultants and as an educator-guide for CFI, Crow Canyon Archaeology Center, and Canyon Country Discovery Center. She was co-author of Cultural Resource Visitor Management Strategy for Bears Ears National Monument: Issues Analysis, Trends, Research & Recommendations and served on a committee improving field school curriculum on collaborative management for Ancestral Public Lands.


Brandi Atene is the granddaughter of Rose Atene, the Atene matriarch who lives in a traditional manner on the east side of Naa’tsis’aan.  Brandi grew up here, herding sheep, gathering sumac for Rose’s basket making and exploring these canyons. Brandi went to college in Kansas but kept ties close to home. Brandi has worked as athletic coach and led llama pack stock trips in Utah and Colorado. She currently works for CFI as a Program Manager and Lead Guide. She heads native youth program development for CFI and is the mother of one son.

Support Guide:

Spring Faculty: Michael Wolfe recently retired as an archaeologist for the Moab-Monticello Ranger District of the Manti-La Sal National Forest. His most recent post and favorite places to work included the higher elevations of Bears Ears National Monument, Elk Ridge and the Dark Canyon Wilderness.  Michael (“Red”) became interested in human history while working as a guide on the San Juan River, on Cedar Mesa, in Baja California and Chiapas, Mexico and in Guatemala. The emphasis of these trips has always included the natural history and present-day cultures of these areas. Many of these trips were in collaboration with Crow Canyon Archaeology Center.   He completed an undergraduate degree in anthropology from Ft. Lewis College in 1995 and went on to work for private cultural resource management firms, and then federal agencies in the Four Corners area.  Red’s special interests include high altitude Formative agricultural settlement, Anglo exploration and river running history in southeast Utah.  Michael has lived and played in southeast Utah for over 40 years but feels there still remains so much to see and explore. Visiting the land of the Navajo reservation is always a special adventure.


Need to Know

  • Lodging on April 23 at Recapture Lodge is included with fee. 
  • Lodging after the trip ends on April 27 is not included. 
  • All cook and dishware, meals, snacks, and river gear are provided by CFI.
  • Tents, sleeping bags, and sleeping pads can be rented from CFI. 
  • Due to Navajo Nation regulations, this is an alcohol free trip.
  • All participants on our adult seminars and on our private trips are required to be fully vaccinated to Covid-19.


Some people say food is the most important part of the adventure. On all our overnight trips, CFI will provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a morning and afternoon snack, and an appetizer before dinner. If you have a dietary restriction or food allergy, note it on your medical form so we can best prepare.

Depends on the trip. As a general rule, CFI provides all group gear related to fully outfitting your trip. Specialized gear like PFDs, wetsuits, dry bags, educational materials are all provided by CFI. Additionally, we take care of all kitchen and dishware needs. 

Find out more about trip specific packing.

Most importantly, a willingness to slow down, connect to your surroundings, and experience the moment. Additionally, participants are required to bring a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, personal clothing, medication, and other essential personal items. Many gear items are available for rent. Reach out to us if you are interested in seeing a trip specific packing list, or learn more about trip specific packing here.

CFI provides options to rent gear:

  • Two person tent: $30 / trip
  • Sleeping bag: $20 / trip
  • Kid sleeping pad: $7 / trip
  • Adult sleeping pad (paco pad): $15 / trip
  • Package deal: Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and one tent per two people: $40 / trip

For any CFI summer camp, gear rentals are free!

Every CFI guide has either a Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder certification. Your trip leader will have a Wilderness First Responder certification. Anyone working with youth has passed a background check, and shuttle drivers are insured with clean driving records. Backcountry trips carry In-Reach satellite communication devices for emergencies. All guides have been evaluated by Canyonlands Field Institute as possessing the judgement, skills, and disposition required for mitigating risk in the field. 

As technology grows more and more invasive by the day, CFI promotes connection to what matters. To achieve this, all school and youth programs are unplugged and students are not permitted to bring electronic devices. Not only is there rarely cell service, devices are a distraction to our ability to connect to the present moment. On Private Group Trips or Adult Seminars, the use of devices is permitted but discouraged.

CFI works hard to ensure a positive experience for all guides and participants. Because of the unpredictable nature of outfitting, we have created a series of policies so maintain our ability to manage risk in the outdoors.

For critical information regarding cancellations, deposits, and other participant responsibilities, please view our trip policies page or contact us with any questions.

Thanks for asking...We know this can be an awkward subject. The fact is, our guides work extremely hard and appreciate getting tipped! 

On school trips tips are greatly appreciated. 

On an adult or private trip, an industry standard is for each customer to tip $25 per day.

If you wish to include a gratuity, cash is preferred, but sending a check or a payment to CFI's Venmo: @canyonlandsfieldinstitute is also a great way to thank your guides for their hard work.  Tips are always pooled and distributed.

CFI is a non-profit organization and fees are not taxed. By choosing CFI, you are supporting our efforts to provide lifechanging outdoor experiences for hundreds of children per year.  Scholarships are available on an as needed basis.