It’s like backpacking—but on two wheels.

Group bikepacking
Josh Weinberg

Jon Yazzie of Navajo Nation is out to shake up the tourism industry. The co-founder of Dzil Ta’ah Adventures is ushering in a new era of Indigenous-led exploration—on two wheels—that emphasizes cultural revitalization he hopes will improve the lives of people he calls his own. And on a reservation with more square mileage than Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire combined, the space for renewal is immense.

Yazzie, a United States Navy veteran and school administrator based in Kayenta, Arizona, first tested bikepacking in 2014. The blossoming backcountry camping method, executed via bike saddle versus on foot, has been enjoyed all over the world. But for Yazzie, adventuring in the Navajo backcountry is a category unto its own.

For years, hair-raising bike routes plunged Yazzie into an ancient world of bluffs and mesas dotted by cottonwoods, pinyon, cedar, and juniper—landscapes intricately tied to the creation stories his grandmother once told him when he was a young boy on Navajo Nation. Pondering these sights and legends years later under star-lit canopies ignited in Yazzie a desire to share such experiences.

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The avid mountain biker first approached his partner and eventual co-owner, Nadine Johnson, with whom he’d become close after being introduced by a mutual friend, in 2013. Johnson, who now works as a coder at a local hospital, “hesitated to take more extended trips at first because she didn’t want to jeopardize” her college coursework, Yazzie says.

“I had to get creative to get her out on the longer rides,” he adds, laughing. “I made flashcards and study guides and would hide them until we were a ways out. That seemed to work.”

Early expeditions on Navajo Nation, however, were not without resistance. Confrontations with non-Native off-roading tour companies ensued, with the motorized groups often commandeering routes to awe-inspiring destinations like Hunts Mesa.

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“They were giving us a vibe that we weren’t welcome,” Yazzie says. “I called Navajo Nation Parks & Rec[reation] and just said, ‘Look, I’m a local. What do I have to do to be able to just ride in my backyard?’”

The encounters eventually shuttled Yazzie toward his next hurdle: navigating permit acquisition. Biking was seldom listed in the criteria for backcountry licensing, but there was a workaround. For a manageable annual sum, businesses could acquire permits.

Yazzie was on an overnight bikepacking trip with Johnson, frustrations mounting, when the idea hit him. Why not just start a company? Dzil Ta’ah Adventures, and its custom bikepacking tours catered to all skill levels, was on its way. Of course, the duo first had to develop the professional framework, but they were dealt a fortuitous hand when Johnson, who was enrolled in a business class at the time, was given an assignment to develop a mock company.

“We thought, ‘Why not just do the assignment about our actual company?’” Yazzie says.

By the end of that semester, Dzil Ta’ah Adventures had a complete plan on paper. Bringing the initiative to life, though, would soon require unforeseen resilience. In 2016, not long after Johnson built the business model, Yazzie suffered a significant mountain biking injury. The incident snowballed into a seemingly interminable series of physical setbacks that saw him endure a concussion, broken ankle, the development of migraines and blood clots, and the loss of vision in one eye.

Recovery dragged along, but by 2019, Yazzie was riding again—and Dzil Ta’ah, which means “near the mountain,” was fresh in his mind. He began exploring areas he’d never seen, tackling new trails, and creating new routes in the process.

Bikepackers setting up camp

© Steve Fassbinder 2020

By the beginning of 2020, Yazzie and Johnson were ready to launch. Permits and insurance were in order. They’d even booked a handful of tours. But the pandemic had other plans. Considered a non-essential business by Navajo Nation, the duo put plans on the back burner once again. Like many enduring the unpredictability of COVID-19, Yazzie’s plans began to evolve. Taking rides just to clear his head, Yazzie began noticing a surge of Navajo youth on bicycles. It was one of the few activities the tribe permitted during shutdowns, and the young people on Navajo Nation were taking full advantage.

“Seeing that shifted our entire focus,” Yazzie says. “We made a point to target youth tours, and made sure that whatever proceeds we made were going to go back into the community.”

Navajo Nation youth do not have access to luxuries so many of us take for granted. Yazzie knows this. He’s lived it. Diminished existential outlooks catalyzed by limited education and health care, housing shortages, substance abuse, and a scarcity of employment has, Yazzie says, too often manifested in the worst way.

“Suicide rates in Navajo Nation are pretty high,” he says. “I’d love to use these tours as a platform to build [youth] up.”

Ever the educator, Yazzie now dreams of a Dzil Ta’ah support system that provides Navajo youth—in addition to privately booked groups—with adventure, education, and an added layer of cultural infusion.

“When I go into an English class and look at state-required texts, it’s books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Don Quixote,” Yazzie says. “These kids have no connection to those worlds, but there is so much good Navajo literature our students could connect to. It describes our home and these places intertwined with our history. We should be making connections between what we’re seeing, reading, and the stories we’re telling.”

Group bikepacking in Arizona

© Steve Fassbinder 2020

Yazzie believes the results of this approach—a reacquaintance with heritage and an admirable history of perseverance through hardship—could be key to building resilience in Dzil Ta’ah’s youngest demographic.

“We’re going to build a bikepacking community on Navajo Nation, and it’s going to start with our youth,” he says. “Even if it helps just one kid, we want to do that.”

Bikepacking 101

WHAT: A two-wheeled camping excursion that, unlike car-bound trips, allows its participants to engage all five senses from point A to point B.

HOW: If you can ride a bike, you can bikepack. Whatever the distance, the goal is environmental immersion and fun. All you need is a bike, protective gear, food and water, a sleeping system, and a tent (if you want shelter).

WHERE: Any land and trails operated by the Bureau of Land Management are great places to start. And with 245 million BLM-run acres across the country, your options are vast. Dispersed camping on BLM land—i.e., setting up camp away from developed facilities and grounds—is a wonderful way to get away from crowded campsites.

WHO: Like trails meant for hikers, mountain bike trails cover a wide range of difficulty and skill level. Be sure to research ahead of time, whether you’re going out solo or taking the family along for the ride.

WHY: Camping is a wonderful means of outdoor immersion, but getting to our campsites is often an adventure we forgo. As Yazzie says about bikepacking through Navajo Nation: “It allows us to slow down, share stories, feel the sand, smell the sage, and explore minor details you might otherwise miss.”

Join a Tour

Join Dzil Ta’ah Adventures on a multi-day trip of riding, stargazing, and storytelling.

Dzil Ta’ah Adventures currently offers three routes, with about 10 more in the works, that can be customized by difficulty and length to meet individual preferences. Hunts Mesa, the Yellow Dirt Route, and an expansive, 98-mile loop Yazzie calls the Tri-City Route are all available. “Each one is meaningful,” Yazzie says. “They’re all tied to our history.”

The Yellow Dirt Route, for example, traces the steps of the Cold War-era uranium collection, during which time otherworldly rock formations were blown apart by the Atomic Energy Commission, on behalf of the federal government, to mine for material used to build atomic warheads. Navajos were employed as miners in the process, with many contracting terminal illnesses as a result.

Multi-day trip fees include lodging, riding, storytelling, wildlife viewing, and inevitably, spectacular stargazing. Packaged overnight tours start at $1,100. Find out more.