Mountain biking Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of April 24-May 1, 1996
Mountain biking Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
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Mountain biking Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Question: I have a group of six guys that has started to take an annual adventure. Last year we went whitewater rafting in Taos, NM. This year we are interested in either climbing or biking. We would like to rent a van and drive (no longer than ten or 12 hours). Any suggestions for late September or October?

Bill Kane
Dallas, TX
[email protected]

A mountain bike trail amidst Anasazi ruins and geological wonders
Adventure Adviser: You and your posse of male adventurers would be smart to load up your bikes and head out to Canyon de Chelly National Monument (first thing to know, Bill: you pronounce it "de-SHAY"), in eastern Arizona.

What with the thousand-foot-high, peach-colored walls and intricate Anasazi dwellings, a loop around the canyon rim offers a good look at the region's geological and architectural history--not to mention a few hearty, lung-busting climbs, plenty of muted rock art, and lots of desert scrub brush. More than 30 of the loop's 130 miles are unpaved, so a mountain bike with road/trail tires is your best bet for two-wheeled touring.

From the Canyon de Chelly National Monument headquarters in Chinle, follow paved South Rim Drive past the overlook points on the canyon's edge to the White House Ruin Trail. Stop here for a break, since the pueblo is one of the most dramatic in the Southwest and the only one in Chelly that you can visit without a Navajo guide. From there, South Rim Drive becomes Indian Route 7 and turns to dirt after passing the Spider Rock overlook. You'll then climb through rabbitbrush and longleaf pines and crest on an 8,000-foot plateau before reaching the tiny town of Sawmill. The last 25 of the 28 miles to Sawmill are on dirt--much of it quite challenging--so be sure to check weather reports for incoming rainstorms. From bustling Sawmill, pedal the only paved road (IR 7) out of town; it turns to dirt again, then in three miles meets up with another dirt road that angles northeast toward the town of Navajo. After six miles you'll strike paved IR 12 again, then 29 rolling and sage-lined miles later, IR 64. An extension of North Rim Drive, it's an easy pedal from there back to monument headquarters.

Be forewarned that the frequent thunderstorms--and the temptation to investigate the ruins and rock art--can cause long delays. Also know that many of the roads aren't marked, so a compass and topo maps are essential. For more information on camping, supplies, or outfitters, contact Canyon de Chelly National Monument at Box 588, Chinle, AZ, 86503 (520-674-5500).

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