Chuska Challenge takes cyclists through Navajo Nation’s high country

Cyclists enjoy one of the many shade structures on Chuska MTB Route.

Chuska Mountain Bike Route could serve as a model for the proposed Black Mesa rail-trail project

The 29th annual Chuska Challenge Mountain Bike Race will be held on the Navajo Nation Sept. 15-17, featuring live music, food trucks, high-country camping and, of course, plenty of cycling.  

The event, which will be held in the northern part of the Chuska Mountains near Buffalo Pass, offers two options for the main 20-mile ride on Saturday: a competitive race with finisher’s medals and age-group/overall awards, and a noncompetitive tour option on same route but with no awards or timing.

On Saturday, there will also be children’s races for riders aged 12 and under, with four age divisions and distances ranging from 2 to 5 miles.  

The children’s races are “a lot of fun,” said Tom Riggenbach, executive director of the nonprofit Navajo YES, which organizes the event. “It gives the kids the chance to take part in something without having to bike 20-plus miles.” 

The Chuska Challenge’s various rides typically attract a total of around 100 cyclists, many of whom camp through the entire weekend.

“The base camp for the event is just under 8,500 feet, so that’s pretty good elevation, and that’s where people are welcome to camp both on Friday and Saturday night,” Riggenbach said.

“The Chuska Challenge has always been a fall event, so it’s a beautiful time of the year in the mountains. A lot of people say it’s their first fall camping trip, when you start to feel the cool temperatures up in the high country. The camping is just spectacular – you’re in the big, towering pines. It’s a really, really a great location.” 

The 20-mile race route takes cyclists past spectacular overlooks near Buffalo Pass and Top of the World that provide views as far as Monument Valley, the Carrizo Mountains and Red Valley.

There will also be live music at the camp throughout the weekend, from Friday afternoon through Sunday morning. The lineup includes Derrick Benally of Cove, traditional singer and drummer Rance Redhouse, Alicia Begay, Talibah Begay and local country favorites Red Hawk.

The Chuska Challenge is the final event in the annual Tour de Rez, a series for five cycling events that starts in March with the Chil-Town Bike Classic in Chilchinbeto, followed by the Hashkéníini Road Race at Navajo Mountain in May, the Monument Valley Bike Race in June and the Asaayi Bike Race in the southern part of Chuska Mountains in July.

The Chuska Challenge route utilizes portions of the Chuska Mountain Bike Route, an 80-mile cycling trail through the Chuska Mountains with campsites, interpretive signage, shade structures and benches along the way.

“There’s just all kinds of really cool elements along the Chuska route,” Riggenbach said. “The route has really been successful, with big groups of cyclists going through and enjoying the high country of the Rez for three, three-and-a-half days. I think the Chuska route is good local model of what a long-distance route can look like. Pretty cool to see that coming to fruition.”

The Chuska route could, he said, serve as the model for the proposed 80-mile rail-trail along the route of the now-defunct Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad. Such a rail-trail would have a lot of commonalities with the Chuska Mountain Bike Route, including campsites, shade structures and benches.

The Black Mesa and Lake Powell Railroad was an electrified private railroad that transported coal from the Peabody Energy Kayenta Mine near Kayenta on the Navajo Nation to Navajo Generating Station (NGS) near Page, Arizona. The railway was in use from the early 1970s until late 2019, when NGS ceased operation. The tracks have remained in place but have been unused since then.

While some people would like to see the old railroad turned into a tourist train, Navajo YES has been advocating for the rail-trail project. 

“The rail-trail project has been in the works, and discussions are ongoing with various tribal leaders,” Riggenbach said, adding that it would be possible to establish both a trail and a tourist train running along the same corridor.

“One thing I would want to emphasize is that a rail-trail and a railroad are not mutually exclusive,” he said. “If the Navajo Nation were to decide that they wanted to do a railroad or a tourist train on the railroad corridor, a trail could definitely still fit in with that and could be super beneficial to the railroad, and vice versa. It could be a real win-win situation if the Nation or some developer or businesspeople wanted to do a tourist train. That could be totally fine and totally jibe with the trail.”

Riggenbach said establishing a rail-trail on the Navajo Nation would also be beneficial to local communities in economic terms, as well for community wellness and family togetherness.

The Black Mesa rail-trail, he said, “would be an opportunity for families across western Navajo and beyond to come and have some amazing outdoor recreation.” 

“We envision having trailheads that would have exercise stations, picnic areas, shade structures, possibly even playgrounds. They’d be really dynamic places for the local community to go for birthday parties, graduations, cookouts or just a Sunday afternoon in the park,” Riggenbach said, adding that a rail-trail “can be wildly successful in economic terms as well.” 

“We’ve seen this in many of the rail-trail projects around the Southwest and around the country, is that they have really, really dynamic success in promoting the local communities and benefitting local small businesses,” he said. “You can have small campgrounds popping up, you could have bed-and-breakfast hogans, you could even have bike rentals or bike repairs, coffee shops or cafes, an assortment of things along the route that would really benefit the local communities.”

He also pointed out that the Black Mesa rail-trail project would offer ample opportunities for collaboration between the City of Page and Navajo Nation. Page would serve as the western gateway to the 80-mile route.  

“I hope folks will consider these benefits as decisions are made here in the next number of months or years about the future of the route,” Riggenbach said.   

For more information about Navajo YES and the Chuska Challenge, email [email protected] or visit the Navajo YES Facebook page ( 

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