Drive along U.S. Highway 491 in the Four Corners region of northwestern New Mexico, and you’re sure to see rising out of the vast, high-desert plain the iconic stone sentinel — Shiprock — that, perhaps more than anything, defines the Land of Enchantment.
Geology of Shiprock — Unfulfilled volcano
Shiprock is the remnant of a magma plug that formed some 27 million years ago. The magma intruded under layers of sandstone and shale laid down as sediments in the ancient Western Interior Seaway but never erupted on the surface. It cooled in the throat of the unfulfilled volcano, perhaps 3,000 feet below, and formed the plug. The magma also followed cracks in rocks forming seven dikes radiating away from the central formation. Three are dominant — ranging west, northeast, and southeast of the main formation.
Wind and water expose the plugged neck
What you see today is the root system of a volcano slowly revealed by wind and water erosion over millions of years. Today, Shiprock rises nearly 1,600 feet above the plain. The longest dike is five miles and, although only about 10 feet wide at the top, rises 150 feet. Think about that a moment: all the land around you was once 3,000 or more feet higher than what you see. All of it broke down and washed away.
That’s the science behind the pinnacle Captain J.F. McComb of the U.S. Geological Survey named “The Needle” in 1860. A decade later, Geological Survey maps note the mount as Shiprock, which is reasonable considering from a distance it does appear as a Clipper ship under sail.
Navajo call it Tsé Bit’a’í
The Navajo called the spire Tsé Bit’a’í, meaning Rock with Wings. They gave it that name five centuries before Anglos arrived. It’s how we all should call it, although only a handful of us could ever pronounce it correctly. The rock figures in their creation story and is sacred to them.
Legend of Tsé Bit’a’í
Based on oral history, the ancestral Navajo were under siege by an aggressive tribe in the far north. When their medicine men prayed for salvation, the ground beneath them became a huge bird that transported them to the Southwest. The bird landed at sundown, folding its wings to rest as the Navajo dismounted to explore their new surroundings.
Monster Slayer earns his name
But the Navajo’s troubles were not over. Two monsters, who consumed humans, built a nest on top, hatched two babies, and trapped the bird. Changing Woman, the Navajo equivalent of the Virgin Mary, sent Monster Slayer, one of her two warrior twins, (the other was Born to Water), to kill the dreadful creatures, at which he was successful. He cut off the head of one and threw it as far as he could. It landed more than a hundred miles to the east, where it became Cabezon Peak (geologically, another volcanic neck that erupted around 2 million years ago).
After the battle, Monster Slayer spared the babies, turning one into the eagle and the other into the owl. Sadly, Tsé Bit’a’í died during the battle, so Monster Slayer turned it to stone to remind the Navajo of its sacrifice.
Rock climbers’ top goal
Throughout the early 20th century, Shiprock was among the 50 Classic Climbs in North America. Because the rock is crumbly, no one managed to summit until October 1939. It was then, using expansion bolts, the first Anglos successfully reached the top. People continued climbing, leaving behind their trash.
Then in the 1970s climbing was banned, not just because of several accidents and difficult rescues but also because the Navajo consider Shiprock sacred. Even so, climbers continue to sneak up to the mountain and attempt to climb it. A 2006 announcement from the Navajo Parks and Recreation Department reported, “Even more serious than the physical harm illegal climbs could pose is the religious damage done to the Navajo people by non-Navajo visitors.” It added, Shiprock was “sacred to the Navajo people and any human interaction is strictly off limits.”
Why Shiprock is off limits
Understand, when a Navajo dies, the spirit leaves the body, taking with it all the good the person has done in life. What remains behind is the person’s chį́įdii, all the evil things he or she did while alive. Encountering someone’s chį́įdii can cause ghost sickness, so the Navajo do not go on the mountain, nor do they allow anyone else.
How to get great pictures
For those who respect Navajo beliefs, the iconic landmark is still a marvelous place to visit. You can get remarkable photos from the U.S. highway, especially at dawn and sunset.
Just south of Shiprock is Indian Service Route 13 heading west into Arizona. The road passes through the southeastern dike and connects with multiple dirt roads that lead to the base of Shiprock. However, most of these roads cross private property and visitors are not allowed to go to the base of Shiprock.
Amenities are far away
Keep in mind, there are no bathrooms, food, or gas stations near Shiprock. The nearest amenities are in the town of Shiprock 15 miles north, and the nearest hotel is an hour away in Farmington. Cell phone reception is unreliable.
The combined dike and Shiprock make for amazing photos. Sunrise and sunset are prime times, although the dark breccia of the dike loses detail in shadows. Clear, cold winter air contributes to the pictures, although warmer months offer wildflowers — but also rattlesnakes. Storms and fluffy cloud formations add drama to photos. But storms can be dangerous, and you’re out in the open without cover.
This being said, remember Shiprock, or rather Tsé Bit’a’í, is as sacred to the Navajo as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres or Notre Dame de Paris are and, as such, should be treated with the same dignity and reverence.