In about 2011 Willow and I with a friend and her dog took an RV trip around the Southwestern US. One of the stops we wanted to make was the Carlsbad Caverns and so we headed into New Mexico. When we first entered the state on our trip towards the Southeast corner where the caverns are located I remember seeing Ship Rock far off in the distance and taking a picture.
On our latest New Mexico adventure we really wanted to make it a point to see this geologically significant and Navajo sacred place from a much closer vantage point. Once we got into the actual town of Shiprock (the town name is one word, the geologic formation uses two words) we could see the rock out in the distance and started to drive in that general direction on Highway 491. Jutting up from the plain she sits on Ship Rock stands 1,583 feet (482 meters) tall and is visible from dozens of miles in all directions. Distances are harder to gauge on a flat, open plain like this and it seemed that the rock was getting no closer and then, all at once, the highway turned and started running in a direction away from our intended target and we were seemingly passing the rock and leaving it behind us. Choosing to stay calm and keep plugging along we eventually came to a semi-perpendicular road, Indian Service Route 13, and turned right onto it. We were now officially on Navajo Nation land. Like before we seemed to be just paralleling it and not getting any closer. We passed several access roads with gates closed but there was just a bit too much traffic for us to stop, turn around and see whether or not we could go through them or if they even had no trespassing signs. A general rule in cattle country is leave a gate as you found it. If it is open and there is no sign indicating you are not allowed to pass through then go on through and leave the gate open. If it is closed and there is still no restrictive signs then go on through and close the gate behind you. Both those standard rules are somewhat superseded by one of our main mantras which is “Contrition is easier than permission.” In other words we kind of do what we want and if no one complains, awesome, but if someone does then “Oh we are really sorry and will never do that again” and “look at my beautiful, well-behaved dog.”
Just as we started to pass this stunning, slim, large natural rock “wall” which we eventually found out was named the South Dike we saw a dirt road running parallel to the dike and seemingly towards Ship Rock itself. We quickly backtracked, turned off the highway and began the last leg of this quest. On the map this road is named Indian Service Route 5010 and in the real world it appeared to run in a perfectly straight line aiming directly at Ship Rock. Great.
The weather was threatening to dump a ton of rain and so we wanted to get to Ship Rock itself as quickly as possible but first drove up the side of the dike to a spot where we took a quick panorama.
Back down on the road we headed closer to our destination.
Once we arrived at a pretty good vantage point we got out and took a few beauty shots of my girl and the Tacoma…oh, and the Ship Rock right there in the background.
Since there were still dirt “roads” leading even closer to Ship Rock we decided to keep pushing our luck and crawled around to its left side and our next vantage point.
Ship Rock is sacred to the Navajo people and figures prominently in their mythology. In Navajo it is called Tsé Bitʼaʼí which means “rock with wings” or simply “winged rock.” The legend tells that the ancient Navajo were fleeing from another tribe so shamans prayed for help. The ground beneath the Navajo became a huge bird that carried them on its back, flying for a day and a night before landing at sunset where Ship Rock now sits. The Diné (the Navajo word for their people) climbed off the Bird which was now resting from the long flight. Now here is where the legend gets a bit Godzilla-like. A giant dragon-like creature, Cliff Monster, then climbed onto the Bird’s back and built a nest, trapping it. The Diné then asked Monster Slayer to combat Cliff Monster but in the fight the Bird was injured. Monster Slayer then killed Cliff Monster, cut off its head and tossed it far to the east where it became today’s Cabezon Peak (I sense the outline of a great Japanese movie here). The monster’s coagulated blood formed the dikes. Sadly the Bird was fatally injured during the battle and Monster Slayer turned the bird to stone as a reminder to the Diné of its sacrifice.
The White Man’s name for the formation was originally suggested as “The Needles” in 1886 by an explorer in the area, Captain J. F. McComb for its uppermost pointed pinnacle. The name didn’t stick as it was called different names in different places. Shiprock and Shiprock Peak are a couple of those. Ship Rock is its name on a map from the 1870s because of its resemblance to 19th-century clipper ships.
Being interested in geology even more than mythology we did some digging (pun intended) into the forces which shaped this landscape about 30 million years ago. Ship Rock is considered an inselberg or monadnock. In German the word inselberg means “island mountain” and indicates an isolated mountain abruptly rising from its flat surroundings. The mountain is usually the remains of volcanic activity and regularly the hard, interior of a vent or the main volcano itself. Over time the vast majority of softer, surrounding material has eroded away. Geologists have surmised that Ship Rock is the exposed plug which was once the throat of a volcano. While it was active lava came up this throat from the earth’s mantle and was deposited on the surface. Some evidence points to the lava reacting explosively with water and forming what geologists call a diatreme. The USGS describes Ship Rock as “one of the best known and most spectacular diatremes in the United States.” Erosion later removed the upper layers of the volcano as well as the softer, surrounding sedimentary material leaving only the harder, erosion-resistant rock behind. What we now can see of Ship Rock’s volcanic plug on the surface was created between 2,000 and 3,000 feet below the earth’s surface.
Besides its unusual size as a volcanic plug, Ship Rock is also famed for several rock dikes that radiate out from the main formation. The dikes were created when magma filled up cracks during volcanic activity and then cooled and hardened which formed the long distinctive rock walls. Just as with Ship Rock itself, eons of erosion has removed the softer materials and left these iconic structures behind. Three main dikes extend out from the main formation; one each to the west, northeast, and southeast.
The gaps in the dike intrigued us and so we walked up to them to take a look. After struggling to help (actually mostly lift) my delicate little lightweight flower (Not!) to a spot where she could make it the rest of the way up to an opening I stopped to suck some air and take a well-deserved break. Unless you own a Toy Breed “She Ain’t Heavy, She’s My Dog” is a real inaccurate saying let me tell you. Manual labor over for the moment I climbed back down a bit to take a few pictures. I hoped we wouldn’t, in those few minutes, be stricken with an earthquake or other catastrophic geologic shift and have that gap suddenly become not a gap and leave me with a small, flat, dog pancake mess. An active imagination is not always a good thing.
Curiosity now indulged I carefully helped my fat, snorting, less-than-thrilled pig-dog back down from her precarious perch and we walked over to another spot for a few last photos of this spectacular area.
As happens a little too often during our adventures efficiency sometimes takes a back seat to the thrill of the chase as it did for us in this case. This really was out of the way from the path we were taking but, now that we had made it here and taken this good hard look we are very glad that we made the effort. This is a gorgeous area in a stunning landscape that carries with it enough geologic, mythical and historical background to capture the interest(s) of nearly anyone. If you ever find yourself in the Northwest corner of New Mexico keep your eyes peeled and you will almost definitely see this iconic mountain reaching towards the sky. Once you do you can imagine the huge bird with the Navajo on its back or the volcano belching gouts of lava around the area, whichever suits your fancy.