This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series New Mexico


Today we travel to the northwest section of New Mexico, just southeast of the Four Corners, to visit a unique form that rises from the desert.

Topping at 7,177 feet and rising 1,583 above the surrounding plain is the gargantuan Shiprock.

Shiprock - photo by Bowie Snodgrass
Shiprock's location in New Mexico - Map by SANtosito

This formation is a monadnock or an inselberg, which is an isolated stone that juts sharply above a level or gently sloping surrounding plain. Shiprock is a striking example of a volcanic neck or a volcanic plug (Devils Tower might be another neck specimen). When magma hardens within a vent (neck) of an active volcano, these plugs can form. Radiometric dating suggests Shiprock formed somewhere in the range of 27 million years ago. Geologists believe the structure likely formed 2,500–3,000 feet below the surface of the planet. Millions of years of erosion slowly whittled away the surrounding materials until Shiprock’s resistant core remained solitary.  This configuration is part of the Navajo volcanic field, which spills across the Four Corners region. More than 80 volcanoes once lit up this portion of the Colorado Plateau.

American explorers first called the formation “The Needle,” but by the 1870s it had garnered the nautical nomenclature thanks to its resemblance to a 19th-century clipper.

In 1939, a group of Sierra Club members made the first ascent of the tower. This jaunt was significant for several reasons. The steep crag beckoned the country’s best climbers but remained unsolvable through the 1920s and most of the 30s. The successful climb was the first in the United States to employ expansion bolts for protection. The renowned rock climbing book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America profiled the first route.

A clipper from the 1860s - State Library of Victoria
Volcanic neck or clipper sailing on the desert? - photo by PLBechly
Map of Navajo Volcanic Field - graphic by Maximilian Dörrbecker

Shiprock rests within the Navajo Nation.

In the native tongue, its name is Tsé Bitʼaʼí, which means “winged rock” or “rock with wings.” 

Shiprock retains a centrality to spirituality and religion to the Navajo. The rock was once a massive bird that transported the Ancient Navajo from their previous lands to this region. When it landed, the avian turned to stone. For a while, the Navajo lived on the broad peaks, going down only to plant crops and gather water. One day, lightning ravaged parts of the peaks, erasing the trails down. The insurmountable cliffs that remained stranded many on top, where they starved.

The Navajo banned the presence of the living on the top, lest someone stirs up the chį́įdii – ghosts – who inhabit the apex.

Aerial view of Shiprock - photographer unknown
Photo by John Lupu

Further legend groups a set of mountains into a sort of terrestrial constellation, of which Shiprock is the bow or pouch. A large mythological figure – Goods of Value Mountain – is comprised of a body (Chuska Mountains), a head (Chuska Peak), legs (Carrizo Mountains), and feet (Beautiful Mountain).

Bird Monsters, who fed on human flesh, once lived atop Shiprock. Monster Slayer came to battle them. His victory transformed them into an owl and an eagle.

Shiprock features in multiple sacred Navajo chants and ceremonies.

Shiprock is sacrosanct to the Navajo, thus they ban climbing. Since 1970, to do so has been illegal. That year, three climbers nearly died at Shiprock, prompting a prohibition across the entirety of the Navajo Nation. Still, renegade climbers attempt to scale the peaks. 

Night sky over Shiprock - photo by Jonn Daniel
The Moon over Shiprock - photo by Nicholas Lyle

The grandeur with which Shiprock rises above its setting makes it easy to see how such a place would become a significant location for a group.

The sharp jags are a stark reminder that time and geology are master sculptors; they crafted a structure that should be hallowed by us all.

Further Reading and Exploration

Shiprock Peak – Discover Navajo

The Legend Behind New Mexico’s Sacred Navajo Peak, Shiprock – Travel Awaits

Ship Rock, New Mexico: The vent of a violent volcanic eruption – Continental Field Guide

Ship Rock – National Natural Landmarks – National Park Service

Shiprock Formation, New Mexico – NASA Earth Observatory

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