About 27 million years ago, the Four Corners region (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico converge), was on fire. Over 80 volcanoes were active in what geologists call the Navajo volcanic field. Most of these volcanoes were violent. As their superheated magma rose to the surface of the Earth, it came into contact with groundwater, touching off massive steam explosions, which carved out craters as deep as 3,300 feet.
But most of those craters no longer exist. Erosion and eolian winds, over millions of years have washed and blown away the surrounding soil. And as the soil departed, what remained were giant, excavated sculptures. These were the craggy, rough-scaled necks of the now extinct volcanoes.
The most famous volcano to stick its neck out is located in Northwestern New Mexico. The Navajo Indian tribe has known about it for centuries, but it was discovered by Americans in the 1800s. The Navajo name for the rock is Tse-Bit-a-i, which means “winged rock.” This refers to the legend of a great bird that brought the Navajo people to this region from the north. It’s an apt name, as the rock does seem to resemble a giant wing.
In 1860, an American first named this massive stone, “The Needle,” after its topmost pinnacle. But sometime during the 1870s this name was changed to Shiprock, due to its resemblance to a huge clipper ship. That name has stuck, at least for us palefaces and other non-Navajos.
The tip-top of Shiprock peaks at 7,177 feet above sea level. But this inselberg erupts from a 5,594 foot base, giving it a prominence of 1,583 feet above the high-desert floor. This makes it nearly twice the height of Devil’s Tower (another volcanic neck) in Wyoming. And unlike Devil’s Tower, it’s surrounded by a vast, flat plain. As a result it is very conspicuous from a distance, just like a tall ship on the horizon, while viewed from the shore.
While hiking in Mesa Verde National Park, we could clearly see Shiprock 46 miles away, floating as if on a great sea, through the shimmering desert haze. And while motoring across the Colorado Plateau, near the Colorado/Utah border, we detected the top mast of Shiprock bobbing up over the horizon, 47 miles to the south, like a distant schooner sailing into view. And while cruising over the Four Corners area in an airliner, I’ve descried the distinct shape of Shiprock from 30,000 feet.
Navajos regard Shiprock as sacred, and feel nervous about any human approaching it. Especially non-tribal members. And the idea of climbing it is repugnant to them. But this has not stopped those who have not shared the Navajoan religious view. Mountain climbers took a fancy to Shiprock. During the 1920s and 30s, they assessed it as being a climb of considerable technical difficulty, and a great unsolved problem that was begging to be unriddled.
Members of the Sierra Club finally solved it. A group of more than four became the first to successfully ascend Shiprock, in 1939. But it was a tough climb, and this was the first climb in the United States to use expansion bolts for protection.
In March 1970, three climbers sustained serious injuries while attempting to scale Shiprock. After this, the Navajo Nation took action. They banned any and all rock climbing not only on Shiprock, but anywhere else on their vast reservation. This includes the iconic monoliths, spires, and other famous rock formations found in nearby Monument Valley. They announced that the ban was “absolute, final, and unconditional,” and applied to both Navajo and non-Navajo alike.
Still, rock climbers make their attempts, while trying to evade tribal police. But the Navajos consider all their monuments to be sacred, and strictly enforce this ban.
My brother and sister-in-law went on a vacation to Mesa Verde National Park, with my wife and me. After noticing Shiprock from Park Point Overlook, 46 miles away, we decided we wanted to get a close view of this massif. So we piled into my brother’s motor home and headed south on Highway 491. (At one time this was called Highway 666, but superstitious Christians lobbied to have the number changed.)
We crossed the New Mexico border and made it to a point on our erstwhile apocalyptic highway, where we were just seven miles away from this towering monolith. Here, we turned down Indian Service Route 13, and proceeded several miles, until we reached a dirt road, where we could pull off the pavement. On this spot, our vantage was about 3.5 miles from this geological wonder. We could have driven closer, down the dirt road, but out of respect for the Indians, and not wanting to be run off by tribal police, this was as close as our trembling hearts dared to approach their supernatural volcano.
We humans are fascinated by rocks like this, that jut out of the landscape so abruptly. And I can imagine Indians, hundreds of years ago, navigating across the broad expanse of their desert land, utilizing Shiprock as a navigational landmark. Hell, it can be easily seen from dozens of miles away, so why not navigate by it? I think it’s safe to assume that this was their ancient GPS.
It seems that for the Navajo, Shiprock has served as a guide. It has saved them from wandering too far abroad, into enemy territory. It has beckoned them home from their peregrinations. It has reconnected them with family and friends. And for these reasons, it is no wonder they consider this rock to be so sacred.
This concludes my series about Mesa Verde National Park, and the surrounding Four Corners region. I hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading!