Category: Travel

Mesa Verde, Part 7: Shiprock

This is Part 7 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. To read the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!


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.

Shiprock, or Tse-Bit-a-i.

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.

Shiprock is surrounded by a sea of flat desert. The dark line to the left of Shiprock, in this photo, is an ancient volcanic dike.

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.

Shiprock from 46 miles away, at Park Point Overlook, in Mesa Verde National Park.

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.

The formidable aiguilles of Shiprock have been tempting climbers for at least a century.

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.

Shiprock in the distance, with Shiprock Dike to the left. I suppose we could have ventured down the scant dirt road you see in the foreground, to get a closer look at this giant inselberg. But we thought we spotted a war party planning an ambush, so we drove our wagon no further.

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!

This is the largest of three volcanic dikes that radiate out from Shiprock, like the spokes of the Mercedes-Benz logo. It’s hard to believe these rock walls are 27 million years old.


Mesa Verde, Part 6: Hovenweep

This is Part 6 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. To read the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!


Most Ancestral Puebloans in the Mesa Verde area did not live within the boundaries of present-day Mesa Verde National Park. Rather, they lived in the surrounding area of what is now known as the Four Corners region, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico come together and kiss at a singular point.

What distinguished those who lived on what is now the national park, is the tight concentration of hundreds of cliff dwellings. In the rest of the community, there weren’t as many of these precariously perched pueblos.

But the shortage of good places for cliff dwellings didn’t stop them. Hell, these Indians erected structures all over the place. Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is located about a dozen miles northwest of Mesa Verde National Park, and it’s covered by the ruins of thousands of structures constructed by the Ancestral Puebloans. There are more than 8,300 recorded sites, containing villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, petroglyphs, sweat lodges, and so forth. But there are many more unrecorded sites, with an estimate of up to 30,000 total sites at this monument.

Canyons of the Ancients National Monument was established by President Bill Clinton in the year 2000. But prior to that, a much smaller national monument was created in this area, in 1923, by President Warren G. Harding. It’s called Hovenweep National Monument.

A wall of Rimrock House, at Hovenweep National Monument. Note the small rocks shoved into the adobe mortar. This helped reinforce the mortar, and at the same time, pushed the mortar deeper between the sandstone layers.

Hovenweep consists of six non-contiguous areas where a half-dozen Ancestral Puebloan villages once thrived. You have to have a high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle to reach five of the sites. But you can easily drive to the site known as the Square Tower Group, using any kind of vehicle, as it’s all paved road. This was the group we visited, in my brother’s motor home.

The Square Tower, that distinguishes the Square Tower Group. On the canyon rim above it is a ruin known as Hovenweep House. Note the blue-shirted national park worker sitting at the right of Hovenweep House, in this photo. He was erecting a scaffolding, apparently for some sort of maintenance work.

Hovenweep is a Ute/Paiute word, meaning “deserted valley.” And it was deserted alright. The inhabitants abandoned this area about the same time that Mesa Verde was deserted in the late 13th century. And about the same time Mesa Verde exploded in population, around 80 years before it was deserted, so did the Hovenweep area. The population ballooned, due to immigrants from the Chaco Canyon region of New Mexico.

This population explosion expanded the labor force and made possible the great structures found at Hovenweep National Monument. Archaeologists consider the Hovenweep preserves to be the finest examples of Ancestral Puebloan masonry found anywhere. Here they constructed two and three-story sandstone and adobe buildings perched as if teetering, along and over the edges of canyon cliffs.

The Twin Towers at Hovenweep. They appear to have once been much taller, which leaves me wondering if the Indians had airplanes 800 years ago.

In addition, tall, stone towers were built upon lone boulders and ledges within the canyons. Great, castle-like structures were erected along canyon rims, where a careless exit out a doorway could send an Indian tumbling a hundred feet below. When observing these ruins, one thing is certain. The Ancestral Puebloans harbored no fear of heights.

Hovenweep Castle. Looks somewhat similar to the old castles constructed in Europe.

The walls of the structures at the Square Tower Group, where I hiked with my brother, were two and three layers thick, by our observation. This probably accounts for how well-preserved these ruins are. The walls are so strong, they do not decay and fall apart easily, even while exposed to the full elements of the sun, wind, storms, and freezing weather.

Unit Type House. This ruin at Hovenweep is considered by archaeologists to be a perfect example of the typical building plan of the Ancestral Puebloans. It contains a few living and storage rooms, and one kiva. Two openings in a wall were possibly used to mark summer and winter solstices. It was possibly the home to a family or a clan.

The ruins at Hovenweep are a testament to the engineering genius of the Ancestral Puebloans. We were in awe while touring these structures, and left with a feeling of great respect for the people who settled, built, and thrived in this community.

In our next and final post, we’re taking a trip to a landmark in the Four Corners area, that has probably been used by Indians for thousands of years, as a navigation guide.

Eroded Boulder House. This dwelling at Hovenweep exploited an unusual rock formation, where erosion cavitated a boulder, leaving an overhang. The Puebloans simply had to build walls, without any need to construct a roof.


Mesa Verde, Part 5: Rediscovery

This is Part 5 of a 7-part series about Mesa Verde National Park. To read the previous installation, CLICK THIS LINK. For the next installation, CLICK THIS LINK. To start at the beginning, CLICK THIS LINK. Thanks for reading!


The Ancestral Puebloans never returned to Mesa Verde after their hasty exodus in the late 1200’s. For centuries, their cliff dwellings stood unoccupied. The Ute Indian tribe moved into the area and discovered the dwellings, but they regarded them as haunted, and stayed away from them.

For hundreds of years, ruins like this, at Long House, remained mostly undisturbed by humans.

In 1776, two Spanish explorers named Francisco Dominguez and Silvestre Velez de Escalante, traveled through this green table top area, and appropriately dubbed it “Mesa Verde.” But the cliff dwellings were so well hidden, they were not spotted by these men.

The first European to have discovered the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde was likely a trapper named John Moss who, in 1873, described a cliff dwelling in his journal.

Several mesas at Mesa Verde. The furthest is known as Point Lookout, and is easy to spot from Highway 160, below. My brother and I hiked to the top, and enjoyed a commanding view.

Soon after, word began to spread. A curious journalist named Virginia McClurg, who wrote for the New York Daily Graphic, decided to visit the area in 1882 and 1885. During these journeys, she discovered three cliff dwellings that we now know as Echo Cliff House, Three Tier House, and Balcony House.

Around this same time, a family of cattle ranchers named the Wetherills obtained permission from the Ute Indians to winter their cattle on the Ute reservation. The Utes told them about a special cliff dwelling, and this led to the discovery of the spectacular Cliff Palace. Cliff Palace is considered to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.

Cliff Palace. This cliff dwelling contains 23 kivas, 150 rooms, and had a population of about 100 people. The layout of the structure suggests it may have been an important political center that governed surrounding communities.

The Wetherill’s explored Cliff Palace and a few other cliff dwellings, and collected some of the many artifacts that were left behind by the Ancestral Puebloans. Then they hosted a Swedish archaeologist on their ranch, named Gustaf Nordenskiold. He introduced scientific methods to artifact collection. But he also shipped many of the artifacts he collected, to Sweden. Today, they are a long way from home, lost to America, and are currently housed at the National Museum of Finland.

Cliff Palace has a much lower-than-average number of rooms to kivas, at about 6.5-to-1. The average ratio for communities was 12-to-1. This suggests it was frequently used as a meeting place for various clan leaders in the local area.

This loss of such national treasures got Americans a little concerned. A hue and cry was raised after Nordenskiold’s misappropriation, to protect Mesa Verde and its resources. Politicians responded and in 1889, Goodman Point Pueblo became the first pre-Columbian archaeological site in the Mesa Verde region to gain federal protection.

A mural, painted by the Puebloans in the 13th century, found in a tower at Cliff Palace.

But all the other sites at Mesa Verde remained unprotected. During the 1890s, hordes of souvenir hunters descended upon the area. They ravaged Cliff Palace, and other cliff dwellings. They broke open walls to allow light into dimly lit rooms. They removed roof beams, to burn as firewood, which destroyed the roofs of the ancient buildings. And they carted off tons of artifacts, which they sold to museums and private collections throughout the world.

This left preservationists howling. Virginia McClurg, the journalist from the New York Daily Graphic, began lobbying Denver to preserve the area as a state park. She was soon joined by another woman named Lucy Peabody, except that Lucy lobbied Washington, DC, to create a National Park out of Mesa Verde.

A kiva at Coyote Village, in Far View Sites, Mesa Verde. This is the only kiva I saw that had wooden rails. I have no idea what purpose they served.

Peabody prevailed in 1906, when Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park. But because of the efforts of both of these women, Mesa Verde has sometimes been dubbed the “Women’s Park.”

Their efforts also led to the passage of the Federal Antiquities Act of 1906. This law gives the president the authority to create national monuments from federal lands, by presidential proclamation, in order to protect significant natural, cultural, or scientific features. Since its passage, the Antiquities Act has been used more than a hundred times, by most presidents, to create national monuments throughout the United States. So perhaps all of our national monuments should be called, “Women’s Monuments.”

Today, Mesa Verde National Park covers 82 square miles of ancient antiquity, including about 5,000 archaeological sites, and more than 600 cliff dwellings. It receives about 500,000 visitors per year, which pales in comparison to the millions of visitors received by some of our other, better known parks, such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. Admittedly, it is not one of our most popular national parks. But in my opinion it is one of our most interesting.

In our next post, we’ll be leaving Mesa Verde to visit one of its neighbors. It’s a national monument, where other Ancestral Puebloans lived and thrived.

My brother surveying the view from the top of Point Lookout at Mesa Verde.


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