It soars 1,700’ above the vast desert floor. Folks report seeing it on a clear day from 50 miles away. Over the years it captured the imagination of Native Americans as well as settlers and explorers.
Today Ship Rock garners the interest of the Navajo people as well as geologists, tourists and photographers like Dad and me. During our wanderings across the Southwest, we hoped to catch a dramatic sunset photo of this iconic rock found in San Juan County, New Mexico.
We easily found Ship Rock, after an hour’s drive from our base in Farmington. I knew explorers christened the formation “Ship Rock” in the 1870s because they thought it looked very much like a clipper ship.
Starring at the rock from our spot along the highway, we could kind of see the clipper ship. The longer we stared at it, the more our imaginations created other possibilities, like a cathedral or a medieval castle on a mountain. We had plenty of time to ponder and nothing to distract us.
After all, it was the only thing for miles. That isolation made us wonder how this pile of rocks got here.
Geologists say volcanic activity created the ship-shaped rock about 30 million years ago. Actually volcanic activity created many of the delightful features of the Southwest like Sunset Crater, Picacho Peak, the Superstition Mountains and Petroglyphs National Monument.
Today’s Ship Rock started off as the neck of a volcano. Over time, the rock surrounding the neck eroded leaving the uniquely shaped pillar known as Shiprock, Shiprock Peak or Ship Rock (depending on which map you consult). Typically the plug or neck material resists erosion more than the surrounding rock. Thus only Ship Rock remains of a once large volcano.
Six dikes, or ridges, radiate outward from the neck. These formed when hot lava cooled in the long, narrow depressions. The earth’s surface once covered these ridges. Over time erosion exposed them.
The Navajo Nation
Perhaps even more interesting than the geology of Ship Rock are the legends surrounding the formation. The Navajo people believe the rock is sacred and call it Tse’ Bit’a’I or “the winged rock”.
Ship Rock lies at the northwestern edge of the Navajo Nation, a sprawling 27,000-acre chunk of land that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Harrison Lapahie, Jr., a Navajo Nation member, tells the well-known legend of Ship Rock:
“A long time ago the Diné (Navajo) were hard pressed by their enemies. One night their medicine men prayed for their deliverance, having their prayers heard by the Gods. They caused the ground to rise, lifting the Diné, and moved the ground like a great wave into the east away from their enemies. It settled where Shiprock Peak now stands. These Navajos then lived on the top of this new mountain, only coming down to plant their fields and to get water.
For some time all went well. Then one day during a storm, and while the men were working in the fields, the trail up the rock was split off by lightning and only a sheer cliff was left. The women, children, and old men on the top slowly starved to death, leaving their bodies to settle there.”
Thus the Navajo consider the peak sacred ground and prohibit any climbing of the rock for fear their dead will be disturbed.
The Navajo have many other traditions associated with Ship Rock. You can read more about the Navajo culture at Lapahie’s website
Legends aside, Dad and I had just one chance to photograph this unusual location. We’d kept our eyes peeled all afternoon, hoping for some monsoon storm activity to spice up our shot. But we were out of luck.
We pulled “Plan B”, a sunset photo, out of our back pockets. We left our hotel with extra time for navigating the roads around Ship Rock. We never know what surprises we’ll run into, especially the first time we visit a place.
We arrived well before sunset, set up and waited for the magic to happen. Occasionally a car whizzed down the highway with the driver honking at us. Otherwise we only heard the silence of the desert. We enjoyed a snack, fiddled with our gear and soaked up the solitude.
And then the moment we’d waited for happened. All of that planning and waiting for a five-minute span of great light. It was the stuff of legends.
If You Go
- Ship Rock is part of the Navajo Nation. Respect their laws and private property signs in your quest to shoot pictures. Climbing Ship Rock is illegal.
- Plan ahead as there are no services close to the rock. That includes bathrooms, food or gas.
- Cell phone service can be spotty depending on your carrier.
- The closest town with hotels is Farmington, not the town of Shiprock. It’s about an hour’s drive from Farmington to Ship Rock. Depending on the time of day, U.S. Highway 64 can be crowded. Plan accordingly.
- Sunrise and sunset make nice photos of Ship Rock. Monsoon storms create some of the most dramatic pictures, if you’re lucky enough to be there at the right time.
- You can shoot Ship Rock from a variety of locations. From the north you can see it along US Highway 64 or south of the town of Shiprock on US Highway 491. To reach the base of Ship Rock turn west off US Highway 491 onto Red Valley Road / Route 5, south of the formation. Route 5 actually passes through the south dike and connects with multiple dirt roads that will lead you to the base of Ship Rock. Keep in mind that these roads intersect private property.
- Take a variety of lenses. If you go to the base of Ship Rock you’ll want a wide angle. If you stay on one of the main roads anything from a 70-200mm lens will create a nice image.
- Don’t forget your tripod and cable release. Filters will also come in handy.