Four Corners National Parks
Ship Rock National Natural Landmark

Finding Ship Rock 

The guide books and trip reports agree that Ship Rock (Shiprock Peak) is on Navajo land 13 miles southwest of the town of Shiprock and six miles west of route 666 (aka the "Highway to Hell.") And since it stands 1,700 feet above the high desert floor and is visible for 40 miles, it shouldn't be too hard to find (see map).

Not so. We got local directions in the town of Shiprock. Then we drove until we found someone else of whom to ask directions. The we drove some more and asked directions.

The problem is that we could see Ship Rock but couldn't find a way to get within miles of it except up a private dirt road that in any event was quite unsuited for our sedan.

The turn-around is as far as we got and by the looks as far as most drivers go (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on image for enlargement)

Ship Rock and a "wing" from the southwest (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on image for enlargement)

An Extinct Volcano

While not intuitively obvious, Ship Rock is the towering remains of an ancient volcano that died 50 million years ago. Its interior core hardened into a roughly cylinder shaped, upright formation. Over eons, the cone-shaped volcano's softer outer rock wore away leaving the 1,700 foot high megalith we see today.

Technically, Ship Rock is "one of the best known and most spectacular diatremes in the United States," according to the US Geological Service,  

When it became inactive and its softer exterior wore away, the exhumed plug remained upright up in bold relief as an irregular, columnar structure.

Rock with Wings (Tse Bi dahi)

Ship Rock is a sacred object in Navajo religious beliefs. According to some renditions, it is the remains of the great bird of deliverance.  

According to the Navajos, their ancestors were fleeing a warring tribe in the north. Their shaman prayed to the Great Spirit. At the last minute, the earth around them rose and became a great bird, which delivered them from their enemies to this land. Over time, the bird became what is now Tse Bi Dahi, the Rock with Wings.

In respect for their ancestors, the Navajo have close Ship Rock to the public.

This is a close up of a small section of the "wings" of the great bird of deliverance (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on image for enlargement)

It is not hard to imagine on this ancient volcano looking like a 19th century clipper ship with twin peaks looking like masts with huge sails (Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on image for enlargement)

The Ship of the Desert

Legend has it that early settlers thought Ship Rock floated on the desert at sunset like a sailing ship coursing an endless sea of shifting sand. 

They noticed what they took to be similarities between the rock and the Clipper sailing ships of the time.

Historically, the megalith was called the Needle by Captain J.F. McComb in 1860. A decade later the U.S. Geological Survey Maps show it as Ship Rock.



This huge volcanic rock was formed
in the Pliocene times over 3,000,000 year
ago. It rises 1700 feet above the sur-
rounding plain and is famed in the leg-
ends of the Navajo as "Sa-bit-tai-e" (the
Rock With Wings). They hold that
it was the great bird that brought them
from the north.

National Park Service: 
Ship Rock National Natural Landmark 

San Juan County - Ship Rock is an outstanding example of an exposed volcanic neck accompanied by radiating dikes; it towers 1,400 feet above the surrounding plain. Owner: Indian trust (Navajo Tribe)
May 1975

(Photo by Elizabeth VanderPutten, October 2000)
(Click on image for enlargement)

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National Natural Landmarks Program

The National Natural Landmarks Program recognizes and encourages the conservation of outstanding examples of our country's natural history. It is the only natural areas program of national scope that identifies and recognizes the best examples of biological and geological features in both public and private ownership. National Natural Landmarks (NNLs) are designated by the Secretary of the Interior, with the owner's concurrence. To date, fewer than 600 sites have been designated. The National Park Service administers the NNL Program, and if requested, assists NNL owners and managers with the conservation of these important sites.