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  • Writer's pictureDan Wagner

Explore New Mexico's Ship Rock: The Legend Of Tse' Bit'ai


Just outside of the tiny town of Shiprock in the far northwest reaches of New Mexico rests one of the Southwest's more incredible hidden gems, Ship Rock. Known to the Navajo as Tse' Bit'ai, the massive 1,583' tall and nearly mile in circumference volcanic plug completely dominates the surrounding landscape. Its three dikes tower more than fifty feet high and radiate more than three miles from its base. It's so large that it can be seen from more than forty miles away.


Geology of Ship Rock

The geology of Ship Rock is fascinating. Around 20- 30 million years ago the creation of a volcano began to shape more than 2,500' below the Earth's surface. Over time the volcano erupted and when its magma cooled it formed a plug or volcanic neck buried well underground, similar in concept to when glue hardens inside the neck of a bottle of glue. After millions of years of erosion to the exterior of the volcano we're left with what we see today.


The Navajo refer to the peak as Tse' Bit'ai which translated means "winged rock" or "rock with wings". Legend tells of a great bird that carried the ancient Navajo to safety from an invading tribe, eventually landing in the desert area where today's Ship Rock is. After landing, the bird was attacked by a dragon-like monster who in turn was killed by a man. The wounded bird, sitting with its wings folded at its side, was then turned to stone as a reminder to all of its sacrifice. Today, the Navajo Nation governs the formation and regards it as a sacred place.


To reach the base of Ship Rock punch in GPS coordinates 36.639685, -108.825728 as your starting point. Google Maps has this listed as Shiprock Volcanic Wall. Here you'll find a cattle guard and a dirt road running parallel to one of the volcanic dikes. Some maps list this dirt road as Indian Serve Route 5110, but it's barely a road. Follow the rough road for a little more than three miles to reach the base. Ship Rock will be directly in front of you the entire time.


Ship Rock New Mexico

There are several spots where the road seems to disappear, so if you find yourself in that situation just continue towards the formation until the road reappears. Pretty simple, but the road is meant for four-wheel drive vehicles. Sedans will not make it. There's supposedly another way to get to it from the north, but we failed to find the way in the labyrinth of service roads out that way.


My father and I camped overnight about a mile from the base in the summer of 2019. It was incredibly quiet and we didn't see another person the entire time we were there. Gorgeous sunset and the night sky was incredible. Definitely a great spot for astrophotography if that's your thing. There aren't any hiking trails that we came across, but you can definitely walk around Ship Rock if you'd like. Just know that climbing the formation is prohibited.


Ship Rock New Mexico

If you're planning a visit to the Four Corners Region, Mesa Verde National Park, Bisti Badlands, or Canyon de Chelly National Monument you won't be terribly far from Ship Rock. Give it some consideration. You won't be disappointed.


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