Shiprock Pinnacle, New Mexico

Ever since I saw Mitch Dobrowner’s “Shiprock Storm” photograph, this astonishing landmark in north-western New Mexico’s San Juan County has had a somewhat mythical draw on me. It is an ancient lava plug and lies pretty much in the middle of nowhere – the area is only very sparsely populated. The nearest town, a little less than 20 miles away, is named “Shiprock” as well – to avoid confusion, the rock itself is sometimes also referred to as Shiprock Pinnacle. It was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1975, and our September 2018 road trip would finally bring us to this place.

I had planned our drive from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona so that we would arrive at the towering Shiprock formation in the afternoon, with enough time to make photos – hopefully in pleasant light and with some “cloud garnishing” in the sky. We drove on Indian Service/Navajo Route 13, through red rock formations near Lukachukai in Arizona first, and then traversed the forested ridge of the Chuska Mountains on this road, which crests at Buffalo Pass. Where the trees opened up and allowed a view across the high desert plain, we could see the ancient lava plug in all of its glory:

In the photo you can see the enormous lava flows that radiate outward into the plain from Shiprock. The rock’s Navajo name Tsé Bitʼaʼí (Wikipedia) became clear to us at that moment – it translates to “rock with wings”, and the wings are of course the lava flows. Shiprock itself already is astonishing, jutting out from the high desert plain like a cathedral of volcanic rock. But the lava flows take it completely over the top. The geological history right in front of your eyes, revealed by millennia of erosion, the sheer length and shape of these “wings” as they stretch out into the plain – the combination is mind-blowing, humbling, awe-inspiring. It is hard for us humans to fathom the forces and time spans that are on display here.

The question was of course… how do you photograph this surreal thing? The lava flows stretch out really, really far, so an ultra-wide panorama was the obvious answer. We turned north onto a dirt road just a little bit west of Shiprock, which provided the best angle, and of course light at that time of the day (note to self: find a better, technical solution to display panoramas more adequately).

The way light and cloud shadows played on the rock was really nice at this location, so I switched to my infrared camera:

We continued a little bit further east on BIA-13. Just past the southern lava flow “wing”, a dirt road leads directly towards Shiprock. We were glad that we had dry weather, otherwise the road would probably have been impassable for our 2WD vehicle. In the afternoon, this was clearly a less favorable angle for photos though. I tried my luck with a long exposure, hoping to render the clouds into blurred streaks, but they were relatively slow moving and even a four minute exposure wouldn’t render them the way I would have liked.

On the map, it looked like the dirt road would lead further north, past Shiprock, and eventually reach a paved road, so I decided to be a little bit adventurous and see if that would save us some time, instead of backtracking to BIA-13. I guess it really didn’t :) but as we drove and got further away from Shiprock, it became more backlit, and its stark and foreboding south-east facing face and shape seemed like worthy of stopping and making “just one more” photo…

After some unexpected twists and turns and ups and downs of the dirt road, we did find pavement again at last and reached Route 64 soon, still a little bit west of the town of Shiprock. We proceeded east to Farmington, where we had booked a room at a cozy bed & breakfast for the night. From there, we would head south the next morning, to the fabulous Bisti Badlands.

This article was published on January 25th, 2020 and dated back to the time when the photos were actually made, in order to have a chronological travelog from our trip.

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11 thoughts on “Shiprock Pinnacle, New Mexico”

  1. Another very interesting place you have introduced me to. Beautiful images! I particularly like the infrared one.

      • Count me in on the IR one also, though it doesn’t have that typical “IR look”. I guess for for lack of foliage. Very interesting place.

        • Yes indeed, it was mostly dry grass and low-growing shrubs all around – not much that would render in bright tones in IR. I primarily chose IR to be able to get a naturally darker tone in the sky, which worked well. I guess a “red filter” style process of a color photo would have resulted in something similar here.

  2. Wow. I need to return and get something better than the snapshots I ended up with. That IR image is beautiful and I doubt I would have thought to try IR so I’m glad you did and shared it with us. It must have been Buffalo Pass I approached Shiprock on because I have a strong recollection of seeing multiple pinnacles like that on my way to the target pinnacle. Nothing with this light though. It’s an excellent write-up on this section of the trip. Yeah, I wanna go back.

  3. Woooow, diese IR-Aufnahme ist gewaltig schön. Aber auch das allererste hier gepostete Photo ist wunderschön. Bei moderner Malerei frage ich mich immer: Wird mir bald langweilig, wenn ich das Bild anschaue oder bleibt es spannend. Dieses Bild wird nicht langweilig und ist ein richtiges Alex-Photo. Danke!

  4. I think your first photo communicates the sense of wonder you felt approaching this rock – it has a fairy-tale quality. The infrared version is completely different and for me, just as appealing – so much drama but still essentially quiet.
    “Just one more” – of course. That’s why we are lucky to live and travel with patient spouses.
    Thank you for including the Navajo name – I often prefer indigenous names, especially when the European name is just after a person. This rock can be construed as a shipwreck and that’s a fun idea but again, rock with wings wins. :-)

    • I’m okay with Shiprock – it is certainly a more positive association than Death Valley which should be called Timbisha; I read about it yesterday in a New Yorker article from 2016). Winged Rock is quite an astonishing name though, when you consider that you can REALLY only see them as wings in aerial photos!


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