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Navajo Nation, San Juan County, New Mexico

Shiprock by Paul Smithson Phillips


Shiprock is an isolated peak in the rugged Four Corners region of New Mexico. The stunning formation soars over 1,500 feet above the surrounding high-desert plain to a total elevation of 7,177 feet above sea level. It appears to have been shipwrecked there for an eternity by the ancient volcano from which it was forged.

The Navajo word for Shiprock is Tse’ Bit’ ai’, meaning the “rock with wings.” This type of isolated mountain is known as a monadnock, meaning a land formation that abruptly rises from the surrounding terrain. Shiprock lives true to its name and is visible for miles in any direction.

Approximately 12 miles south of the town of Shiprock, New Mexico, Shiprock can be reached on Navajo Route 5010, a rough dirt road heading north from Red Rock Highway. A high ground clearance vehicle is recommended. Alternatively, good views of the rock are possible from Navajo Route 13, a paved road, which can be accessed from U.S. Route 491.

Shiprock is on Navajo Nation land and is an essential part of Navajo history and religion. Legend says that it is the remains of the giant bird that carried the Navajo people out of the north into current day New Mexico. The area should be respected, so it’s important to stay on established roads.


The high desert is generally cold and windy during winter. Dressing warmly is critical. Wind is generally a photographer’s main nemesis on this vast, open plane. The weather is quite pleasant in late fall and early spring, while summer can be unbearably hot in this highly exposed environment. Summer monsoon season makes for the most interesting skies if you can handle the late-afternoon heat. Having your vehicle next to your shoot is excellent for a quick exit during a spectacular yet dangerous summer lightning storm.

Photo Experience

I’ve been back to this location on several occasions to photograph it. As usual, each time I was looking for the right light and hoped for a great sunset. As you approach Shiprock on the dirt road heading north, you’re flanked by a low-elevation ridgeline to your left. This ridgeline is one of the “wings” in Navajo legend about Shiprock. It’s highly visible from aerial and satellite images. The ridgeline heads north toward the rock formation’s peak. It’s here that I set up on the dirt road southeast of the mountain. This location gives a southwestern perspective of this stunning formation.

As the light in the late afternoon hits the southwestern side of the rock, the greater exposure draws the eyes toward the most dramatic section of cliff. The remaining ambient light keeps the eastern flank from being clipped off the left end of the histogram.

I used a telephoto lens to compress the image, which also allowed greater flexibility to compose the subject from that distance. In this case I used my Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS lens mounted on a Canon EOS 6D to do the job. Because I was plagued with a light variable breeze, I stabilized my tripod with rocks in a tripod hammock. I used mirror lockup with a two-second delay and remote control and waited for the breeze to ease up before I hit the remote.

Best Times

I shot this picture of Shiprock in winter. The winter’s more southerly sunset gave me a better southwestern exposure. Additionally, the short winter vegetation helps minimize any visible movement caused by wind. However, I’d recommend this area at any time of year. Dramatic sunsets in the skies of New Mexico and Arizona seem ever present at this confluence of impressive geologic features.

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