The great bird alit in the desert and the Navajo found their new home...
In Navajo legend, Ship Rock is this great bird. Certainly it has the appearance of a bird with partially folded wings when viewed from the southwest.
Ship Rock [two words, unlike the nearby town] is a famous landmark in far northwestern New Mexico. It is an old breccia and basalt plug situated at the north end of an old volcanic rift. The rift is plainly visible as a knife-edged eroded dike slicing through the desert in a north-south direction. The dike neatly separates two ranchlands like a huge wall. There is nothing remaining of the former vent but the exfoliated plug and dike and a few other volcanic outcrops in the region. The monument is quite the spectacle to view in person--especially up close. But for those who haven't had the pleasure, you can live vicariously here.
I was actually quite surprised there wasn't already a mountain page for this monument. So I had to break my own rule and make a page for a peak I haven't summited. Maybe one day but right now I think it is more than I can handle.
The Navajo name for Ship Rock is Tse Bitai ("winged rock").
Ship Rock is located 10 miles southwest of the city of Shiprock, New Mexico. The city and rock are both within the Navajo Reservation. There are a myriad of jeep roads in and around Ship Rock, but the road in the best condition is shown as BIA-5010. (BIA = Bureau of Indian Affairs.) BIA-5010 cuts off of BIA-13 on the immediate east side of the dike 3.4 miles south of Ship Rock. There are three approaches to BIA-13.
Approach 1: From the city of Shiprock
From the intersection of US-64 and US-491(formerly US-666 but finally changed for obvious reasons in June 2002), drive south for 6 miles to Shiprock Airstrip. Turn right (west) onto BIA-13. In 2 miles, the road goes past a little hump called Cactus Peak on the right. You will begin to see the dike running perpendicular to your direction of travel about 5 miles away. Continue west on BIA-13 for 7.5 miles from US-491. At 7.5 miles you will be at the dike. A break in the fence on the east side of the dike allows access to the ranchland east of the dike. A dirt road follows the dike. This is BIA-5010. Follow it to Ship Rock (some deep ruts). There is a maze of spur roads round the monument but the terrain is generally open (might be ugly if it's raining) so routefinding is a no-brainer.
Approach 2: From the city of Gallup, New Mexico
From I-40 exit 20, drive US-491 85.5 miles north to Shiprock Airstrip. Turn left (west) onto BIA-13, continue as per Approach 1.
Approach 3: From the city of Chinle, Arizona
This is the way I went. It is very scenic going over the Chuska Mountains. Plus, you can enjoy Canyon de Chelly National Monument while in Chinle. From the east end of Chinle just inside the National Monument, take the Monument's north canyon road IR-64 for 26 miles to the junction with IR-12 just past Tsaile Lake. Turn left (north) on IR-12 and take it 9.5 miles to Lukachukai Airstrip. Turn right on IR-13 at the north end of the airstrip. In 24 miles, IR-13 reaches the New Mexico border just east of the town of Red Rock, at which time it becomes BIA-13. Halfway there, though, IR-13 passes over the beautiful Chuska Mountains at 8,400-ft Buffalo Pass. From the pass it may be possible to see Ship Rock 23 miles to the northeast. On the west side of the pass, the road travels past a vast fresco of outstanding red limestone cliffs. The last few miles up to the pass are very steep but the road is at least paved (they were repaving it when I drove through there in July 2003). From the border, drive BIA-13 13.2 miles to the dike (you will see it from many miles away as you approach it) then continue as per Approach 1.
When I got to the base of Ship Rock there was a Navajo guide there with his clientele. I asked him if anyone had been up to the summit of Ship Rock and he said "no, not to the highest point." This seemed at odds to a lot of what I had heard. Most notably, I remember reading a story about Pacific Northwest climbing legend Fred Beckey doing the ascent in stifling conditions. They were evidently quite dehydrated by the end of the climb. So when I got home, I did some research and found out that over 400 parties have summited the monument. The first ascent was in 1939. It has even been climbed solo (the first time in 1966). The route is quite tortuous, or so I've read, so rather than detail it on my own knowing full well I haven't done it, I shall direct you to this trip report. The route requires an indirect line on often loose rock. There are many pitches up and even one rappel necessary for the ascent (to get from one gully to the next). The hardest three pitches are supposedly rated 5.9.
Ship Rock is on Navajo land. The west side of the monument is private land. Some parties have tried to conceal their cars but there's not much out there to hide them behind. It is uncertain as to the permit requirements. Do the locals frown upon climbers or not? I've read conflicting reports on that. On my travels to the base of the monument, I encountered nary a keep out sign and the Navajo guide did not tell me I was trespassing. You can essentially drive all around the monument on dirt roads.
This is desert country. Though Ship Rock and the immediate surrounding countryside is over 5,000 feet above sea level, it still gets hot in the summer. Thus, summer climbs should be avoided unless you desire to be fried into human bacon. On the other hand, it can be quite cold in winter. Ergo, the best times to make an assault to the head of the great bird would be autumn or spring.
The climb can be done in a day, so hauling camping gear is not necessary unless you're extremely slow. There aren't many flat spots on the monument anyway, so you would need a porta-ledge. You could car-camp at the foot of Ship Rock, but don't say I told you you could do it. You may be awakened in the night by joyriding locals.