White House to Ship Rock (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 19 Oct 2004

White House to Ship Rock

The weather wasn't really much better this morning, but we decided to hike the White House trail down into the canyon anyway.

Good move! It's a beautiful trail which definitely belongs on a top-ten list of park trails (along with trails such as Hummocks at Mount St. Helens). And as a bonus, it's not even particularly strenuous -- the canyon is only 600 feet deep at that point, and the trail is fairly gradual. It descends from the cross-bedded riverine rock of the Shinarump member of the Chinle formation, down into the thick de Chelly sandstone, where it winds through little tunnels and around switchbacks, past shrieking squirrels and soaring ravens, giving ever-changing views of the canyon floor.

At the bottom, the trail skirts a Navajo ranch (no photography please) then follows the stream bed, lined with cottonwoods in glorious fall foliage, to the eponymous ruin, surrounded by fences to keep out vandals and well-meaning but overly enthusiastic tourists. Nearby, an unattended horse grazed, and a local rancher followed his sheep herd as they browsed along the riverbed.

Impressive ruins. Lovely trail. Go see it.

After climbing back up to the trailhead, we went off to explore the north rim (which is technically a different canyon, del Muerto rather than de Chelly). The north rim viewpoints are sparse, but well chosen; they show more ruins, from shorter distances, than the south rim viewpoints.

After leaving the park, we debated whether to go south to Gallup, or north to Shiprock and Farmington. Shiprock won. But after turning onto highway 13 to cross the Chuska mountains, we questioned the choice. Large signs warned of upcoming highway construction, road closure, and seasonal (winter) road closures over Buffalo Pass. This not being winter yet, we proceeded with trepidation. Our fears (and the warning signs) were unfounded: although the road is narrow and twisty, the pavement is excellent and the views outstanding.

Just past the summit, we got our first view of the immensity of northwestern New Mexico spread out before us -- and immediately realized that Shiprock was not what we had seen yesterday from Spider Rock overlook. Shiprock is unmistakable and striking. It sails on an immense flat plain, tossed on waves of sage, trailing a wake of basalt behind it. It dominates the landscape for many miles in any direction.

Shiprock is a giant volcanic neck: lava which sat in the neck of a volcano, and hardened there. Later, the volcano and its surroundings eroded away, leaving only the neck. But there's more: in addition to the neck, Shiprock's lava also squeezed through a dike, a vertical seam stretching for many miles on either side of the volcano. After the surroundings eroded, what was left was an immense wall of lava, only a few feet thick but some fifty feet high and miles long.

The triple-A map showed a dirt road just east of where the highway crosses the dike, leading up alongside the rock. Sure enough, the promised road appeared just where the map said it would. Woohoo! It turned out to be an unmaintained jeep trail, a nice challenge for our little RAV4 (which had no trouble with it). The road parallels the dike up to the neck itself, giving wonderful views from any angle. Unfortunately the area right next to the neck is spoiled by grafiti, but the rest of the area is fabulous.

We pulled into Farmington later than expected, after stopping to help a Navajo family whose truck had broken down. Unfortunately we didn't have any mechanical insights they hadn't already tried, but we gave one to the nearest store to call for backup. I hope everything worked out all right.

Farmington is the Big Gorilla of the four corners area, by far the biggest town around. Happily for us, it's also fairly well wired, and nearly every motel sports wi-fi that actually works (the only catch being that they fill up surprisingly early on weeknights; we're still not sure why). It's a deceptively large town, with a small college and the usual assortment of restaurants and businesses, several rivers, and plenty of farmland on the outskirts, befitting its name.

Photos of de Chelly and Shiprock.

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[ 22:29 Oct 19, 2004    More travel/anasazi | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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