The Scenic Route To Shiprock
Sandstone spires, pine forests, and lava flows.
Most people traveling between Gallup and Shiprock take Highway 491, which is the most direct route, clocking in at about 90 minutes. However, if you have an extra ½ hour or so, there is a scenic route through the red rock cliffs and pine forests of the Chuska Mountains that is far more scenic.
Directions: Take Hwy 491 north to Yah-Ta-Hey. Catch Hwy 264 to Window Rock, Arizona. Head north on IR-12 in Window Rock. Follow IR-12 to Sheep Springs where it intersects with Hwy 491 again.
The Chuska Mountains are a range of volcanic mountains on the New Mexico/Arizona border, almost entirely within the Navajo Nation. Geologically, they are on the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau. The highest point is Roof Butte at 9,823 feet. Most of the range is within the Navajo Nation Forest, a verdant landscape of ponderosa pine, spruce, and fir woodlands. In fact, the Ancestral Puebloans relied on these forests for the timber used to build the Great Houses in Chaco Canyon. They would tote the logs over 50-miles on foot.
Geology of the Chuska Mountains
The high desert of the Colorado Plateau, where Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico meet, is a visual smorgasbord for anyone who enjoys raw, rugged western landscapes. Over millions of years, the water and wind eroded the layered stone into mountains, mesas, and canyons. The towering basalt cliffs are a testament to the volcanoes that buried the region in layers of lava and volcanic ash. The abundance of sandstone is a testament to an ancient sea that covered the region.
Towering red spires rise from the earth like stone sentinels, isolated from the surrounding mesas over millions of years by the forces of nature. The Chuska Mountains are part of the Navajo Nation, inaccessible without permits. However, there are two impressive sandstone spires readily visible from a quick side trip off IR-12.
Cleopatra’s Needle & Venus Needle
About 15 miles north of Fort Defiance, take Navajo Service Route 31 east. Start watching for Cleopatra’s Needle on the left. It is one of the skinniest sandstone spires in the world. There are several spots where you can pull off to get photos from several angles, often by gates used by local ranchers.
The Venus Needle is about a mile further. The road curves around a red mesa. Once you can’t see Cleopatra’s Needle, you will see the Venus Needle next to the road on the left, aka north side of the road.
It is easy to get photos of both spires from the road; however, they are on private land. No trespassing.
Photo tip: The best light for Cleopatra’s Needle is in the afternoon, when the sun is in the west, but high enough to light up the plains and the canyons. The morning light is better on the Venus Needle.