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A Rock Tour of the Four Corners

National Parks Insider Guides
by Jenna Vandenberg Dec 20, 2011
Not many travelers make it to this region of the US. That’s too bad.

MY TRIP OUT OF northwestern New Mexico with Blue Desert Guide Company has been all about rocks — canyons to hike, cliffs and hoodoos to photograph, petroglyphs to analyze. The orange canyon walls, the red mesas, the striped mountain passes have been impressive.

But I’m not so sure about this rock. It’s not a brilliant shade of orange, red, or purple. My nose is an inch from its face, so I can’t admire it from afar. I’m up pretty high, but I don’t dare glance around at the desert views surrounding me. Plus, my hands are freezing. And it’s really important that they stay operational, because they’re keeping me from plummeting off this slab of gray boulder.

On second thought, it’s not that important. Someone’s got my rope.

Rock Climbing at Mentmore

Where: West of Gallup, NM

I let go and dangle, breathing warmth into my cupped hands. I look up. There’s just no way I can top out. The natural handholds farther up look small and sparse.

“Hey, how far up did you get?” I shout down to Amanda, trying to gauge my level of loser-ness if I give up now.

“There’s a picture of me at the top,” she yells back.

I shout down some swears, rub my hands together, and grab a quarter-inch protrusion. It doesn’t break off. I wedge my foot onto a minuscule ledge and somehow that supports me too. A surge of adrenaline encourages me to go for the next hold. I move several inches up the cliff. I find another hole and tuck three fingers in. I suck in a deep you-can-do-this breath and keep climbing. The higher I get, the less the wind chill bothers me.

Suddenly the top of the cliff is at chest level. Made it. I stand on the mesa and survey. This is my new favorite viewpoint in New Mexico.

And I’d seen some good ones.


Where: Southwest of Shiprock, NM

My plane hadn’t landed before I had my first red rock sighting. A half hour from Albuquerque, the captain announced we were flying over Shiprock. Everyone with right-side window seats went face-to-glass to see the formation jutting out of the flat valley floor.

A few hours later, I was in Amanda’s white 4×4, bumping along dirt roads as we approached an increasingly striking Shiprock. The afternoon sun lit up the peak of bright orange and red rocks.

We raced up Buffalo Pass for the sunset view. Despite the snowed over road, her timing was perfect. Deer grazed in the high meadows as we watched the light hit Shiprock and turn the red rocks a deep purple.

As we headed back to the ranch for the night, Amanda told me about the legends associated with the area. It was an eagle that carried the Navajos through the Great Flood and deposited them at Shiprock long ago.

The mesa to the southeast was dubbed Skinwalker Mesa. On my map the flat-topped formation is called “Table Mesa,” but the Navajos I met warned me to stay away from this skinwalker hangout.

Canyon de Chelly

Where: East of Chinle, AZ

I learned all about skinwalkers at Canyon de Chelly the next day. A trip to the canyon involves crossing a state line, but we remained within the Navajo Nation, which spreads across the tops of both New Mexico and Arizona.

Canyon de Chelly has seen clashes between the US and the Navajo Nation in the past (culminating with Kit Carson literally burning his way through it in 1864), but today it is held in collaboration. Many Navajo families maintain a traditional residence inside the canyon, while the area is administered by the US government as a National Monument. Visitors to the canyon must be accompanied by a Navajo guide.

And those guides are well worth it. We went with Calvin Watchman, who wound us through the canyon’s trees, the leaves of which were in the process of turning the same orange as the rock walls. Between our exclamations and photo taking, Calvin talked about exploring the canyon as a child, getting his hair cut off for school at Fort Wingate, and his quests as a skinwalker tracker.

In Navajo culture, a skinwalker is a person with the ability to transform into an animal. Back in the day, this was a desirable skillset, but somewhere along the line a dark devolution occurred, and skinwalkers today are some of the most fearsome characters in Navajo lore.

According to Calvin, skinwalkers must sacrifice a loved one to acquire their power. With it comes the ability to curse people, giving them fatal diseases curable only by a medicine man.

Amanda asked Calvin about the lone house near Skinwalker Mesa, and he gave us strict instructions to stay away from it.

This conversation unfolded as we were walking (him: nonchalantly, me: precariously) up a steep canyon wall with a good dropoff below. Time and hundreds of Navajo feet had worn natural footsteps into the sandstone, but I wasn’t roped in this time. Plus I was climbing one-handed, clutching my not-very-cheap camera in the other. I had strategically left my super cool REI Stoke backpack in the car.

Calvin stopped along the way to point up at ancient ruins tucked high in canyon crevices. “I used to play in those pueblos,” he said, adding that his grandmother had warned him to stay out of the cliff dwellings. Not because of the dangers associated with ascending the steep walls, but because Navajos shouldn’t mess with the spirits left behind in the Anasazi ruins.

Calvin admitted he had ignored his grandmother’s warnings, until he felt spirits literally push him out of the ruins and down the canyon walls. He hasn’t been back up since.

Now he has another reason to stay away. Since 1982 it’s been illegal to wander through any of the ruins in Canyon de Chelly, so Amanda and I admired them from afar. We also took turns taking pictures of and asking Calvin about the petroglyphs along our route. I’d never seen so many in the US before and was fascinated by the triangular bodies, three-fingered hands, and figure-eight calendars, carved in the orange sandstone thousands of years ago.

El Morro National Monument

Where: East of Ramah, NM

A few days later we headed to El Morro for a different kind of rock art.

At Inscription Rock, there are more recent carvings along with the ancient ones — conquistadors, Santa Fe Trail pioneers, and railroad workers carved their names here. The signature of Don Juan Onate, the founder of Sante Fe and general mean guy, is one of the most famous. I’m not sure if he carved before or after he cut the legs off several members of the Acoma tribe.

A quick hike up El Morro leads to a rocky viewpoint, where we checked out red and white “candy-striped” hoodoos and looked out over Ramah, a ranch town of fewer than 400.


Amanda and I did a lot of exploring between our hiking and climbing excursions. We crawled through ruins at Chaco. We ate green chile cheeseburgers and Navajo tacos. We played with wild wolves and bartered at flea markets.

But all the while, I kept looking up at those cliffs, canyons, mesas, and mountains. When, at the end, she asked me about my favorite part of the trip, it was an easy answer: rock climbing. [Editor’s note: Jenna’s trip was sponsored by Blue Desert Guide Company. All opinions are her own. To travel the Four Corners with Amanda, check out their website or give her a call at 713-471-3762.]

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