Traversed long ago by ancient Indians, Spanish conquistadors, and traders from the East, the richly varied journey along Rte. 64 showcases rainbow-hued deserts, pine-cloaked mountains, and windblown plains that ripple toward the horizon. But the trip is especially remarkable because, thanks to its splendid isolation, the landscape looks much as it did when the first Spaniards arrived here more than four centuries ago.
A thriving center of Navajo trade, and the site of the tribe’s annual fall festival, the town of Shiprock occupies a land where nearly every monument has been sacred to this people for centuries. Southwest of the town lies Shiprock Peak, for example, a volcanic core that soars some 20 stories higher than the Empire State Building. The Navajos dubbed it Winged Rock, and down through the generations they have told how the hallowed monolith once sprouted enormous wings to rescue their ancestors from enemies. (Early explorers gave the peak its present name because of its resemblance to a high-masted sailing ship.)
For scenes of a different sort, head east out of town on Rte. 64, which slices through verdant fields nourished by the San Juan River — a gift of life to civilizations present and past that tried to make their homes in this high desert. One not-so-lucky group was the Anasazis, who lived at Salmon Ruins (just west of Bloomfield) nearly eight centuries ago, until drought forced them to move away. Still standing as testimony to their fate are the remains of a C-shaped pueblo, with over 200 apartment-like dwellings overlooking a central plaza, and the Great Kiva, a religious chamber where urgent prayers for water evidently went unheeded.
2. Angel Peak
Angel Peak is easy to spot even from afar: hulking above a pastel painted canyon, this monolith resembles an angel with outstretched wings. You can drive to the peak, and the national recreation area that surrounds it, by turning south at Bloomfield onto State Rte. 44. Bear in mind, however, that despite the area’s austere beauty, visitor facilities are limited.
Views of Angel Peak and other natural features throughout the region are enhanced by the crystal-clear air of northern New Mexico. At more than 5,000 feet above sea level, the air is free of smog and humidity, making mountains seem closer, the sky bluer, and the hues of the landscape more radiant. For centuries this luminous terrain has cast a spell on unsuspecting visitors, enchanting everyone from Spanish explorers to modern artists such as the celebrated Georgia O’Keeffe.
As the drive continues east on State Rte. 550, it passes a number of fanciful buttes, mesas, and hoodoos (mushroom-shaped spires) that lord above the flat terrain. These geological marvels — tinted orange, pink, and ocher — are the sandstone remains of an ancient seabed that was sculpted over eons by wind, rain, and frost.
3. Navajo Lake State Park
Swinging north on State Rte. 511, the drive cruises into Navajo Lake State Park, a 21,000-acre Eden. Beckoning boaters to its cool waters, the lake — one of New Mexico’s largest — contrasts intriguingly with the piñon-pine dotted tableland seared brown by the relentless sun.