Saddlehorn Pueblo

Saddlehorn Pueblo | Beebower Productions

The picture on the wall caught my attention immediately.  Of all the places we could visit at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, I knew this spot shot to the top of our list.  The rock looked just like a monster-sized horn on a cowboy’s saddle.  I’d never seen anything like it!  The rock sheltered Native American ruins under its ledge.   Bonus.  Major bonus.

Dad and I continued our photographic exploration of Colorado after wrapping up an art festival in Ridgway.  Two days of exploring the Canyon of the Ancients, a relatively new park founded in June of 2000, awaited us.  First, though, we stopped at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.

Canyon of the Ancients contains 176,000 acres of high desert and more than 6,000 Native American sites.  These include cliff dwellings, kivas, dams, entire villages and rock art.  Visiting the park allowed us to hunt for these treasured vestiges of the past.  Many of these gems hide in plain sight, blending into the arid desert landscape and cliff walls.

While these jewels abound, the rugged landscape makes exploration challenging if you aren’t familiar with the land.  So our stop at the Heritage Center helped us nail down what to see and how to get there.  In addition to information, we found their exhibits top notch. 

On the Trail

But we chomped at the bit to reach our destination, the Saddlehorn Pueblo.  A sweltering, 100-plus degree August day sidelined us until the next morning, though.

We loaded our gear in the van at first light and headed for the southern end of the Sand Canyon Trail.  The path traverses 6 miles of parched desert landscape. Twelve miles makes a round trip. 

Our interest stopped at the first mile because that’s where the Saddlehorn Pueblo stands.  More ruins waited on the next five miles of the trail, but the unique rock formation combined with ruins really made Saddlehorn stand out.

The Sand Canyon Trail starts out on an uphill slickrock sheet.  Actually three trails split off shortly after leaving the parking lot, so pay attention and stay to the right.   As far as hikes go, the one-mile jaunt to Saddlehorn is easy.  But a lot of nifty things pop up along the way.

Sand Canyon Rocks | Beebower Productions

Erosion shaped the rocks along the trail into unique and curious shapes.  I saw mushrooms, castles, pointy-hat gnomes and the aforementioned saddlehorn.  Sand Canyon begs you to let your imagination loose to play for a day.

After the short hike, we spent some time just staring at the rock.  Wow.  It was cool.  And big.  Plus other rocky cones crowded around the formation.  They might just erode into another saddlehorn one day.  Looking at the site, it’s clear ancestral Puebloans mastered using geology to their advantage.

I wondered about the people who lived all along the Sand Canyon Trail, but especially the ones who built the structures in the saddlehorn.  Archeologists determined that the Puebloans used the two buildings under the horn from about 1250 A.D. to 1285 A.D.  The rooms may have been used for cooking or sleeping.  Other buildings may have served as a lookout.

Archeologists also found the remnants of a kiva on the slope below the saddlehorn.  Ancestral Puebloans used kivas for ceremonies and religious events.  They partially submerged these circular structures.  Participants entered the kiva by a ladder in the roof.

In the 1980s the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center excavated part of the kiva and then backfilled it to preserve the structure for future generations.  The backfill makes it difficult to see the kiva, but there’s plenty of visible architecture to see at Saddlehorn.

Shooting the Scene

Once we finished gawking, we got to work capturing this unique treasure in photographs.  As you can imagine, these ruins are not only fragile, but also sacred to modern Native Americans.  That somewhat limits where you can photograph. We didn’t have any trouble abiding by the rules and getting nice images, though.

Using a variety of lenses, I explored Saddlehorn visually.  I especially enjoyed using the wide-angle lens to include some of the other formations adjacent to the actual saddlehorn.  Additionally I used a Singh-Ray polarizing filter to enrich the colors in the rocks and sky.

We spent most of our time waiting for the light to break through the clouds.  Early morning light bathes the entire scene with a nice glow, assuming the cloud cover is lighter than our morning.  Our patience paid off, though.  We took home our photographic treasure of this gem.

If You Go


  • Start your trip at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.  Rangers and volunteers dole out maps, advice and tips for hiking, biking and riding the trails.  They can also bring you up to speed on camping possibilities.


  • To actually see the treasures of Canyon of the Ancients, you really need to get out on the trails.  Hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding are allowed.  Ask the rangers for specifics.


  • All of the hiking trails are remote and rugged.  Wear clothes for hiking, not a casual stroll.  Take plenty of water and snacks.  Wear a hat and sunscreen.  Watch out for wild animals like snakes and mountain lions as well as creepy crawlies like scorpions.


  • Temperatures easily soar over 100 degrees in the summer and snow accumulates in the winter.  Spring, fall or early in the day make for the best hikes.


  • Directions to the Sand Canyon Trail:  From Cortez, hop on US 491 south and turn west on County Road G. Go 12 miles and look for the parking area on the right hand side of the road.


  • Slickrock covers the entire unmarked parking lot.  Park where you can, but do not park along the highway or on private property.


  • If you happen to be on the trail or in the parking lot during a rainstorm be careful around the slickrock.  It was appropriately named.


  • Pay attention to the trail markers when you start out at Sand Canyon.  The footpath disappers thanks to the slickrock. 


  • You must stay on the trail in Sand Canyon.  Off trail use is prohibited.  Respect the cultural importance of this area to the descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.


  • Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail.  Clean up after your pet.

Ship Rocked in New Mexico

Sunset at Ship Rock | Beebower Productions

It soars 1,700’ above the vast desert floor.  Folks report seeing it on a clear day from 50 miles away.  Over the years it captured the imagination of Native Americans as well as settlers and explorers. 

Today Ship Rock garners the interest of the Navajo people as well as geologists, tourists and photographers like Dad and me.  During our wanderings across the Southwest, we hoped to catch a dramatic sunset photo of this iconic rock found in San Juan County, New Mexico.

We easily found Ship Rock, after an hour’s drive from our base in Farmington.  I knew explorers christened the formation “Ship Rock” in the 1870s because they thought it looked very much like a clipper ship. 

Starring at the rock from our spot along the highway, we could kind of see the clipper ship.  The longer we stared at it, the more our imaginations created other possibilities, like a cathedral or a medieval castle on a mountain.  We had plenty of time to ponder and nothing to distract us.

After all, it was the only thing for miles. That isolation made us wonder how this pile of rocks got here.

Explosive History

Geologists say volcanic activity created the ship-shaped rock about 30 million years ago.  Actually volcanic activity created many of the delightful features of the Southwest like Sunset Crater, Picacho Peak, the Superstition Mountains and Petroglyphs National Monument.

Today’s Ship Rock started off as the neck of a volcano.  Over time, the rock surrounding the neck eroded leaving the uniquely shaped pillar known as Shiprock, Shiprock Peak or Ship Rock (depending on which map you consult).  Typically the plug or neck material resists erosion more than the surrounding rock.  Thus only Ship Rock remains of a once large volcano.

Six dikes, or ridges, radiate outward from the neck.  These formed when hot lava cooled in the long, narrow depressions.  The earth’s surface once covered these ridges.  Over time erosion exposed them.

The Navajo Nation

Perhaps even more interesting than the geology of Ship Rock are the legends surrounding the formation.  The Navajo people believe the rock is sacred and call it Tse’ Bit’a’I or “the winged rock”.

Ship Rock lies at the northwestern edge of the Navajo Nation, a sprawling 27,000-acre chunk of land that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Harrison Lapahie, Jr., a Navajo Nation member, tells the well-known legend of Ship Rock:

“A long time ago the Diné (Navajo) were hard pressed by their enemies. One night their medicine men prayed for their deliverance, having their prayers heard by the Gods. They caused the ground to rise, lifting the Diné, and moved the ground like a great wave into the east away from their enemies. It settled where Shiprock Peak now stands. These Navajos then lived on the top of this new mountain, only coming down to plant their fields and to get water.

For some time all went well. Then one day during a storm, and while the men were working in the fields, the trail up the rock was split off by lightning and only a sheer cliff was left. The women, children, and old men on the top slowly starved to death, leaving their bodies to settle there.”

Thus the Navajo consider the peak sacred ground and prohibit any climbing of the rock for fear their dead will be disturbed.

The Navajo have many other traditions associated with Ship Rock.  You can read more about the Navajo culture at Lapahie’s website. 

Hugh at Ship Rock | Beebower Productions

Shooting Strategies

Legends aside, Dad and I had just one chance to photograph this unusual location.  We’d kept our eyes peeled all afternoon, hoping for some monsoon storm activity to spice up our shot.  But we were out of luck.

We pulled “Plan B”, a sunset photo, out of our back pockets. We left our hotel with extra time for navigating the roads around Ship Rock.  We never know what surprises we’ll run into, especially the first time we visit a place.

We arrived well before sunset, set up and waited for the magic to happen.  Occasionally a car whizzed down the highway with the driver honking at us.  Otherwise we only heard the silence of the desert.  We enjoyed a snack, fiddled with our gear and soaked up the solitude.

And then the moment we’d waited for happened.  All of that planning and waiting for a five-minute span of great light.  It was the stuff of legends.

If You Go

  • Ship Rock is part of the Navajo Nation.  Respect their laws and private property signs in your quest to shoot pictures.  Climbing Ship Rock is illegal.
  • Plan ahead as there are no services close to the rock.  That includes bathrooms, food or gas.  
  • Cell phone service can be spotty depending on your carrier. 
  • The closest town with hotels is Farmington, not the town of Shiprock.  It’s about an hour’s drive from Farmington to Ship Rock.  Depending on the time of day, U.S. Highway 64 can be crowded.  Plan accordingly.
  • Sunrise and sunset make nice photos of Ship Rock.  Monsoon storms create some of the most dramatic pictures, if you’re lucky enough to be there at the right time.
  • You can shoot Ship Rock from a variety of locations.  From the north you can see it along US Highway 64 or south of the town of Shiprock on US Highway 491. To reach the base of Ship Rock turn west off US Highway 491 onto Red Valley Road / Route 5, south of the formation. Route 5 actually passes through the south dike and connects with multiple dirt roads that will lead you to the base of Ship Rock. Keep in mind that these roads intersect private property.
  • Take a variety of lenses.  If you go to the base of Ship Rock you’ll want a wide angle.  If you stay on one of the main roads anything from a 70-200mm lens will create a nice image.
  • Don’t forget your tripod and cable release.  Filters will also come in handy.

Deserted Valley

The sun bakes Hovenweep House (foreground) and Hovenweep Castle (background) in the Utah desert.

Hovenweep Castle | Beebower Productions

The absolute silence struck me as I stepped out of the van.  Looking around I saw nothing but desert.  And more desert.  The desert even swallowed up the Native American ruins Dad and I sought. 

Dad and I drove, literally, to the middle of nowhere. After a busy art festival in Ridgeway, Colorado we were really ready to have fun shooting pictures.  We eagerly set off on our desert adventure.   

A stiff breeze and a distant rumble of thunder were the only things to break the silence.  A summer monsoon storm threatened to cut short our exploration of Hovenweep National Monument in Utah.  

Little Ruin Canyon 

We took the Little Ruin Canyon trail, a 1.5-mile hike around and through the ruins of an ancient village.   The stifling 100-plus degree heat ensured we didn’t dawdle.   

The remains of Hovenweep’s Square Tower Group rose up out of the desert floor, soaring along the edge of Little Ruin Canyon.  Some buildings even perched on top of large boulders.  The builders’ skills impressed us. Ancestral Puebloans created most of the structures about 1200 A.D.  At one time about 500 people lived in this village. 

In 1874 photographer William Henry Jackson first named the collection of abandoned villages along the Cajon Mesa “Hovenweep”.  That’s Ute for “deserted valley”.  It’s an apt name because civilization–and a hotel–is about 55 minutes away.   

But 700 years ago, the villages bustled with activity.  In addition to hunting, the residents also gathered plants and eventually grew corn, beans, squash and amaranth.  They created stone dams to trap sediment and water during storms.  They terraced the hillsides for planting crops.  It’s a little hard to imagine all that looking at this rugged, parched landscape today.  Multiple granaries suggest the ancestral Puebloans succeeded, though.  

These ancient people built the pueblos, kivas, storage buildings and towers that dominate Little Ruin Canyon. The towers are particularly interesting because their windows allowed shafts of light inside perhaps to mark the solstices and equinoxes.  These shafts of light would have served as a calendar, letting the people know when to plant and harvest their crops.  It’s possible they also used the towers for line-of-sight signaling or for defense. 

But this community of skilled masons wasn’t alone.  Six villages including the Square Tower Group dotted the Cajon Mesa.  The mesa’s canyons and their streams that emptied into the San Juan River provided water for each of the farming villages.  Each settlement laid just a day’s walk away.   

For some reason, perhaps a drought or due to warfare, around 1300 A.D. the ancestral Puebloan people left the Cajon Mesa and moved south to New Mexico and Arizona.  Their amazing buildings at Hovenweep gradually fell into disrepair and returned to the desert. 

Shooting Tactics 

I took pictures quickly knowing that the monsoon storm drew closer by the minute.  Unfortunately we had just one day for exploration at Hovenweep.  So it was now or never shooting the Square Tower Group.   

Local rocks formed the main walls of Hovenweep’s buildings and were surrounded by small, flat rocks to fill the mortar joints.

Hovenweep Mansonry | Beebower Productions

Local rocks formed the main walls of Hovenweep’s buildings and were surrounded by small, flat rocks to fill the mortar joints.[/caption]

I looked for wide-angle shots showing the girth of the structures as well as detail shots.   The builders used meticulous masonry in construction.  Local rocks formed the main walls and were surrounded by small, flat rocks to fill the mortar joints. If the light is soft enough, the masonry in the walls makes for interesting close-up photo, as do the doors and windows.

We took about two hours at Square Tower, walking and shooting.  Cutthroat Castle and the Horseshoe Group, nearby settlements, were also on our shooting list, but that storm I mentioned loomed overhead.   After taking a look at the dirt road that led to the next village, we decided to skedaddle.  A van loaded to the gills with art and a rough, muddy road were a bad combination.  Monsoon storms pack a pretty serious punch in the desert even if you have 4-wheel drive. 

Despite interference from the storm, we saw great potential for fantastic photos at Hovenweep National Monument.  We just needed a dry day and more time to explore. 

  • Hovenweep Castle gives us a window into the lives of the ancestral Puebloan people.

Hovenweep Castle Window | Beebower Productions

If You Go

Hovenweep patiently waits in the desert, ready to share its secrets.  If you decide to go, you’ll need to know a few things:  

  • You’re headed to the middle of nowhere.  Fill up the gas tank; take plenty of food and water.  There are no stores for miles. 
  • Do not use a GPS to find Hovenweep.  Instead, follow the directions on the National Park’s site at 
  • Hovenweep is open year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.  Nonetheless, you should check for any closures before heading out.  
  • Trails open at sunrise and close at sunset. 
  • Entry is free.  Camping costs $10 per night. 
  • Desert temperatures can range 40 degrees within a single day.  Summers heat up quickly (think 100 degrees or higher) with monsoon storms.  Winters temperatures plunge, with lows averaging 0 to 20 degrees.  Occasional ice may make roads impassable. 
  • The road to the Square Tower Group and the visitor center is paved.  All other roads are dirt.  It is best to travel the dirt roads with 4-wheel drive.  Pay attention to storms (summer or winter) that may make these road and trails treacherous.
  • If you’re looking for some place to crash after exploring, you can stay at the campground near the visitor center. Check for details.  Otherwise you’ll need to travel to Bluff or Blanding, Utah or Cortez, Colorado for a hotel. 
  • Cell phone coverage is spotty to non-existent.  Plan accordingly.
  • Dogs may explore Hovenweep but must be kept on a leash at all times. 
  • Take a variety of lenses.  You could easily shoot wide angles of the buildings as well as close up masonry details. 
  • Sunrise and sunset provide warm light on the ruins.  However, you may get interesting photos before and after storms (summer and winter) that blow through the area as well as shots showing good detail mid-morning.  Look for unique clouds to add interest to your image. 
  • The park occasionally holds special star gazing events.  Check with the rangers for times and dates.  Participants must stay in the visitor center parking lot and campgrounds.  Unfortunately you can’t see the ruins from either location. You can, however, request a special photography permit.  Apply several weeks in advance and expect to pay a minimum of $180 application fee and then additional fees depending on what you plan to shoot.  For complete details visit

Burning Down The House

House on Fire Horizontal | Beebower Productions

We’d heard rumors of Native American ruins with a roof that breathed fire. We even found jaw-dropping pictures of the place.  The name “House on Fire” certainly seemed to fit.  But we had burning questions: Did the rocks above these ruins really look like a ball of flames? Or did someone just play with fire in Photoshop?

Dad and I traveled about 1,000 miles to find out for ourselves. House on Fire rests in Mule Canyon about 25 miles from Blanding, Utah on the Cedar
Mesa. To reach it we navigated rutted dirt roads, scrambled down a dry riverbed, hiked about a mile and scaled a small canyon wall to a rock ledge.  We made new German friends and discovered GPS units really do work on the first try. It was an adventure all right.  We felt like Ben Gates and his cohorts racing to uncover a National Treasure.  Our treasure, however, would be an outstanding photograph. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So who built this amazing piece of architecture?  The Anasazi constructed the granary on a ledge in the walls of Mule Canyon about 700 years ago. Throughout the area you’ll find many Native American ruins to explore. But few compare to House on Fire for the sheer visual trickery. Did the original builders know about the inferno above their granary or did that happen later as the rock eroded? Who knows? But it’s fun to contemplate.

House on Fire Vertical | Beebower Productions

However the “did they/didn’t they know” debate turns out, you can count on a regular light show in Mule Canyon.  During the summer months when the light reflects off the opposite shale, the multi-layered stone ceiling above House on Fire takes on a fantastical five-alarm fire appearance. If you get there too early in the day, the flames fizzle due to lack of light.  Later in the day bright sunlight washes out the entire scene. Overcast days have no sun and that means no reflection. So timing is everything. This optimal light show happens between 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on a bright summer day.

That brings me back to our hike. We were fired up and ready to go bright and early that beautiful summer morning. We’d allowed plenty of extra time to blaze our trail because we had one shot, so to speak, to capture the photo. My husband had pre-programed the GPS coordinates and waypoints into our unit to help us nail down the location.  Now I just had to remember how to use the darn thing. 

We set off on the trail with great expectations.  About halfway to our target, a German family also looking for the ruins caught up to us. The wife’s serious quest for images of the Southwest led her to the same photo guidebook we had discovered.  These were our kind of folks! (Incidentally we’d really recommend “Photographing the Southwest”, vol. 1 by Laurent Martres if you plan to shoot in Utah.)

As we hiked together, we constantly scanned the canyon walls looking for vestiges of the past. But the husband and son’s sharp eyes spotted our destination first.  Without them and our GPS, we’d have easily missed the House on Fire.  A ledge and trees block the view from below.

Hugh at House on Fire | Beebower Productions

After scrambling up to the ledge with a little help from our new friends, we got our first look.  This was no fire drill. We’d arrived in time to see the light slowly fan the flames of the rock to life.  We watched in awe.  Then we whipped out the cameras and started shooting the blaze of glory on the rocks.

As we worked the scene, we realized just a few angles really produce the flaming ceiling.  The photographers in our group explored those positions and came away with portfolio-worthy photos.

Our German friends moved on after a while.  We took a break to enjoy a granola bar while watching hummingbirds fight over wildflowers.  All was quiet except for the insistent chattering of the hummingbirds and a gentle breeze that whispered through the treetops.  It was easy to see why the Anasazi would have picked this spot.

We, however, had to hit the road.  We didn’t leave empty handed, though.  Not only did we have fantastic photos, we also knew the answers to those nagging questions.  Yes, the house really is on fire without any computer magic. But we definitely would have fun playing with it in Photoshop.

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