Road Trip: El Morro National Monument

El Morro, which means headlands in Spanish, is a park that we’ve had our eye on for years. So, like many others who have traveled to the incredible site for centuries, we finally got our chance to visit. Join us at El Morro’s Inscription Rock as we walk in the footsteps of Ancestral Puebloans, Spanish explorers, early settlers of the west, and many others. Enjoy!

Where is it?

El Morro National Monument is located 12 miles southeast of Ramah, New Mexico on Highway 53. Features of the park include:

  • Visitor center with park film and museum
  • Two hiking trails
  • Picnic area
  • Free campground with nine campsites – reservations not accepted
  • Visitor center and trails are closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays
  • Free admission

Access the park’s website here.

Tiny wildflowers grow among wild grasses at the base of Inscription Rock.

Inscription Rock Trail

Our visit to El Morro and Inscription Rock Trail began at the visitor center where we purchased a trail guide. Regrettably, we didn’t have the energy to tackle the moderately strenuous Headland Trail in the afternoon heat. Perhaps we will venture back to El Morro another time, but this visit was to see the famous rock we had been hearing about.

Inscription Rock Trail

Wide sidewalks and mostly level ground were a welcome sight as we had already hiked several miles that day. Fortunately, there was only one other group on the trail at the same time we were which gave us time to linger at each of the 23 points of interest defined by the trail guide. Our first stop was the pool.

The pool

One of the reasons that travelers stopped at El Morro was because of its reliable water source. The pool is not a spring, it is fed by rainwater and snowmelt that runs down from the top of the bluff. A virtual oasis, the pool is 12 feet deep and holds about 200,000 gallons of water.

A view of the bluff from the trail.

Another reason people stopped at El Morro was to leave their mark, to leave a reminder that they had been there. Some might say their writings are an early form of graffiti. There are over 2,000 inscriptions on Inscription Rock, and we’re excited to share a few of our favorites.

Ancestral Puebloans

The earliest marks on Inscription Rock are petroglyphs. These could have been chiseled into the rock by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in a pueblo called Atsinna from about 1275 to 1350 CE. Ruins of the pueblo remain atop the bluff and can be seen from the Headland Trail. Atsinna is a Zuni word meaning writings on the rock.


Nobody knows exactly what the petroglyphs mean, however we try to make our own interpretations when we see them. Does anyone besides us think the one above looks like someone chasing or perhaps hunting a mountain lion?

More petroglyphs and other markings. Could these be the first smiley faces?

Spanish Explorers

The oldest inscription at El Morro is that of Don Juan de Oñate, the conquistador who established New Mexico as a colony of Spain. He was returning from the Gulf of California when he passed by El Morro in 1605.

A section of Don Juan de Oñate’s message on Inscription Rock.

Oñate’s message translates to “Passed by here the Adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South, the 16th of April of 1605.”

Don Diego de Vargas

Don Diego de Vargas was a governor of the New Spain territory of Santa Fe (now New Mexico and Arizona). His message translates to “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas who conquered for our Holy Faith, and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

Ramon Garzia Jurado

Jurado’s message above translates to “On the 25th of the month of June, of this year of 1709, passed by here on the way to Zuni, Ramon Garzia Jurado.”

In attempts to protect the inscriptions, early preservationists used pencils to darken them. Although their efforts were well meant, it was not a practical solution and may have done more harm than good. Despite careful protection of the markings, erosion is an ongoing concern for the park. Sadly, the inscriptions may in time succumb to the forces of nature.

Old messages darkened with pencil. The bottom one by Andres Romero is the last inscription from the Spanish colonial times and is dated 1774.

When President Theodore Roosevelt designated El Morro as a national monument in 1906, inscriptions on the rock were no longer permitted. Today it is illegal to deface any part of a national park site.

Settlers, Soldiers, and Surveyors

Many women passed by El Morro, but surprisingly, they rarely left their marks on Inscription Rock. One of them was America Frances Baley who was a member of the Rose-Baley wagon train heading west to California in 1858.

Miss A. F. Baley

Unfortunately, as they neared the Colorado River in what is now Arizona, the 60 members of the Rose-Baley wagon train were attacked by a large band of Mojave Indians. Several of the settlers were killed and many were injured. The group returned to Albuquerque or Santa Fe to wait out the winter months before trying to head west again the following spring.

Captain R. H. Orton, 1st California Cavalry.

Orton left not only his signature on Inscription Rock, but also a drawing of a church.

Some of these inscriptions were made by members of a Union Pacific Railroad surveying party.

Although the Union Pacific Railroad surveyed the area around El Morro, it never got the chance to build a railroad there. Santa Fe built a rail line 25 miles to the north thus dashing El Morro’s hopes of having its own rail stop.

Camel Corps

In the 1850s the U.S. Army needed a solution for the lack of water in the desert of the southwest while searching for a route from the Mississippi River to California. Interestingly, the idea of using camels was born. Thirty-three of the animals were acquired and brought to the U.S. along with some Arab handlers. The group became known as the Camel Corps. Men belonging to the elite corps passed by El Morrow in 1859 and inscribed their names on the rock.

E. Penn. Long, Baltimore, Maryland, perhaps the most elaborate signature on Inscription Rock.

Long was a member of the 1859 expedition tasked with finding a route from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River. On that expedition the camels were tested for use as pack animals in the desert southwest. According to reports, they did an excellent job!

P. Gilmer Breckinridge

Breckinridge was purportedly in charge of the 25 camels who made the journey west in 1859. Sadly, he died in a Civil War battle in Virginia in 1863.

The Museum

Not only are the outdoor areas of the park interesting, but so is its wonderful museum which bears mentioning here. Since so much humanity has passed by El Morro at one time or another, the museum does an excellent job of covering all aspects of the park’s history.

Remarkable pottery pieces from Atsinna Pueblo can be found in the park’s museum along with other interesting exhibits.

Thank you for strolling along Inscription Rock Trail with us! Our closing shot is another petroglyph showing antelope among other written inscriptions.

Need more road trip inspiration? Check out these other great destinations:

Happy, safe travels, y’all.

Mike and Kellye

As always, we strive to be as accurate with our information as possible. If we made a mistake, it was unintentional. (Hey, we’re only human!) Our suggestions are for places that we’ve heard good things about but haven’t visited personally, and our opinions are our own.






58 thoughts on “Road Trip: El Morro National Monument

  1. Wow guys, I’ve never heard of this park and would love to see the pool and the many names on the wall! Thanks for the tour! ❤️

  2. Thanks for this walk down the path of history. Love the bluffs and the pool. As to the inscriptions, at what point does graffiti become history, I wonder. I think the man hunting mountain lion is probably pretty close to the truth. Thanks for taking us there Kellye. Allan

  3. I like your interpretations of the carvings. This all is so interesting. I wonder how long the different inscriptions took to carve. Some of them are quite artistic! Thank you for an excellent post!

  4. More wonderful adventures, this time at El Morro National Monument! I see more petroglyphs, which I’ve yet to see during my visits to the Southwest! Even cooler that there’s an oasis here! Can’t wait to read more about your travels in New Mexico!

  5. What an amazing place! We’ve been to Newspaper Rock in WY but this seems to have many more (and clearer) inscriptions. I’m amazed at the ‘penmanship’ of E. Penn. Long 😮 I wish we’d been able to include this in our NM itinerary too!

  6. Wow, what a truly fascinating place to explore and photograph. Having lived in Ireland where the landscape is pretty much evergreen throughout the year, I am always fascinated by the sights of the vertical-sided mesas of light-coloured sandstones. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

  7. All of the writings/inscriptions were fascinating! I also have not heard of this park. How hot are the temperatures there? I’m assuming pretty rough since you avoided the hike.

  8. Wow, love your photos! Those petroglyphs and inscriptions are so interesting to see. I have not heard of this national monument, thanks for sharing it with us.

  9. The Petroglyph of the person chasing the animal looks like the man is in water up to his waste with his reflection of his body right below him.The bottom half of the man image is almost identical to the top half only upside down. What do you think?

  10. Petroglyphs are always wonderful to come across. In the first photo, that person definitely looks like he’s chasing something (very determined if you ask me). I’m just thinking about it now: The younger generation will probably call these emojis 🙂. It’s incredible that after so many centuries you can still see the writings on these rocks.

  11. How satisfying it must have been to finally cross El Morro National Monument off your list after all these years Kellye. Love the pool shot, the rock face looks so dramatic. 200.000 gallons! Petroglyphs never fail to fascinate, it looks like you saw a fine collection. Excellent work on the translation, Sladja is now keen to find out more about Juan de Oñate. The museum looks cool too, was it large? How long did you spend in there? Great article as always.

    1. Thank you, Leighton! It was a very cool park to visit, and we probably spent two hours there. We would’ve spent more if it hadn’t been too hot to hike to the top of the bluff. I can’t take credit for the translations as the park provided those. The museum, like most national park museums wasn’t very big, but it was informative. I’ve run across Juan de Oñate in researching other parks. Apparently, the guy did a lot of traveling and conquering!

  12. What a great read and experience, Mike and Kellye. As I was reading it, I was thinking of Bruce Cockburn’s song “Wondering Where The Lions Are” – Thousand-year-old petroglyphs doing a double take and my anthropology professor’s thoughts from a long time ago regarding such things i.e. rock art was graffiti way back when – marvellous 😊😉

  13. This makes me think as humans we seem to always have this urge to leave a mark, something that lasts for a really long time. Some built things, others left graffiti. The place with the most inscriptions I’ve ever seen in Wadi Rum in Jordan, and in some ways El Morro reminds me of it.

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