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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Orton left not only his signature on Inscription Rock, but also a drawing of a church.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
- George Washington Carver National Monument
- Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
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.