NM in NM: El Morro

The last National Monument we visited on our recent New Mexico adventure was El Morro – The Rock With Three Names!

fullsizeoutput_5575El Morro, this large sandstone bluff, sat on the main east-west route for several people groups.   

fullsizeoutput_5594It wasn’t the rock promontory, but the oasis pool at the base that was the reason for many to stop and rest a spell.

fullsizeoutput_55aaZuni forefathers, part of the southwest puebloan culture,  built communities atop the rock circa 1200.    This area was along east-west trade routes for native peoples.

fullsizeoutput_557ePetroglyphs in the sandstone bluff are the earliest carvings.   Current Zuni consider this site sacred and named it Atsinna “place of writings on the rock.”

Spaniards came through during their second conquest effort looking for the elusive cities of gold.  They found some silver but little gold in “New Spain, land that is now New Mexico.  Mostly they found native people groups and began to convert or conquer them for God and Spain.  Records indicate that Spaniards came to the “pool at the great rock” in 1583.


The Spaniards called the great rock “The Headland.”  Juan de Onate recorded his presence on April 16, 1605, the earliest known European inscription.


This area became part of the United States after The Mexican-American War (1846-48.)   Army expeditions began to map the area and interact with the Zuni and Navajo.  

fullsizeoutput_558eNamed “Inscription Rock” by the Anglo-Americans, Army Engineer Lt. James H. Simpson and accompanying artist Richard Kern came to document the inscriptions.  They, after faithfully copying each and every petroglyph and inscription, made an error, misspelling “insciption” in their own.

P1050902.JPGEmigrants to California and railway survey groups added inscriptions in the last half of the nineteenth century.

El Morro National Monument is no longer on the main east-west route.   First the railroad (1881) and then the highway system (I-40) take travelers along a route 25 miles north.   El Morro isn’t hard to get to but you need to plan ahead.   It is absolutely worth the few extra miles and effort!

fullsizeoutput_5574El Morro was named a National Monument in 1906, one of the original four designated monuments by Teddy Roosevelt under the new Antiquities Act.   The other three are Devils Tower in Wyoming,  Montezuma’s Castle in Arizona and Petrified National Forest, also in Arizona. (More on those later.)

fullsizeoutput_5590A stop at the visitor center gives you an introductory video, expert advice and a loaner trail guide.   It is a great resource for getting some background on some of the 2000 names inscribed on the great rock.


A short trail brings you to the base of El Morro.


The pool is there through the cattails.

fullsizeoutput_5577Nature will have its way with sandstone but this cut is so precise it looked purposeful. Alas, no -it was just the way the rock broke and fell.


The inscriptions are everywhere!


In some areas you can see petroglyphs, Spanish and English together.


E. Penn Long was a member of an Army expedition looking for a route between Ft. Smith Arkansas and the Little Colorado River.


P. Gilmer Breckenridge, in the same Army contingent, was in charge of 25 camels being assessed for usefulness to the US Army in the water deprived southwest.   The experiment was deemed a success but was abandoned with the onset of the Civil War.

fullsizeoutput_557dSeveral monument administrators have done what they thought was best to try and preserve the inscriptions that will eventually be lost to nature.  Cutting around inscriptions to move water flow away was attempted.


Blackening inscription with a graphite mixture was also tried.


One park administrator even had signatures done after 1906 scraped away as he considered them graffiti and unlawful.

fullsizeoutput_5591After viewing the signatures near the base of the rock, we followed the trail up to the mesa.  This rock looks like it could break off at any moment.


We saw one area of ruins on our way up.  This area was closed.


We made it!



fullsizeoutput_55acWe saw a second set of ruins that are being preserved and are accessible.

A few years ago I accidentally took a very good picture at a Nevada state park.  I called it my Stairway to Heaven picture and an enlargement hangs on our bedroom wall.    I’ve been looking for Stairway to Heaven shots ever since.  The mesa trail had a few!






We had wonderful views from the mesa at El Morro!

After visiting El Morro, we are fortunate to have been to all four of those original 1906 national monuments.  If you would like to read the blog posts from the other visits they are: Devil of a Time Getting to Devils Tower, Is it the Journey or the Destination?  and Way More Than Just Wood Rocks!.

And if you haven’t heard Stairway to Heaven in a while….here is a link:  Stairway to Heaven


About Serene

Former full time RVers, transitioned to homeowners and travelers. We've still got a map to finish! Home is the Phoenix area desert and a small cabin in the White Mountains of Arizona.
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2 Responses to NM in NM: El Morro

  1. Mark P McClelland says:

    When we visited I was fascinated by the stories of past superintendents deciding what was historic and what was not, and acting accordingly. Also the efforts to use graphite and “moats” around the inscriptions to enhance or preserve them. Like so many other things, it seems that there is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to “preserving” history.

  2. Teri McClelland says:

    The penmanship on some of the signatures is pretty incredible considering what they had to “write” with. I seem to recall it was hotter than blazes the day we were there. Thanks for sharing your trip.

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