El Morro National Monument, NM

Milan, NM

About 42 miles from Grants, NM on NM-53 rises a great sandstone promontory with a pool of water at its base.   The local Zuni Indians, whose Puebloan ancestors live here, call it Atsinna, which means place of writings on the rock.  The Spaniards called it El Morro, the headland.  Americans called it Inscription Rock.  Over the centuries those who traveled this trail stopped to camp at the shaded oasis beneath the cliffs.  They left the carved evidence of their passage.  Symbols, names, dates, and pieces of their stories are intermingled on the rock.

To preserve the historical importance of the area and initiate preservation efforts on the old inscriptions, El Morro was established as a national monument by a presidential proclamation in 1906.  The main attractions in the monument, ruins of a large pueblo and Inscription Rock, are both accessible by trails leading out from the back of the small visitor center.  If you visit, be aware that the trails close an hour before the visitor center.  The visitor center closes at 6:00 PM in summer and 5:00 PM in winter.

The sandstone cliffs behind the visitor center

We first headed out on the half mile paved Inscription Rock Loop Trail.  The nice concrete path leads directly out to the pool of water at the base of the cliff.

Pool is to the left of the boulder next to the trail

Visitors were attracted to the rocks by this permanent pool of fresh drinking water formed from rain and melted snow.  The pond, which is about 15 feet deep, is hidden at the base of the north side of the rocks and has water in it year round.

To the north of the pond is a long flat area at the base of the rocks.  For centuries visitors have carved their names and messages into the rock, forming an interesting chronology of their visits.  The first visitors were Puebloans who lived in a village on top of the cliffs until about 1400.

Puebloan artwork

Spanish explorers passed by El Morro on numerous trips and carved a number of inscriptions into the rock.  The photo below states, “We, Sergeant Major and Captain Juan de Arechuleta and Adjutant Diego Martin Barba and Ensign Agustin de Ynojos, passed by here, in the year of 1636.”

American pioneers and military men passing by throughout the 1800s left numerous carvings.  E Penn. Long of Baltimore chiseled the elegant inscription pictured below.

Long was a member of a U.S. Army expedition looking for a wagon route from Fort Smith, AK to the Colorado River in 1859.  The group was also testing the usefulness of camels in crossing the deserts of the Southwest.  Although the group wrote positively about the camels, the army abandoned the experiment at the onset of the Civil War.

P. G. Breckinridge, the man in charge of the 25 camels, wrote his name in deep block letters.  He was later killed in Virginia during the Civil War.

The examples above are just a fraction of the hundreds of inscriptions on Inscription Walk. The park provides visitors with a returnable booklet describing many of the inscriptions.

You can continue on a two mile trail that goes around the rock wall then up on top of the mesa, but the cold and wind drove us back to the visitor center.  From there we picked up the other end of that trail and made our way up to the top to visit the ruins.

Lunch with a view on the way up to the ruins

The trail winds its way up for about a half mile, with two long sets of steps going through the steepest section of the rocks.

At the top of the mesa is the remains of the pueblo Atsinna, which means where pictures are on the rock.  The pueblo was occupied from roughly 1275 to 1400.  Eighteen rooms were excavated in the 1950s.

Round Kiva

The small excavated portion of the pueblo is deceptive.   At over 800 rooms, Atsinna was a sizable town.  The outline of the town can be seen in the aerial photo below, with the excavated portion occupying a small corner of the pueblo.

We found El Morro NM very interesting and well-worth the drive down from I-40.  Now we head to the northeast for a stay in Santa Fe to explore a couple of national monuments in that area.

More on that later . . .

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19 Responses to El Morro National Monument, NM

  1. Ingrid says:

    There’s always something interesting to discover in New Mexico. We’ll need to slow down next time we pass through.

  2. El Morro looks like great stop. We took your advice about highway 385 out of Carlsbad and appreciated the tip. Highway 54 to I 10 was a nice route with few trucks or cars.

  3. pmbweaver says:

    I like the name Inscription Rock. I don’t think I have ever seen writing in any stone. What a great part of history. They look like they could have been written just weeks ago. Amazing.

    The pueblo is pretty neat. What a great find you to discovered.

  4. exploRVistas says:

    It’s one thing to have beautiful penmanship, but to be able to transfer it to a carving like that is remarkable!

  5. Jeff Pierce says:

    What fun stop on your travels. I’ll have El Morro as an option, what a great historic stop.

  6. We haven’t stopped at El Morro, but it looks interesting. In fact, it’s been several years since we’ve been in New Mexico. Time for a return visit!

  7. Laurel says:

    What an interesting place! Seems like camels would have been a great asset for desert travel. Apparently it became a political issue, and the mule lobby won. (You got me curious, and I found an article in Smithsonian Magazine about the camels of the Southwest.) :-))

  8. jimandbarb says:

    You guys are on a roll with National Monuments and finding some really cool places!

  9. I like Long’s penmanship! And aren’t you glad you don’t have to depend on that green water for drinking!!

  10. Gay says:

    Inscription Rock is so full of history and the ruins are so impressive. This is definitely worth a visit when in the area. Even though it’s a short trail to the ruins, looks like a good workout with all the steps! Awesome photos you too!

  11. Patricia Hotchkiss says:

    Love your blog. I just wanted to let you know the description on the photo at the top says Grants, Mexico (MX) instead of New Mexico (NM).

  12. Jodee Gravel says:

    It’s amazing to me that so many inscriptions survived all of these years in such beautiful condition. Love the ruins on top – what a view they had!

  13. What a fascinating stop! Love the variety of inscriptions over time. It is amazing how large that pueblo was!

  14. geogypsy2u says:

    Must take time and patience to leave just about any inscription. El Morro has been on my list for a while.

  15. Sherry says:

    You’ve put yet another stop on my New Mexico list. The ruins are amazing and SO big. Is the inscription area fenced to keep “contemporary signers” controlled? They are really wonderful.

  16. Debbie L says:

    Such interesting history! Oh to be able to see New Mexico. Looks like our kind of place. It’s wonderful following others blogs to help us make some good stops!

  17. LuAnn says:

    I agree that camels seem to have been a great solution for such a harsh environment. Thanks for the history lesson. I had no idea!

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