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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .