El Morro National Monument

After traveling 2,073 miles in five days into our eighth state since leaving Maryland, we made our first several-day stopover in Gallup, New Mexico.  Our travels have gone well, and the ever-changing landscape since leaving has been simply stunning!

Our plans for this stopover included getting a little rest and to visit two parks, one being El Morro National Monument in Ramah, New Mexico, 60 miles south of our camp.

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El Morro has two trails to get up close and personal with this incredible monument.  When we arrived, it began to sprinkle with an impending small storm approaching.  (It was sunny when we left the campground 60 miles ago!)

We had time to do the Inscription Trail (1/2 mile); but the Park Rangers advised against the Headland Trail (2 miles) to the top to see the pueblo ruins in case of lightning, so it was a no-go.  We quickly took to Inscription Trail.

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It was the Ancestral Puebloan people who first lived on top of El Morro in a village called Atsinna, or “place of writings on rock”.  From 1275 to 1350 A.D., between 1,000-1,500 people lived in this 875 room pueblo.

After only 75 years, Atsinna was abandoned for unknown reasons.  But before the Puebloans’ departure, hundreds of petroglyphs were carved on the rock face of El Morro.

Photos of the ruins at the Visitor’s Center were incredible, I wish we had been able to walk up Headland Trail to see them.  The following two photos are courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service.


It wasn’t until the years 1539 to 1774, lured by tales of golden cities, that the Spanish began numerous expeditions into what is now New Mexico.

One expedition resulted in the first historical record of El Morro.  On March 11, 1583, Antonio de Espejo recorded his “discovery” of a hidden place he called El Estanque de Penol (pool at the great rock).

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 Today the pool holds approximately 200,000 gallons of water on average.

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The photos above and below show after passing and looking back at how hidden the pool is.

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El Morro quickly became a main east-west trail and popular campsite for explorers and travelers who learned of the “pool at the great rock” or “oasis in the desert” watering hole hidden at the base of this sandstone bluff.

A valuable and reliable water source and resting place with shade and some protection from the elements after days of dusty travel, many who passed by carved evidence of their passing – adding 2,000 symbols, names, dates, and fragments of their stories in the sandstone rock next to petroglyphs left by ancient Puebloans.

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The first Spanish inscription carved at El Morro is Don Juan de Onate in 1605.  Those Spaniards now taking the El Morro route to Zuni and the west, added their inscriptions.  The last one they added is dated 1774.

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After acquiring New Mexico, from 1849 to 1906 U.S. military expeditions and engineer surveyors came into the state, followed by emigrants passing through enroute to California.

Lt. James H. Simpson of the Army’s Topographical Engineers accompanied one of those expeditions and, with artist Richard Kern, took a side trip to El Morro in September 1849.

For two days the two men copied all of the inscriptions for historical recording.  And, of course, they too left their names and date, shown below.  Richard Kern added “artist” after his name.

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In 1868, a Union Pacific survey party visited El Morro to look for a rail route to pass this campsite, but another route 25 miles north was selected.  Even though, the railroad surveyors added their names and date.

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When the first train steamed over the Continental Divide in 1881, it ended the historic function of El Morro as a watering hole and camp on the long, dusty trail between the Rio Grande and western deserts.

On December 8, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed El Morro a national monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906.  He wanted to ensure that these inscriptions, petroglyphs, and pueblo ruins would be preserved as they have been for us to enjoy this fascinating history today.

The rain started to fall pretty heavily while I was attempting to take photos of as many  inscriptions as I could towards the end of the trail, and I really didn’t mind it; but my camera did, so we quickly walked back to the Visitor’s Center, looking like two wet puppies.

Some more photos….

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And the backside of El Morro as we drove away.

This visit was unfortunately short.  But it was quite interesting to see names of the celebrated, the infamous, the legendary, and the unknown immortalized side by side where they would otherwise be separated by time, class, and ambitions.  We would have returned but the next day was off to Canyon de Chelly and then the following day back on the road for Arizona.

El Morro is definitely a worthwhile visit if you’re nearby in New Mexico!


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