For centuries, travelers lured here by the promise of a reliable water source, have left their names indelibly inscribed on the cliffs beneath a giant 875-room pueblo!
In this article...
Next up on our list was El Morro National Monument near Grants, NM which was the 25th stop on our quest to visit ALL the National Park Units in the US.
We visited in May 2019 and stayed in the area for about a week to visit both El Morro National Monument and the nearby El Malpais National Monument.
After spending a few nights in an RV park while we visited Petrified Forest National Park, we were keen to get back to dry camping.
We found the Joe Skeen Campground - a free campground operated by the BLM about 11 miles south of I-40 near Grants.
The campground has allocated sites, each with a shelter, picnic table, fire pit and grill. Most of the sites were fairly small and not very level, but we had no problems in our 25ft travel trailer.
El Morro National Monument is located in western New Mexico. It's about 43 miles from I-40 as it passes through Grants, NM.
El Morro is Spanish for "the headland". It is so named for the sandstone promontory, but it's the pool of water at its base which makes it so important.
In an otherwise arid and desolate region, water quite literally brings life to an area. And so it's true at El Morro.
The headland was a visible feature on the landscape where explorers and travelers knew they could find water.
Starting around 1275 CE, Ancestral Puebloans built a huge pueblo on top of the sandstone headland. The site, known as Atsinna, was on the old Zuni-Acoma Trail, an important prehistoric trade route.
With 875 rooms, it was home to around 1,500 people at its peak. Other massive pueblos were also built nearby around the same time.
There is evidence that they collected rainwater on top of the mesa, but also used water in the pool at its base too. There are hand-and-toe steps still visible in the cliff face.
The cliffs also bear witness to their presence - pre-historic petroglyphs are found across the walls!
But despite its grandeur, it was abandoned just 75 years later, much like other Ancestral Puebloan sites in the area. Nobody is quite sure why, but it's possible that a changing climate and increasing drought made farming more difficult.
Centuries later, the area would be visited yet again by Spanish explorers. On March 11, 1583, Antonio de Espejo recorded stopping at a place he called "el estanque de penol" - in English, "the pool at the great rock".
In 1598, Don Juan de Onate colonized New Mexico, and exploration of the area continued. Returning from one such expedition on April 16, 1605, Onate inscribed his name on the cliffs at El Morro. His is the first known European inscription on the rock.
In the decades that followed, the route became a common thoroughfare, and routine records of passage were inscribed on the rock. Typically travelers would inscribe their name, the date and the phrase "paso por aqui" meaning "I passed through here" in English.
Following the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the United States Army quickly began dispatching expeditions into Zuni country.
In September 1849, artist Richard Kern accompanied Lt James H Simpson, a topographical engineer, on a visit to El Morro. Inspired by the inscriptions, they spent two days copying them.
Their trip also resulted in the first written description of what Simpson named Inscription Rock, as well as Kern's drawings of the inscriptions themselves.
Over the next 30 years, the route was traveled by army exploration and railroad survey expeditions, many of whom contributed their names to Inscription Rock.
In 1881, the new railroad opened, taking trains across the Continental Divide about 25 miles north of El Morro. While El Morro continued to be used by local Navajo Indians and Mormon settlers, the railroad ended El Morro's role as a stopping point on the trail between the Rio Grande and the West.
National Monument Designation
El Morro National Monument was only the second National Monument ever designated, since the Antiquities Act of 1906 had only been signed into law in June of that year.
Devil's Tower National Monument was created on September 24, 1906. El Morro was designated a National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt on December 8, 1906. Montezuma Castle National Monument was also designated the same day.
El Morro National Monument now covers 1,278 acres of land.
El Morro is a relatively small unit, so we gave ourselves a morning to explore when we visited on May 7, 2019.
Next to the parking lot is the Visitor Center, so we stopped there to stamp our Park Passport and devise an itinerary.
The must-see spots at El Morro National Monument are the pool, Inscription Rock and Astinna, the pueblo atop the headland.
The Inscription Trail loops past the pool and back, but you can also fork off from it onto the Headland Trail. This trail winds its way to the top of the bluff to see Atsinna before dropping down and looping back to the Visitor Center.
That's the plan!
If your time is limited, or you are looking for an easier route, then the Inscription Trail is your best bet.
Its full loop is just 0.5 miles long, but passes the pool and the Inscription Rock.
We set out on the trail and quickly reached the pool. Tucked into the corner at the base of the cliffs and surrounded by tall grasses, the pool just appears out of nowhere.
The trail reaches an intersection - turn right to head back to the Visitor Center, or left to continue up the Headland Trail to the top of the mesa.
We turned left.
Inscription Rock itself is just after this turn, and the inscriptions are everywhere! There are more stopping points with signs explaining yet more inscriptions - the sheer magnitude is incredible!
With some incredible views looking north out towards the Zuni mountains, the trail follows the cliffs around before it eventually starts climbing through a series of hairpins.
We past some workers who were carting materials and tools around - looks like they were doing some trail maintenance.
Further up, the broken asphalt trail gave way to a beautifully-edged hard-pack trail that looked much more in keeping with the surroundings. Good work!
Before long we were up on the headland, and the defined trail disappeared.
Instead we had to follow lines carved into the rock itself, guiding us up, down and between the boulders!
Soon enough, Atsinna itself comes into view. Atsinna translates as "where pictures are on the rocks" and was abandoned in the 14th century CE.
In the 1950s and 60s, three excavations revealed eighteen rooms in total. But Atsinna is a sacred place to the descendants of the people who once lived here.
Consequently the excavations were halted, and the focus instead turned to preservation.
In particular, a program called Vanishing Treasures at El Morro aims to ensure that Atsinna will survive for future generations to experience.
As well as preservation, the program also includes documentation, drawings and laser imaging to help us understand more about this delicate structure.
After spending some time reading the display signs, we followed the trail along the headland before dropping back down towards the Visitor Center.
Visitor Center Museum
Inside the Visitor Center is a small museum with information signs on the history of the area around El Morro.
It's worth spending a little while reading through the displays - either before or after following the trails.
El Morro National Monument is tucked away and a little harder to access - ironically this bypassing is part of the El Morro story!
But if you can find the time to visit, it's a very special place. A few hours is plenty to visit the pool, hike the trails and see Atsinna sitting atop the headland.
And while you're in the area, why not stop in and explore El Malpais National Monument too - that's where we're heading next!
If you enjoyed this blog post and still want to learn more, visit our dedicated El Morro National Monument page with a map and links to lots more useful resources!
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