Visiting El Morro National Monument

New Mexico has only been a state for a little over 100 years and yet there is a stone edifice in the middle of this young state that bears the name of a European explorer that predates the Pilgrim’s landing at Plymouth Rock. In fact, this relatively unknown location was an oasis for those crossing over the western United States by wagon train. This place has history literally etched into its sandstone walls. Today it is known as El Morro and visiting El Morro National Monument is like walking through the history of North America.

Sandstone Signatures
The signatures and petroglyphs etched into the sandstone cliffs at El Morro are a treasure trove of North American history.

History of El Morro

El Morro Petroglyphs
Some of the petroglyphs to be discovered when visiting El Morro National Monument.

Six years before New Mexico became a state, President Theodore Roosevelt saw the historical importance of El Morro and decided to give it protection by making it a National Monument. There are petroglyphs left by Native Americans alongside Spanish and English inscriptions. The history of North America is written on these cliffs and for now preserved for future generations. However, the preservation won’t last as water and wind erosion take their toll daily on the sandstone. One day these inscriptions will be erased forever and lost to history.  

A High Desert Oasis

Oasis of El Morro
The pool of water at El Morro isn’t fed by a spring, but it is here year round. The pool is a natural catch basin for water falling from the cliffs above.

People originally sought out El Morro for the pool of water that is here year round. It is a literal oasis in the high desert. Native American’s built homes on the top of the mesa. 18 rooms of an estimated 875 room mesa-top village have been uncovered. These inhabitants started carving petroglyphs in the soft sandstone. After the mesa-top village was abandoned travelers still arrived here in search of water. A stopover on the way to somewhere else. The travelers throughout the ages would etch a part of their story into the walls adding to this chronicle of human history.  

Visiting El Morro

El Morro mesa at sunset
The El Morro sandstone mesa at sunset.

Today El Morro has been nearly forgotten. It is an hour and a half detour off of I-40 with little to no infrastructure to be found along the way. The monument has a small campground with a pit toilet. The visitor center is an oasis with a drinking water fill station and modern toilet facilities. The rangers on staff are knowledgeable about their park and the small museum is full of history pertaining to the historical significance of El Morro. The video on display about the park is also very good and well written.  

Hiking in El Morro – Inscription Trail Loop

E. Pen Lang Signature
E. Pen Lang was part of an army expedition in 1857. His is perhaps the most ornate signature at El Morro.

El Morro National Monument has two trails, the Inscription Trail and the Headland Trail. Stop and ask the park ranger at the visitor center for a loaner guide (please remember to return it after you are finished. I love that this keeps trash out of the landfills). The guides are well done with lots of information about the names found on the sandstone cliffs as well as the importance and history of the pool of water found along the trail. The trail itself starts directly behind the visitor center. It is paved and a very easy 1/2 mile stroll with only two small inclines along the way.

We spent about an hour reading about all the different stories of Spanish and American exploration. The number of names at El Morro is staggering but the park does a great job of revealing the humanity behind the words. The oldest inscription is dated to 1605 by Don Juan de Onate. It is astonishing that a Spanish explorer passed through this remote area of present-day New Mexico fifteen years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. It is thought that Onate placed the inscription on his third trip visiting El Morro.

Headland Trail Loop

Hiking the Headland Trail
Jennifer sets out on the Headland Trail to hike up the 200′ high Mesa.

Once the Inscription Trail comes to an end, the slightly more intense Headland trail begins. The 200’ climb up and down the sandstone cliffs might intimidate some but I highly recommend this relatively short 2-mile loop back to the visitor center. The park system through the works of the CCC in the mid-1930s built this now historic trail to the top of the sandstone cliffs. It is a moderate trail with a few switchbacks. Hikers who venture to the top are rewarded with sweeping views back to the north across the high desert landscape.  

The Trail on the Mesa Top

Headland Trail at El Morro National Monument
The Headland Trail at times is little more than two etched lines carved in the top of the mesa.

On top of the mesa, the path becomes little more than two etched lines carved into the rock. The Rangers are quick to remind you to stay between the lines and on the path to keep from disturbing the natural development of lichen and other forms of life. Then the path meanders around the top of the mesa which is thinner than one might imagine from below. A box canyon is found on the other side of the mesa. This canyon is thought to have been used by Native American’s to corner wildlife for food and later by European’s as a place to corral livestock.  

The Colors of the El Morro Mesa

Mesa Top at El Morro National Monument
The top of the El Morro mesa has stunning colors of red, yellow, orange, and white.

The trail along the top of the mesa is curvy, but well laid out. It feels as if the trail is a part of the landscape and as a visitor traveling along this path I too became a part of this historic place. The trail here also surprisingly has a lot of color ranging from deep reds and bright oranges to pale shades of blue and white.


Atsinna Ruins
The unearthed Atsinna Pueblo ruins at El Morro.

The destination along the Headland trail is that of an 18 room pueblo ruin known as Atsinna. According to the National Parks Service, Atsinna translates as “place of writings on rock.” Along with a few living quarters, a Kiva has also been unearthed. Make sure to look at the aerial image along the trail or at the visitor center to see the size of this settlement that is still buried in the earth. This aerial city must have been a beautiful place to live in.  

Back to the Visitor Center

After passing through the ruins of the ancient pueblo the Headland trail starts its curvy descent back towards the visitor center. This side of the trail has nice views of the sandstone cliffs that we had spent so much time taking in earlier in the day.  


Visiting El Morro National Monument
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The combined Inscription Trail and Headland trail are just over 2-miles long and are the only trails to be found in El Morro but it is an amazing 2-miles of walking through history and taking in the beauty of the high desert. This geologic historical record is temporary. Every day the forces of erosion continue their slow natural march of changing the land and whipping it clean. I highly suggest for anyone traveling through New Mexico to put El Morro on their itinerary.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Handy Bob says:

    We missed this one, but saw many sites that were on no maps. We found the largest petroglyph panel in America by running into the folks who had discovered it. It is in the cliffs west of Butler wash. We also found identical clan symbols at sites that were over a hundred mils apart. The most revealing thing we ever had happen to us was to spend an evening talking with an amateur archeologist who was shunned by the professionals in Springerville, AZ. He was excavating sites on private land and finding things that were not to be believed. We learned many things that are not in books and that made more sense than what the “professionals” were saying. He told us that the Indians will not tell what they know to anyone who will write it down. The history is disappearing due to that, but I respect it.

    1. NomadicMoments says:

      That is amazing! I love meeting people like that. New ideas and knowledge that isn’t necessarily mainstream. I’ll have to keep my eye out for that petroglyph panel when we are in that area of Utah… hopefully next year.

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