Place of the Great Rock: El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument is a fascinating mixture of both human and natural history

Rising 200 feet above the valley floor, this massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable year-round source of drinking water at its base made El Morro a popular campsite in this otherwise rather arid and desolate country.

At the base of the bluff—often called Inscription Rock—on sheltered smooth slabs of stone, are seven centuries of inscriptions covering human interaction with this spot.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This massive mesa point forms a striking landmark. In fact, El Morro means “the headland.” From its summit, rain and melted snow drain into a natural basin at the foot of the cliff, creating a constant and dependable supply of water. The pool also attracts birds, coyotes, deer, and other wild creatures.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A pre-Columbian route from Acoma and the Rio Grande valley to the Zuni pueblos led directly past El Morro, probably marking it as a favored camping site for prehistoric travelers.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beginning in the late 1500s Spanish, and later, Americans passed by El Morro. While they rested in its shade and drank from the pool, many carved their signatures, dates, and messages. Before the Spanish, petroglyphs were inscribed by Ancestral Puebloans living on top of the bluff over 700 years ago.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The softness of the light-colored sandstone made it easy to carve pictures, names, dates, and messages. Ironically, that is also the reason that the famous inscriptions are slowly disappearing.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, El Morro is one of New Mexico’s smaller national monuments, hidden away in forested, high elevation (7,219 feet), little-traveled land towards the northwest of the state. Some of the surroundings are volcanic, including nearby El Malpais National Monument on the far side of the continental divide, and other parts are featureless grassy plains.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The oldest Spanish carving found on El Morro reads, “Paso por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Translated, the inscription proclaims: “Passed by here, the expedition leader Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South the 16th of April of 1605.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not the first Spaniard to see the mesa, Diego Pérez de Luxan, chronicler of an exploring expedition led by Antonio de Espejo, recorded in his journal that the party had camped in March 1583 at a location he called El Estanque de Peñol (The Place at the Great Rock). However, no record of the expedition’s passing has been found on the mesa.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Spanish reigned in New Mexico for nearly 200 years. After being driven out by the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680, they took back control twelve years later and ruled for generations.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General de Vargas recorded his victory in this way: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The final inscription in Spanish was dated 1774. The Spanish lost control of their North American territories to the Mexicans who in turn lost them to the United States during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s. At the close of the Mexican War in 1848, New Mexico became a U.S. territory, and the arrival of the Americans opened a new chapter in El Moro’s long history.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1849, Lt. James Simpson, an Army topographical engineer, and Richard Kern, an artist, were the first Americans to carve their names on El Morro. More significantly, however, Kern sketched many of the inscriptions and brought them to national attention.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Simpson and Kern, many American wagon trains carrying emigrants to California passed and, as the Anasaziand Spaniards did before them, they left a record of their presence.

The main thing to see is Inscription Loop Trail, a half mile walk past numerous Spanish and Anglo inscriptions, as well as pre–historic petroglyphs.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before venturing out be sure to view the short informative film in the visitor center and pick up a copy of the trail guide to assist you in spotting and understanding the various inscriptions.

You can continue your walk up to the top of the mesa for some great views and to see the partially-excavated ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village.

El Moro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although all can be seen in just a couple of hours, El Morro is an unusual and evocative place, well worth a detour to visit.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

5 Lesser-Known National Park Wonders

These little-known spots wait beyond more famous attractions

National parks comprise an inventory of beauty, wilderness, history, culture, wildlife, landmarks, and memorials extending from the Arctic to the tropics.

The 418-unit-strong system includes the famous “named” national parks as well as national seashores and battlefields, lakeshores and memorials, monuments and recreation areas. It’s a vast collection that contains sites you’ve probably never heard of. And even within those well-known units are unusual phenomena that are, well, phenomenal. Here’s a brief look at some lesser-known park wonders.

Historic graffiti

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The National Park Service doesn’t normally glorify graffiti, but when the taggings date from 1605, they merit attention. In New Mexico, a hunk of sandstone known as El Morro National Monument rises above a permanent pool of water in the sere high desert west of Grants. The monolith has long served as a landmark signifying the presence of reliable water, and over the centuries travelers have welcomed its hulking sight.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Spanish conquerors, U.S. Army soldiers, and Union Pacific Railway surveyors all paused to dip a canteen here—and to etch into the sandstone a permanent record of their sojourn. More than 2,000 signatures and aphorisms are carved into the rock, some flamboyant, others as terse as gravestone inscriptions.

Volcanic wonderland

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The land is positively alive at Lassen Volcanic National Park. Home to all four types of volcanoes—shield, composite, cinder cone, and plug dome—this fascinating park in California’s wild northeast corner literally bubbles, steams, and roars. Steaming sulphur vents, splattering mud pots, boiling springs—these lively features show that the earth is not quiet.

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park’s signature volcano, Lassen Peak, last blew its top in May 1914, and its volcanic outbursts continued for three years. Today, things have settled down, and trails and overlooks let you safely see and learn about volcanic activity. Plus, there are miles of lush forests and sparkling lakes to explore too.

Pick your fun

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A fun and overlooked feature of Capitol Reef National Park is that it contains orchards where, during the appropriate season, you can harvest fruit. Late in the 19th century, Mormon families sought refuge in the shadow of southern Utah’s Capitol Reef, so named because settlers thought one of its daunting reef-like cliffs, capped by eroded sandstone, resembled the U.S. Capitol.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For 50 years they tended livestock and planted groves of peaches, pears, apricots, cherries and apples in their small, aptly named community of Fruita. The Mormons left, and all that remains of their settlement is a one-room schoolhouse and the orchards. Today, visitors to Capitol Reef can pick the fruit from these same trees.

Where buffalo roam

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

North Dakota, when not being depicted as bland and uninspired, is generally cast in a bad light. Whether it’s fiction or real life, the spotlight’s seldom kind to NoDak.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

But there’s also a place where the buffalo roam, and that place is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The austere landscape is home to a surprisingly dense population of wildlife. Bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, white-tailed and mule deer, wild horses, and bighorn sheep inhabit the park, as do numerous smaller mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Named for the 26th President, it’s perhaps the most underrated National Park Service area.

Swamp things

Congaree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you don’t like spiders and snakes, you ain’t got what it takes to love swamp canoeing in Congaree National Park in South Carolina, home to no fewer than 31 species of spiders and 25 species of snakes, four of them poisonous—and many of them more aquatic than you are. Watch for brown water snakes and venomous cottonmouths up to 48 inches long. Swimming in Congaree is not highly recommended.

Worth Pondering…

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.

—Wallace Stegner, 1983