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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Getting Closer to Nature at Capitol Reef

Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges

Even considering Utah’s many impressive national parks it is difficult to rival Capitol Reef’s sense of expansiveness, of broad, sweeping vistas, of a tortured, twisted, seemingly endless landscape or of limitless sky and desert rock.

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While Bryce and Zion are like enveloped fantasy lands of colored stone and soaring cliffs, the less-visited Capitol Reef is almost like a planet unto itself. Here you get a real feel for what the earth might have been like millions of years before life appeared, when nothing existed but earth and sky.

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Capitol Reef National Park is an expressive world of spectacular colored cliffs, hidden arches, massive domes, and deep canyons. It’s a place that includes the finest elements of Bryce and Zion in a less crowded park that offers a more relaxing experience than either of those more-traveled Utah attractions.

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The park preserves the 100-mile Waterpocket Fold, a mammoth buckling of the earth’s surface with colorful canyons, tortured desert, and numerous bridges and arches (“waterpocket” refers to the potholes that dot the sandstone and fill with rainwater). The park’s name combines the popular term for an uplifted landmass, “reef,” with a visual resemblance of the park’s many white Navajo Sandstone domes to that of the nation’s Capitol Building.

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In some parks you really need to get away from the road to find the best scenery, but in Capitol Reef there is a plentitude of beauty that can be accessed by vehicle. Views in Capitol Reef are considerably more “open” than those in Zion, which is rather confined by the narrow canyons.

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A logical place to start is the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive, a 25-mile round trip paved road that is lined with pullouts that allow you to stop and take it all in. One highly recommended stop is the Panorama Point/ Goosenecks view area on the park’s west end.

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From this scenic drive several short side drives on well-maintained dirt/gravel roads can be negotiated in virtually any vehicle. The first of these, Grand Wash, is sort of like taking a Disneyland ride in your own car. The hike through the Narrows, from the trailhead at the end of the Grand Wash drive is recommended.

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You can take the entire 2.5-mile walk which ends at Highway 24, or just go about 0.25 mile to a cutback trail (somewhat steep) on the left to visit Cassidy Arch, where Butch is said to have hung out.

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You should definitely drive out to the end of the unpaved but well-maintained 2.2-mile Capitol Gorge spur, a few miles farther along the scenic drive. It is hard to imagine a more unusual driving experience: The gorge ends in a narrow channel carved between sheer cliffs.

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After a visit to Capitol Reef’s rocky wilderness, the green groves and fruit orchards around the intersection of Highway 24 and the park scenic drive are a cool and welcome sight. Just after the turn of the century, the Mormon community of Fruita, nestled in the shaded canyon formed by the Fremont River, was a lively, vibrant town of nearly 50. Though most of Fruita’s residents gradually moved away after Capitol Reef’s establishment as a national monument, the fields and orchards remained.

Visitors may even pick small quantities of fruit: cherries in June, apricots in July, pears in August, and apples in September. Look for U-Pick signs and be prepared to pay a small donation for any fruit you take with you. The money, collected on an honor system, goes to maintain the orchards—a very worthy cause.

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While in the Fruita area check out other historic attractions including the Fruita Schoolhouse, old Blacksmith Shop, the Fremont petroglyphs, and the Gifford Homestead, which in addition to offering a snapshot of pioneer life, bakes the harvest of the season into incredible pies. The one-room schoolhouse built in 1896 remained in use until 1941.

Past the old schoolhouse the petroglyph trail continues for a mile to to Hickman Natural Bridge. This is perhaps one of the best park walks in all of Utah with scenic views and glimpses of Fremont Culture ruins. In this lightly traveled part of the world you will probably have this highly recommended walk mostly to yourself.

Worth Pondering…

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.

—John Burroughs

Rock That Tells a Story: Newspaper Rock

Newspaper Rock features a rock panel carved with one of the largest, best preserved, and easily accessible collections of petroglyphs in the Southwest

Extra, extra, read all about it! The reviews are in: You can see all the news you can’t actually read at one of the West’s most famous rock art sites. And there’s no fake news here!

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Native American Indians have been engraving and drawing on Newspaper Rock for more than 2,000 years. Their markings in these ruins tell the stories, hunting patterns, crop cycles, and mythologies of their lives. But what exactly these petroglyphs are communicating, we’ll never know for there is no actual translation available at this remarkable Utah attraction.
Newspaper Rock is located 15 miles west of U.S. 191 along the 41-mile Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (S.R. 211) in Bears Ears National Monument, now part of the 71,896-acre Indian Creek unit designated December 4, 2017 by U.S. President Donald Trump.

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Bears Ears National Monument includes red rock, juniper forests, high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts. The Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Hopi Nation, and other tribes are tied to this land.

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A petroglyph panel of such renown, Newspaper Rock was listed on the National Register of Historic Places long before either Bears Ears National Monument or Indian Creek added prominence to the remote corner of Utah. The landmark is covered with images of animals, people, ancient symbols, and depictions of the natural world etched into the rock by peoples from the Fremont, Ute, and Ancient Puebloan (Anasazi) Native American tribes. It’s surmised that the perennial natural spring attracted ancients to this distinctive area of Utah.

As one of the largest collections of petroglyphs in the country, Utah’s Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument is like a living museum. However, thankfully, you don’t have to peer at the pristine rock art through glass at this site.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The rock is called Tse’ Hane in Navajo, or “rock that tells a story.” There are over 650 rock art designs here that feature a mixture of forms, including pictures resembling humans, animals, tools, and more esoteric, abstract things. The 200-square-foot rock site is a part of the cliffs along the upper end of Indian Creek Canyon.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indian Creek Canyon is a popular Utah destination for rock climbers who flock to the Wingate sandstone for its pristine cracks, which are scaled with traditional climbing aids. However,  nature lovers will still get much out of the scenic drive; better still, the road leads to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, which offers a number of great hiking trails ranging from family-friendly walks through historically significant places to overnight backpacking trips.

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Standing at the base of the 200-square-foot rock and trying to decipher what the ancients were trying to communicate, craning your neck to count all of the artwork, sketching and replicating some of the petroglyphs in your own notepad, losing count when you try to see who can count the most antelope, driving the awe-inspiring byway and looking at all of the massive, perfectly-red Wingate sandstone cliffs.

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Just across the highway from the petroglyphs there is a picnic area and campground, which is free and is first-come, first-serve. The area is open year-round, and the best times to visit are March through late-May and September through October.

Newspaper Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No fees or permits are required to visit Newspaper Rock or to drive the Indian Creek Scenic Byway. There are fees to enter Canyonlands National Park.

Driving Indian Creek Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes

The Sixth Wonder of Alberta

A wide green valley, steep sandstone cliffs, strange rock formations called hoodoos, and rock art—all of these things make Writing-on-Stone a special place

You’re driving through the prairie and suddenly it drops away into a beautiful river valley. Alberta has many beautiful places to explore during the summer but there’s only one place that has rock paintings from the local indigenous population that can be dated back 2,000 years ago.

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That very special place is the Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi Provincial Park and is located near the U.S. border in southeastern Alberta. It is a place of extreme cultural importance to the Blackfoot people and has the greatest concentration of Indigenous rock art anywhere on the plains. The rock art was likely created by the Blackfoot tribe whose territory traditionally includes the area. At least some of the art was likely being made by the Shoshone tribe which passed through the region.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In a dramatic landscape of steep-sided canyons and coulees, sandstone cliffs, and eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos, Indigenous peoples have created rock art for millennia. Thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs at more than 138 rock art sites graphically represent the powers of the spirit world that resonate in this sacred landscape and chronicle critical phases of human history in North America including when Indigenous peoples first came into contact with Europeans. In fact, the arrival of horses, trade items, and even the first automobile in the region are creatively recorded.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a combination of culturally significant landforms, rock art, archaeological heritage, and dramatic views, Áísínai’pi (“it is pictured/written”) is a sacred place for the Blackfoot people. In Blackfoot traditions, Sacred Beings dwell among the cliffs and hoodoos, and the voices of the ancestors can be heard among the canyons and cliffs. To this day the Blackfoot feel the energy of the Sacred Beings at Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi and their oral histories and ongoing ceremonial use attest to the living traditions of the Blackfoot people.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following more than a decade of advocacy by Indigenous groups and the provincial government, Writing-on Stone was recently (July 6) declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nomination was prepared by the provincial government in partnership with the Blackfoot Confederacy and with ongoing support from the Government of Canada.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park is home to more petroglyphs (rock carvings) and pictographs (rock paintings) than any other place on the Great Plains in North America.

“Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi is the site of many natural wonders and a testament to the remarkable ingenuity and creativity of the Blackfoot people,” Jason Nixon, Minister of Environment and Parks, said in a news release. “It’s easy to see why the site is seen by many as an expression of the confluence of the spirit and human worlds. I hope all Albertans will take the time to explore this extraordinary part of the province and all it has to offer.”

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“The designation of Writing-on-Stone/Áísínai’pi as a UNESCO World Heritage Site provides the Blackfoot Confederacy a basis for its future generations as to the strength and truth of our continuing relationship to this land and to our traditions, ceremonies, and cultural practices,” Martin Heavy Head, an elder with the Mookaakin Cultural and Heritage Society, said in a news release.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone is about 4,400 acres and offers unique hiking and birding opportunities, plus a modestly-sized campground. The province estimates about 60,000 people visit the site each year.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 1.3-mile Hoodoo Trail winds through various landscapes—hoodoos, sandstone cliffs, and rock art, upland prairie grasslands, the Milk River valley, and coulees. Most rock art sites are only accessible by guided tour. Park interpreters lead tours into the Archeological Preserve daily from mid-May to early September. Tour schedules and ticket prices are available by contacting the park’s visitor center.

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Writing-on-Stone is Alberta’s sixth world heritage site. The other five are Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (1981), Dinosaur Provincial Park (1979), Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (1995), The Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks (1984, 1990), and the Wood Buffalo National Park (1983).

Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So if you’re a fan of exploration these are the six must see sites within Alberta.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes