El Morro is an oasis on the arid plains of western New Mexico. A natural water cache at the base of the mesa has formed a deep pool, replenished by snow melt and run off, providing a year-round, reliable source of fresh water in an otherwise parched environment. The pool is on the eastern side of the mesa, with 200-foot stone walls providing shade most of the day. Considering the less accommodating terrain nearby, including the El Malpais badlands, it isn’t surprising that this was the camping spot of choice for people trekking the Acoma-Zuni trail over the last 1000 years or so.
This watering hole has gone by many names
A’ts’ina – “place of writings on rock.”
El Morro – “the bluff or the heartland.”
Encompassing 2 square miles, El Morro is one of New Mexico’s smallest, and most peculiar, national monuments. The Federal Government established the monument in 1906 to preserve the inscriptions and petroglyphs lining the base of the cliff, as well as the partially excavated pueblo village of A’ts’ina on top of the mesa.
Oasis in the High Desert
Water is precious in New Mexico. That has always been the case. This oasis has been a focal point for human habitation for more than a millennium. Archaeologists have found relics of ancient Paleo and Archaic hunters in the area, dating back thousands of years. The petroglyphs left by the ancient Puebloans inspired a tradition continued by each successive wave of explorers and settlers in the region, with each leaving a chiseled history noting their passage on the walls of the mesa. In total, there are more than 2,000 inscriptions and petroglyphs. Given the impact of erosion on sandstone, there’s no way of knowing when this tradition started; however, cumulatively, El Morro serves as a monolithic stone tablet, documenting three distinct periods: Ancestral Puebloans from up to 1,000 years ago, Spanish conquistadors from 1605 to around 1800, and American settlers and soldiers after 1800.
A paved trail leads from the visitor center to the pool, with many of the inscriptions in close proximity. Many are crisp and readily legible due to varying degrees of preservation. The trail at the base of the cliff links to a longer loop that crosses the top of the mesa through the partially excavated village of A’ts’ina. The only thing that makes this path challenging is rockiness and ascending the mesa. The view from the top of the mesa is impressive, definitely worth the short hike. It wouldn’t have been easy to sneak up on the people who inhabited this community.
There’s a resident raven. Don’t be surprised, or alarmed, if he accompanies you on your hike. The rangers indicated that he owns the place.
A’ts’ina Pueblo – El Morro Mesa
The ancient Puebloans were skilled farmers and master builders. The early pit houses that dotted New Mexico’s tributaries evolved into above-ground pueblos by 1000 AD, with old world apartment complexes springing up near reliable sources of irrigation throughout the southwest. When the monsoon season was cooperative, harvests were bountiful and game plentiful, the region was relatively calm, preferring trade to warfare. There was no vested interest for an agricultural community to seek conflict. However, there was a need to defend resources when drought or famine provoked raids. With the Apache is southern New Mexico and Arizona pressuring pueblos during times of scarcity, it seems noteworthy that the pueblos established on the boundary of Apache land were in virtually impenetrable, fortress-like locations. “The best offense is a good defense” with an old world application.
It is likely that Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi) established a village on top of the mesa due to the permanent pool of fresh drinking water below. The hand-and-toe steps on the cliff face indicates that the pool provided the community with an additional water source. The villagers may have had an alternate trail that followed the same one used today. The location is strategic in that it is close to the only water source for miles and located atop a virtually impenetrable mesa with a clear view in all directions. The inhabitants of this village were the ancestors of the Zuni. The Zuni call the place A’ts’ina, meaning “place of writings on the rock.”
Archaeologists believe the Zuni constructed A’ts’ina between 1275-1350. Though archaeologists aren’t in consensus about why the ancient Puebloans chose to build on an inaccessible mesa top only to abandon it decades later, a common theory is that a period of drought and famine created a need for a defensible position close to a reliable water supply. When the drought ended, they moved back to the desert floor, because living on top of a mesa top is treacherous. It seems like falling off would be a frequent cause of death.
The pueblo had approximately 850 rooms with the capacity to house between 1000-1500 people. Multiple stories of interconnected rooms surrounded an open courtyard. Square and circular kivas provided space for informal gatherings as well as religious ceremonies. Villagers grew corn and other crops in irrigated fields on the plains below the mesa. They stored surplus in well-sealed rooms within the pueblo. Cisterns on top of the mesa collected rainwater. Grinding bins and firepits remain today. Archaeologists have excavated and stabilized eighteen rooms. Fully excavated, the pueblo would be larger than Chaco Canyon.
The inhabitants of A’ts’ina left hundreds of petroglyphs, clear evidence that the ancient Puebloans established the precedent of recording their presence on the cliffs long before the conquistadors arrived.
In March 1583, Diego Pérez de Luxán, accompanying an expedition led by Antonio de Espejo, recorded in his journal that the party had camped at a place he called El Estanque del Peñol (The Pool at the Great Rock). Evidently they opted not to add their autograph to the monolith; however, Don Juan de Oñate did.
Don Juan de Oñate
Oñate was the son of Count Cristobal Oñate, a rich silver miner and the former governor of the province of Nueva Galicia. He was ambitious, part of the second wave of conquistadors seeking wealth in the new world, having been weened on tales of Aztec gold and treasure. Oñate came to New Mexico looking for glory, prestige, power and additional wealth. He convinced the Count of Monterrey, Viceroy of New Spain, to allow him to colonize New Mexico, leading the first permanent settlers into the area in 1598. He established San Gabriel near Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, north of present-day Española. San Gabriel served as New Mexico’s provincial capital until 1610 when Oñate’s successor, Don Pedro de Peralta, founded the royal capital at Santa Fe.
The King of Spain named Oñate governor, captain-general and adelantado in exchange for financing the expedition and funding the establishment of a new colony. Thus, the territory seized in the name of Spain became Oñate’s private feudal fiefdom and he was far from a benevolent overlord.
Oñate launched a war against Acoma because they refused to pay a food tribute during a famine. He ordered his men to attack Acoma for three days and most of Acoma’s warriors were killed during the battle. After Acoma surrendered, Oñate convicted twenty-four men and maimed them, ordering the removal of one of their feet. Spanish authorities sold the women into slavery and sent the children to missions in Mexico. Historical records indicate that many of the children were sold into slavery. Later, Oñate was prosecuted for war crimes against the native inhabitants of New Mexico. The Spanish courts banned him from the province and sent back to Spain. Though Oñate appealed and received an acquittal, he never returned to the province.
Oñate’s inscription is the oldest Spanish inscription. He carved his name in the rock 15 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. He visited El Morro in April, 1605 while traveling home to San Gabriel from an expedition to the Pacific coast. The inscription, carved in Spanish, reads:
“Pasó por aqui, el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.”
“Passed by here, the adelantado Don Juan de Oñate from the discovery of the sea of the south the 16th of April of 1605.”
Stone Guest Log
Over the next several centuries countless travelers recorded their passing. Some left no more than a name and date, but others were eager to immortalize their deeds, like Fray Nieto, who inscribed:
“Here was the Señor and Governor Don Manuel de Silva Nieto, whose indubitable arm and valor have now overcome the impossible with the wagons of the King Our Lord, a thing which he alone put into effect, August 5, 1629, that one may well to Zuni pass and carry the faith.”
This fellow believed Governor Nieto had pacified the Zuni by 1629, an assertion that was decades premature and wildly inaccurate. The Zuni killed Father Juan de Letrado, a Franciscan missionary assigned to Zuni three years later, in 1632, shortly after he arrived in Zuni. The Spanish soldiers dispatched from Santa Fe to punish the Zuni stopped at El Morro, leaving this inscription:
“They passed on March 23, 1632, to the avenging of the death of Father Letrado — Lujan.”
The pueblos of New Mexico united to repel the Spanish on August 10, 1680. The uprising, known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, was organized by Popay, a medicine man from Ohkay Owingeh. Churches were torched and priests and Spanish settlers were killed. The survivors were driven from Santa Fe, with pueblo warriors shadowing them to El Paso. The warriors didn’t attack once the refugees left Santa Fe. The unity between the pueblos frayed twelve years later. The Spaniards returned, led by Don Diego de Vargas. On his way to negotiate with the Zuni, he left an inscription at El Morro, boasting:
“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.”
After the Mexican-American War in 1846, Brig. Gen. Stephen Kearny’s Army of the West took possession of New Mexico. Lt. James H. Simpson, a topographical engineer for the US Army, began surveying the Zuni and Navajo territory. In September 1849, he found the inscriptions at El Morro. He and Richard Kern, an artist who accompanied him on the expedition, began copying the symbols, signatures, and dates on the promontory. Simpson dubbed the mesa Inscription Rock. Their work became the first written description and drawings to record El Morro’s history. They added their own inscriptions to the monolithic legacy, providing 2 of the 20 Anglo-American names carved into El Morro’s immortal guest book. By the following year, El Morro became one of the main watering holes for the flood of American wagon trains heading to California.
With the arrival of the railroad, traffic on the Zuni Trail ebbed. When the Santa Fe Railway plotted the best way through western New Mexico in 1881, the surveyors selected a route 25 miles north of El Morro. The 1278 acres of El Morro National Monument was set aside in 1906, entrusted to the protection of the National Park Service. They prohibited additional carvings on the mesa.
HC 61 Box 43
Ramah, NM 87321
Desert Safety (pdf)
Visitor Center 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Trails-9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas & New Year’s Day.
Please plan on being here by 4:00 pm at the latest to walk the trail.
El Morro National Monument is located 56 miles southeast of Gallup, NM via Highways 602 and 53 and 42 miles southwest of Grants, NM via Highway 53.
El Morro National is at an elevation of 7,219 feet. Winters can be cold with snow and wind. Summers are hot with afternoon thunder showers. Trails can close unexpectedly due to severe weather. The rangers close portions of the Mesa Top Trail during the winter months (December-March) due to snow and ice. The Inscription Loop Trail is always open.
El Morro National Monument operates a year-round campground with 9 sites. Campsites are free. The don’t accept reservations. Sites are available by self-registration on a first-come, first-served basis. The campground occasionally fills-up on weekends from May through September.
There are no hookups for RVs. The length limit on motor homes is 27 feet overall. Each site has a gravel tent pad, picnic table and ground grill for fires. Fires are permitted in provided grills only. Please comply with seasonal fire restrictions. Bring firewood with you if you intend to have a campfire. Collection of firewood within the monument is prohibited. Water is available during spring and summer months. Once the night time temperatures dip below freezing, park rangers turn off the water for the season. One site, #5, is handicap accessible.
Though once an obligatory stop on a well-trodden path, El Morro is now a quiet place, tucked away on a lightly-traveled road between Acoma and Zuni. The surrounding terrain is a combination of volcanic landscapes and high desert plains, with the lava fields of El Malpais National Monument and the Bandera ice caves on the eastern side of the continental divide and expansive grassy plains, with layers of mesas, stretching to the western horizon.
There are two self-guided hiking trails available to visitors. The short lower trail leads visitors to the oasis, a year-round pool fed by rain and melting snow draining from the mesa’s summit. This ½ mile loop is handicap accessible, passing many of the notable inscriptions. It intersects the secondary trail loop at the base of the mesa. The second trail is approximately 2 miles, with the loop ascending the mesa and traversing the partially-excavated ruins of A’ts’ina. The second trail is a bit more strenuous due to the 250-foot ascent, but it provides a spectacular view of the surrounding mesas, forests and plains. Allow an hour for the low road, 1.5 hours for the high road. Sturdy walking shoes, sunscreen and water are recommended, particularly in the hot summer months. The Mesa Top Trail is closed during severe weather…a common occurrence during the winter months.
ACOMA SKY CITY
One of the oldest continuously occupied communities in North America. I say one, because Taos’ distinction as a UNESCO site makes the matter of who has been here the longest a bit muddled.
CONTINENTAL DIVIDE TRAIL
One of the nation’s triple crown long distance treks starts at New Mexico’s southern border with Mexico, traversing the lenth of the Continental Divide, including a stretch in close proximity to El Morro.
Part of the Bandera volcanic field, El Malpais is a foreboding expanse of volcanic rock covering the plains south of Grants, with cinder cones, lava tube caves, sandstone bluffs and hiking trails.
New Mexico’s second tallest natural arch, located on the west side of El Malpais.
BANDERA ICE CAVES
The insulation provided by the volcanic tubes have preserved an ancient glacier beneath the high desert sands of New Mexico. The ice caves are on private property, but they are open to the public.
Hawikuh, Zuni mission, petroglyph tours available through the Zuni Visitor Center.
Regarded by the Navajo as one of four sacred mountains. The view from the summit may evoke a similar perception. Geologists estimate that the mountain was 18,000-25,000 feet high before it erupted millions of years ago, with the remains strewn across the landscape to the horizon.