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EL MORRO

NATIONAL MONUMENT

THIS WATERING HOLE HAS GONE BY MANY NAMES

 

A'ts'ina – “place of writings on rock.”

El Morro – “the bluff or the heartland.”

Inscription Rock.

 

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.

 

Encompassing 2 square miles, El Morro is one of New Mexico’s smallest, and most peculiar, national monuments. It was established 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.

 

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. Relics of ancient Paleo and Archaic hunters, dating back thousands of years, have been found in the area. 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 goes hiking with you. The rangers indicated that he owns the place.

 

A'TS'INA PUEBLO – EL MORRO MESA

 

The ancient Puebloans were both 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 to the pool attest to it providing the community with an additional water source. An alternate trail may have followed the same one that is 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 A'ts'ina was constructed 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. Corn and other crops were grown in irrigated fields on the plains below. Surplus was stored in well-sealed rooms within the pueblo. Cisterns on top of the mesa collected rainwater. Grinding bins and firepits remain today. 18 rooms have been excavated and stabilized. 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.

 

THE ARRIVAL OF THE SPANISH

 

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.

 

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 the 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.

 

In exchange for financing the expedition and funding the establishment of a new colony, he was named governor, captain-general and adelantado. Thus, the territory seized in the name of Spain became Oñate's private feudal domain and he was far from a benevolent overlord. He launched a war against Acoma because they refused to pay a food tribute during a time of famine. Acoma was attacked for three days, with most of the warriors killed. After surrender, 24 men were convicted and maimed, with one foot removed. The women were sold into slavery. Children were sent to missions in Mexico, though records indicate that many were sold into slavery. Oñate was prosecuted for war crimes against the native inhabitants of New Mexico. He was banned from the province and sent back to Spain. Though he later got a lawyer to appeal, receiving an acquittal, he never returned.

 

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."

 

Translated:

 

"Passed by here, the adelantado Don Juan de Oñate from the discovery of the sea of the south the 16th of April of 1605."

 

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."

 

Evidently this fellow was convinced, in 1629, that he had pacified the hostile Zuni, a confident assertion that was decades premature and wildly inaccurate. Three years later, in 1632, Fray Juan de Letrado, a Franciscan missionary assigned to Zuni, was slain by unreceptive members of his flock shortly after his arrival. 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."

 

In August, 1680, the pueblos of New Mexico united to repel the Spanish. The uprising, known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, was organized by Popay, a medicine man from Ohkay Owingeh. Churches were torched. Franciscan priests and Spanish settlers were killed. The survivors were driven from Santa Fe. Pueblo warriors shadowed the retreating Spaniards to El Paso, essentially escorting them out of the state. They didn't attack once the settlers were on the march and heading out. 12 years later the unity had frayed. The drought persisted. Life hadn't improved without the Spanish, with many pueblos under contact attack by Apache and Comanche raiding parties. The Spaniards returned, led by Don Diego de Vargas. On his way to negotiate with the Zuni, he led his troops past El Morro. He left an inscription, 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."

Contact Information

Mailing Address

El Morro National Monument

HC 61 Box 43

Ramah, NM 87321

Phone

(505) 783-4226

2015-2016 Hours

Winter hours begin the first week of September and will remain in effect until May.

 

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.

 

Weather/Climate

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. During the winter months (December-March) all or portions of the Mesa Top Trail are closed due to snow and ice. The Inscription Loop Trail is always open.

Other Things Nearby

Desert Safety (pdf)

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.

EL MALPAIS

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.

LA VENTANA

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.

ZUNI PUEBLO

Hawikuh, Zuni mission, petroglyph tours available through the Zuni Visitor Center.

MOUNT TAYLOR

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.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE AMERICANS

 

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. Additional carvings on the mesa were prohibited.

 

LODGING

 

El Morro National Monument operates a year-round campground with 9 sites. Campsites are fee free. Reservations are not accepted. 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, the water is turned off for the season. One site, #5, is handicap accessible.

HIKING

 

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.

 

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.

Road Trips

JEMEZ MOUNTAINS

Explore the natural resources and history of the Jemez mountains, from the Giusewa Mission Ruins in Jemez Springs to the Valles Caldera, the third largest super volcano in the U.S.

TURQUOISE TRAIL

Mining history from prehistoric turquoise mining to the site of the first gold rush west of the Mississippi. Galleries and gastronomy of Madrid. Hiking, biking and horseback riding options.

SALT MISSIONS SCENIC BYWAY

Heading south from Albuquerque, the Salt Missions Scenic Byway provides the opportunity to explore the ruins of three communities that thrived on the ancient salt trade.

Recent

NEW MEXICO'S SPANISH MISSIONS

The history of the Spanish missions of New Mexico precede the oldest mission in California by a century or more, with the first ones constructed in 1598. Most were damaged or destroyed during the Pueblo Revolt.

NEW MEXICO'S WORLD HERITAGE SITES

3 of the 23 UNESCO world heritage sites in the United States are located in New Mexico, with White Sands currently being considered. Have you visited all of them?

PUEBLO REVOLT

In 1680 the pueblos of New Mexico united to drive the Spanish colonists from the region. The Spanish returned 12 years later when unity had frayed.

ADVENTURES

New Mexico Nomad

THIS WATERING HOLE HAS GONE BY MANY NAMES

 

A'ts'ina – “place of writings on rock.”

El Morro – “the bluff or the heartland.”

Inscription Rock.

 

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.

 

Encompassing 2 square miles, El Morro is one of New Mexico’s smallest, and most peculiar, national monuments. It was established 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.

 

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. Relics of ancient Paleo and Archaic hunters, dating back thousands of years, have been found in the area. 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 goes hiking with you. The rangers indicated that he owns the place.

 

A'TS'INA PUEBLO – EL MORRO MESA

 

The ancient Puebloans were both 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 to the pool attest to it providing the community with an additional water source. An alternate trail may have followed the same one that is 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 A'ts'ina was constructed 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. Corn and other crops were grown in irrigated fields on the plains below. Surplus was stored in well-sealed rooms within the pueblo. Cisterns on top of the mesa collected rainwater. Grinding bins and firepits remain today. 18 rooms have been excavated and stabilized. 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.

THE ARRIVAL OF THE SPANISH

 

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.

 

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 the 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.

 

In exchange for financing the expedition and funding the establishment of a new colony, he was named governor, captain-general and adelantado. Thus, the territory seized in the name of Spain became Oñate's private feudal domain and he was far from a benevolent overlord. He launched a war against Acoma because they refused to pay a food tribute during a time of famine. Acoma was attacked for three days, with most of the warriors killed. After surrender, 24 men were convicted and maimed, with one foot removed. The women were sold into slavery. Children were sent to missions in Mexico, though records indicate that many were sold into slavery. Oñate was prosecuted for war crimes against the native inhabitants of New Mexico. He was banned from the province and sent back to Spain. Though he later got a lawyer to appeal, receiving an acquittal, he never returned.

 

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."

 

Translated:

 

"Passed by here, the adelantado Don Juan de Oñate from the discovery of the sea of the south the 16th of April of 1605."

 

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."

 

Evidently this fellow was convinced, in 1629, that he had pacified the hostile Zuni, a confident assertion that was decades premature and wildly inaccurate. Three years later, in 1632, Fray Juan de Letrado, a Franciscan missionary assigned to Zuni, was slain by unreceptive members of his flock shortly after his arrival. 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."

 

In August, 1680, the pueblos of New Mexico united to repel the Spanish. The uprising, known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, was organized by Popay, a medicine man from Ohkay Owingeh. Churches were torched. Franciscan priests and Spanish settlers were killed. The survivors were driven from Santa Fe. Pueblo warriors shadowed the retreating Spaniards to El Paso, essentially escorting them out of the state. They didn't attack once the settlers were on the march and heading out. 12 years later the unity had frayed. The drought persisted. Life hadn't improved without the Spanish, with many pueblos under contact attack by Apache and Comanche raiding parties. The Spaniards returned, led by Don Diego de Vargas. On his way to negotiate with the Zuni, he led his troops past El Morro. He left an inscription, 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."

EL MORRO

NATIONAL MONUMENT