Rising above the valley floor, a massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. Today called El Morro (or Inscription Rock), it marked what became a popular campsite.
Prehistoric Indians were the first to find the waterhole hidden at its base. After the Colorado Plateau was abandoned, people of the Anasazi culture moved into the valley. Around C.E. 1375 they began construction of two villages on top of the bluff. By the 1300s, at least 1500 people occupied the largest village, today called A'ts'ina.
Perhaps seeking a better environment, the Anasazi left their homes by C.E. 1400. For reasons unknown to us, they carved figures, animals, birds, and geometric designs along the cliff. Today these petroglyphs remind us that the Anasazi were the first to leave their mark here.
On March 11, 1583, a Spanish expedition rested by the base of the massive bluff. Noting the secluded pool, they named it El Estanque del Penol (the waterhole of the rock). This place would soon become a popular campsite for the Spaniards.
In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate established the first Spanish colony in what is now New Mexico. While exploring the vast territory, Oñate stopped at El Morro many times. However, it wasn't until 1605 he changed the sandstone face forever. On the 16th of April, he deeply engraved an announcement of his discovery of the southern sea, recording his success for all to see.
Spaniards continued to carve lengthy messages into the stone as late as 1774. These historic writings, with words running together, and unique abbreviations, are a challenge for today's readers.
The late 1700s and early 1800s were a time of cultural and political turmoil for New Mexico. Changing from a Mexican republic to a United States territory, New Mexico played a major role in westward expansion.
US military expeditions were sent to explore the new territory. In September 1849, an Army lieutenant and an artist made their camp at El Morro. The artist spent two days copying the petroglyphs and Spanish messages. Lieutenant J.H. Simpson and artist R.H. Kern recorded their visit too, becoming the first to leave an English inscription on the bluff.
Attracted by the reliable waterhole, grass, and shelter, several military expeditions encamped here. When the trails west opened, pioneers and railroad survey crews passed by. Many left their autographs, carving their names, dates and hometowns into the stone.
Today, some visitors can link their ancestry to names inscribed upon El Morro.
Your visit to El Morro begins here. Rangers are available to answer your questions and orient you to the facilities and self guiding trails. An entrance fee is required. Children under 17 are admitted free. U.S. citizens age 62 and older may purchase a Golden Age Passport for a one-time fee of $10. Golden Eagle and Golden Access passes are also issued and honored. An annual El Morro Park Pass can also be purchased.
The Visitor Center is open daily 9:00 am to 7:00 pm from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm the remainder of the year. The monument is closed Christmas and New Year's Day.
Exhibits located in the Visitor Center span 700 years of human history. A video program provides an introduction to the area.
Two self guiding trails are available.
Inscription Trails is a 1/2 mile round trip walk on a paved surface. The trail begins at the Visitor Center and takes you to Inscription Rock where you can see petroglyphs, old Spanish messages, and autographs dating from the 1800s. The Mesa Top Trail is a 2-mile round trip hike from the Visitor Center across varied terrain. It begins at Inscription Rock and continues to the Anasazi ruins above. This trail focuses on the geology and archeology of the area. A 200-foot climb and the uneven sandstone surface make this a more strenuous hike. Sturdy walking shoes and water are necessary.
Trails are open daily from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm from Memorial Day through Labor Day and from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm the remainder of the year. Trails may be closed because of severe weather conditions.
Picniciking -- Picnic tables are located near the Visitor Center.
Camping -- A 9-site primitive campground operates from mid-May through mid-October on a first come, first-served basis. A fee is charged. Water is available at the campground May through October.
Area Information -- Motels and campgrounds are located in Ramah, Grants, and Gallup. For information call the Grants Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-748-2142 or the Gallup Convention and Visitor Bureau 1-800-242-4282.
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