Finding Beauty And History In New Mexico’s Sandstone

El Morro, or “the headland,” has been a gathering place for centuries (Jim Stratton)

Our first big surprise when we arrived at the visitor center was learning that President Teddy Roosevelt protected this area on December 8, 1906, with his second-ever use of the Antiquities Act. Who knew?

The Antiquities Act was passed by Congress earlier that same year to provide the president with authority to create national monuments from public lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features. It has been used by every president since 1906. But only Devil’s Tower in Wyoming predated this national monument as a place so significant a president would take action to protect it as a national park site. (The Grand Canyon, for the record, wasn’t established as a national monument by Roosevelt until two years later, in 1908).

El Morro means “the headland” or “the bluff.” Rising from the surrounding valley floor, El Morro’s prominent feature is a “cuesta” — a gentle, upwardly sloping rock headland that ends abruptly in a 200-foot nearly vertical face.

El Morro is imposing when you’re standing before it. Courtesy of Jim Stratton.

At the base of El Morro is a 12-foot-deep pool of snowmelt and rain runoff that collects in the protected shade of the cliff face. This year-round water source was a major stopping point along a trail system first established by the Ancestral Puebloans and later used by Zunis, Spanish explorers and Anglo settlers. While camping here, these travelers collectively carved 2,000 signatures, dates, messages and petroglyphs into the soft sandstone of what is now called Inscription Rock.

The first inscriptions were petroglyphs of bighorn sheep and bear paws carved by ancient Zuni Indians whose ancestors disappeared from the region almost 1,000 years ago (similar to artifacts at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, about 130 miles north of El Morro). You can explore the remnants of an ancient village on top of the sandstone mesa at El Morro. It is widely speculated that a drought may have caused the Ancestral Puebloan people to vacate this part of the Southwest a millennium ago, but people kept traveling the trails and El Morro’s year-round water source ensured that this oasis was a regular stopping point.

Spanish explorers left word of who they were and when they passed by. Courtesy of Jim Stratton.

The first non-indigenous travelers to the region were the Spanish who explored the Southwest seeking mythical cities of gold. Spanish inscriptions date to “16 April 1605” (two years before English colonists formed the first permanent European settlement in the country in Jamestown of present-day Virginia), when the first governor of Mexico carved his name, Don Juan de Onate, into the sandstone. Governor Manuel de Silva Nieto added his name on “5 August 1629” and Captain Juan de Arechuleta “passed by here, in the year 1636.”

General Don Diego de Vargas added his name in 1692 and General Juan Paez Hurtado came through in 1736. The last of the Spanish names inscribed in sandstone was Andres Romero in 1774. The calligraphy carved in stone by these Spanish explorers is a marvel. Even after hundreds of years, you can still read the dates, names and messages, including some poetry, beautifully etched in the sandstone. A guide provided by the visitor center annotates the most prominent and historically interesting of the inscriptions.

At least one Civil War veteran, Captain R.H. Orton, noted his stay at El Morro. Courtesy of Jim Stratton.

Some of the earliest Anglo inscriptions were from U.S. Army “camel jockeys.” In the 1850s, the Army experimented with camels to support its desert operations, and several camel-supported expeditions came through this area.

One of the latest inscriptions is from R.H. Orton, a cavalry soldier returning to California after the Civil War — he carved his name in 1866. By the early 1900s, visitors adding their names were starting to deface the historical quality of El Morro. That’s when President Roosevelt acted to protect this unique piece of history.

Because El Morro has been protected as part of the National Park System for more than 100 years, its visitor infrastructure, including a small nine-site campground (water is turned off in winter to prevent damaging the pipes), is well developed and welcoming. A trail built in 1933 by the Civil Works Administration takes you from the visitor center, up a hundred steps carved into the east side of the mesa, through the Ancestral Puebloan village site and along a trail carved into the rock at the top of the mesa, down a switchback trail on the mesa’s west side to the base of Inscription Rock where, among the Gambel oak and pinyon pine, an interpretive trail guides you through the centuries of signatures in sandstone. The trail to the top is an easy two-mile loop, and the half-mile Inscription Rock loop is easily accessed directly from the visitor center if climbing steps to the top isn’t your thing.

Any way you experience this amazing collection of messages, dates and signatures, be sure to give yourself enough time to read them all!

Hiking to the top of the bluff is well worth it to examine the ruins that date back centuries. Courtesy of Jim Stratton.

By Jim Stratton, National Parks Traveler
Support from Western National Parks Association made this article possible.