Explore El Morro Inspiration Rock
When you’ve had your fill of negotiating the boot-eating lava fields of nearby El Malpais National Monument, there’s an easier trail you can hike — one that’s just as interesting. It takes you around Inspiration Rock at El Morro National Monument where you can explore hundreds of petroglyphs left by the Indigenous people who lived here in the late 1200s and inscriptions left by travelers from across the years who passed through the area as early as the 1600s. The remains of the pueblo left by those first people can also been seen.
This fascinating road trip is just 120 miles from Albuquerque. Pack a lunch and head out to explore two national monuments!
For centuries, the only water between the Acoma and Zuni pueblos, a distance of about 100 miles, was a cistern-like basin filled by rain and snowmelt running down the face of the sandstone bluff known as El Morro — which can be translated as a promontory or headland. It was easy to find since the bluff rises 200 feet above the valley floor.
People who paused for water inscribed their names and symbols in the soft sandstone. So many left their mark in the rock, the bluff reads like a Who’s Who of New Mexican history, making it a “must-see” destination in Cibola County, New Mexico.
The bluff is part of a cuesta — a 40- to 45-degree ridge with a gentle slope on one side and a steep slope or sheer drop on the other. The tilt is what distinguishes a cuesta from a mesa. The rock outcrop at El Morro is composed of yellowish-gray Zuni sandstone from the Jurassic Period (200 to 145 million years ago — the peak age of dinosaurs). El Morro was part of a Sahara-like landscape stretching across Northern New Mexico and Arizona and Southern Colorado and Utah. The rock formation was never buried deep enough for the sand grains to be squeezed into harder rock. As a result, it’s the perfect medium for inscriptions.
El Morro was declared a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, preserving the inscriptions and the stories they represent. Walk the half-mile Inscription Trail today, and you’ll learn some of those stories.
First Markings at El Morro
Indigenous people had used the watering hole for decades before the Spaniards arrived. They left petroglyphs carved in the stone, including images of antelope, lizards, snakes, bear paws, human figures, hands, masks, and sacred symbols. In some cases, the Spaniards scratched their names and inscriptions through the native rock carvings.
One inscription reads: “Paso por aqui el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate del descubrimiento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.” (Governor Don Juan de Oñate passed through here, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605.) The Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock 15 years later. Oñate was the first governor of the Province of Nuevo México, and was later disgraced and eventually banned for life from New Mexico by the rulers of Spain over his cruel treatment of the Indigenous people. He was searching for a trail to the Pacific Ocean and left his mark at El Morro after his visit to the Gulf of California.
Don Diego de Vargas’ name is also on the wall. De Vargas recaptured Santa Fe from the pueblos 12 years after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. After he conquered the capital, he executed 70 of the pueblo’s men as a punishment and kidnapped the women and children to distribute them as slaves among the Spaniards. His 1692 inscription boasts of his conquest at his own expense “for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown.”
Other Spanish travelers left their inscriptions — Ramón García in 1709, Ensign Don Joseph de Payba Basconzelos in 1726 (returning to Santa Fe at his own expense, although it’s not clear from where he started), and the “Lord and Governor Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto.”
The longest Spanish inscription was made by Governor Juan de Eulate in 1620. Eulate wrote that he made peace with the Zuni, “with attention, zeal, and prudence, as such a particularly Christian gentleman and gallant soldier of unending, praiseworthy memory.” Someone later scratched out the word “gentleman,” an act that begs an explanation but delivers none. Other historical records from the vantage point of the missionaries described Eulate as someone who was unconcerned with the rights of Indigenous people and was primarily concerned with exploiting them.
El Morro Under the United States
In 1846, the United States assumed sovereignty of New Mexico. Soon English inscriptions began to appear. The first was carved by Lt. James H. Simpson. He was a topographical engineer traveling with Col. John Washington, who attempted to negotiate peace with the Navajo and ended up murdering Chief Narbona. Simpson drew maps and pictures of Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon. He made copies of all the inscriptions at El Morro before leaving his own name here and perhaps left the first blooper, spelling “inscription” without its “R.”
Then, there’s the 1857 inscription by P. Gilmer Breckenridge, the man in charge of Lt. Edward Beale’s herd of camels. Beale was testing the usefulness of camels in the Southwest desert. His experiment succeeded only to be thwarted by the Civil War, which cut off his funds.
An elegant inscription was made by E. Penn Long of Baltimore, Maryland. He, too, was a member of Beale’s expedition as were Misters Engle and Bryn, whose names also appear in the rock face.
R. H. Orton of the California Column left his name and a symbol of a church in 1866, most probably on his return home after mustering out of the army.
Women at El Morro
Women, too, left their mark. There are inscriptions by America Frances Baley and Sallie Fox, who was 12 at the time. They were part of an emigrant wagon train, led by L.J. Rose. His name along with P.H. Williamson and John Udell are also found on the wall. The emigrants were headed for California in 1858. Near the Colorado River, they were attacked by an estimated 800 Mojave Indians. The Mojave killed nine and injured 17, while suffering 87 casualties themselves. Sallie Fox was shot in the arm with an arrow. Survivors walked back to Santa Fe to wait out winter. Then, in 1859, they started for California again, accompanied by Lt. Beale. Sallie made it there this time, and she lived to a ripe old age.
Visiting El Morro
Once past the inscriptions, you can continue along a two-mile trail that switchbacks to the top of the bluff. Besides the incredible vistas from 200 feet above the valley floor, you can visit Atsinna pueblo, abandoned in the late 1300s. About 1,000 people lived here, ancestors of today’s Zuni. They had rain cisterns built into their pueblo but also cut hand-and-toe steps on the cliff face so they could access the natural pool at the base of the bluff.
When you visit El Morro, you’ll drive along New Mexico Highway 53 from Grants. As you paso por aqui (pass through here), pay attention to the road — not its surface but its history. The road you drive on was the wagon road Lt. Beale surveyed and laid out during his camel mission. It ran from Santa Fe to the California border. It was the first practical highway along the 35th Parallel and was a popular trail for emigrants in the 1870s. When the Union Pacific railroad was surveyed, engineers chose to use Campbell’s Pass, 25 miles north of El Morro. That pass eventually was the one used for Route 66 — Steinbeck’s Mother Road — and today’s Interstate 40.
Perhaps the detour also served to protect this unique locale where so many travelers took time to “sign their names on the dotted line.”