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Inscription Rock at El Morro National Monument

Written in stone

—Margaret M. Nava

They came to this place for one thing—

water—and, after they had their fill, they left brief messages and signs for those who would come later. Who were these people, and what were they doing in such a remote area?

The first visitors to what we now call El Morro National Monument in Ramah, New Mexico, were probably paleo-indian hunters attracted to the region because of the natural pool of water set at the base of a sandstone bluff. Located on a major main east-west trail, the spring-fed pool was a constant and reliable source of clear, cold water, and attracted deer, rabbits and other wildlife. Before leaving the site, the hunters carved images of people, plants, and animals into the soft stone, perhaps in thanksgiving for the life-sustaining food and water they had received there.

As drought and famine plagued much of the southwest in the thirteenth century, ancestors of the present-day Zuni people built a pueblo high atop the bluff. Named Atsinna (Place of writings on the rock), the pueblo contained approximately 875 rooms, and, at its peak, may have housed as many as fifteen hundred people. Two-hundred-and-fifty feet above the valley floor, the mesa-top pueblo provided a defensible position from which to guard their precious food and water source. In order to get back and forth between the pool and pueblo, these early Puebloans built a rocky trail to the top, and along that trail, they inscribed more images.

By the time Spanish explorers reached the area in the late sixteenth century, the ancient cliff dwellers were long gone but the pool remained a welcome landmark. These explorers often camped overnight either at the base, or on top of the towering rock they named El Morro, which means bluff or headland. Then, as if carrying on a tradition begun hundreds of years earlier, they memorialized their passing by writing their names and short messages in the stone.

The first of such messages was left by Don Juan de Oñate, the colonial governor of the New Spain province of New Mexico. Dated two years before the founding of Jamestown, his message read, “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 sixteenth day of April, 1605).

Believing he had subdued the “hostile” natives, Governor Don Manuel de Silva Nieto boasted that his “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.”

Upon a triumphal return to New Mexico territory following the Pueblo Revolt, Diego de Vargas proclaimed, “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.”

English inscriptions began appearing as soldiers and surveyors moved through the area. In 1849, Lieutenant J.H. Simpson, an Army topographical engineer, and Richard Kern, an artist, added their names, copied many of the older inscriptions, and then wrote about them in eastern newspapers. Perhaps reading about the legendary Inscription Rock, colonists and gold miners headed for California stopped at the rock and, like the Spaniards and explorers before them, left a record of their journey.

Concerning the protection of historic ruins and artifacts, the Antiquities Act, signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt on June 8, 1906, gave the president  authority to restrict the use of certain public lands owned by the federal government. The first of such protected holdings, also known as National Monuments, was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, dedicated on September 24, 1906. El Morro followed on December 8 of the same year, and defacing the bluff has been prohibited ever since. 

In its continued efforts to protect and preserve this historic monument, the National Park Service instituted the El Morro Inscription Preservation Program in 1997. Through this program, the NPS monitors the inevitable deterioration of the delicate sandstone. “El Morro is an important link to the past and natural deterioration of that link is a concern. Even though the inscriptions on Inscription Rock are very old, dating back to the 1600’s, and the petroglyphs are anywhere from 700 to 1000 years old, they will not be here forever. The processes of erosion, weathering, and plant growth all take their toll. Sand grains wear away, rocks crumble and fall, and lichens and clay deposits cover the historic carvings. Important inscriptions become illegible or fall from the face of the bluff. A part of the evidence of our heritage is crumbling away. The National Park Service hopes to preserve this evidence for as long as possible by assessing, monitoring, and treating the inscriptions and the rocks in which they are carved”

El Morro National Monument is on the southwestern flank of the Zuni Mountains about 120 miles west of Albuquerque. Take I-40 west toward Grants to NM Hwy 53 west (Exit 81), and drive about 41 miles south on Ice Caves Road past El Malpaís National Monument to the El Morro National Monument turnoff. The Visitor Center is open daily 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. the remainder of the year. Visitors to the site can walk the paved half-mile Inscription Trail to view the pool and the hundreds of inscriptions written there. More adventurous visitors can take the longer (two-mile) Headland Trail to the top of the bluff, where they can visit Atsinna Pueblo and view the spectacular El Morro Valley. Inscription Trail is wheelchair accessible with assistance; the Headland Trail is not.

At an elevation of 7,219 feet, summers are warm with frequent afternoon thundershowers from mid-July through mid-September. Come prepared, as trails can close unexpectedly due to severe weather. While there are no restaurants within El Morro National Monument, there are many options within 15 miles, and many more in the towns of Gallup, Grants, and Zuni. Leashed, well-behaved pets are allowed on the trails, and the visitor center, picnic area, and campground are all wheelchair accessible. For more information, call 505-783-4226 or logon to:
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