El Morro National Monument

El Morro
©National Park Service
The Zuni Indians called El Morro A'ts'ina, or
"place of writings on the rock."

El Morro National Monument preserves a timeless record of the people who have lived and passed through this region. A sandstone bluff rises 200 feet from the desert floor. At its base is a pool of cool, clear water, surrounded by cattails, sunflowers, and native grasses. For thousands of years, people crossing the hot, dry desert of what is now New Mexico rested in the shadow of the bluff and refreshed themselves at the pool. For thousands of years, too, they have been compelled to leave their marks on the rock.

The Zuni Indians, descendants of the ancient Anasazi, called this place A'ts'ina, or "place of writings on the rock." The Zuni and their Anasazi ancestors carved images here, including mountain sheep, humanlike creatures, and bear claws. A'ts'ina is still considered a sacred place by modern Zuni.

Spaniards who passed by called the bluff El Morro, "the headland." Don Juan de Onate, who officially colonized New Mexico in 1598, carved his name on El Morro on April 16, 1605. This is the first known European inscription on the rock. After that, hundreds of Spanish governors, soldiers, and priests left brief notes in stone at El Morro. Pioneers and railroad survey parties also added their stories to the rock.

U.S. soldiers, arriving in the mid-1800s, called the bluff Inscription Rock. In 1849, army engineer James H. Simpson and artist Richard Kern were intrigued by the inscriptions and spent two days copying them. Simpson's written descriptions and Kern's drawings were the first records of Inscription Rock.

Self-guiding trails with wayside exhibits lead from the visitor center to Inscription Rock and the ancient pueblo ruins above. From here, visitors get a great view of the surrounding land, which once rose as high as El Morro. Pinyon and ponderosa pine forests grow nearby, and wildflowers bloom all summer.

Atop El Morro are the remains of two Anasazi pueblos; A'ts'ina, the larger of the two, was built around 1275. Anasazi builders cut rock into slabs and piled one on top of the other, using clay and pebbles to cement the slabs in place. The pueblo, which once stood about 300 feet high, housed between 1,000 and 1,500 people in at least 875 connected rooms around a central courtyard.

Down on the plain, the Anasazi of A'ts'ina pueblo grew corn and other crops in irrigated fields. Granaries in the pueblo held the surplus for times of need. Rainwater was collected in cisterns on the mesa top, but the Anasazi also used "steps" in the rock to reach the pool at the base of El Morro.

El Morro National Monument Information

Address: Exit 81 off Interstate 40 West; 42 miles south on Hwy 53
Telephone: 505/783-4226
Hours of Operation: Open daily, hours vary by season; closed Christmas and New Year's Day
Admission: adults, $3; children under 16, free

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Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.