Corbitt's National Parks
     El Morro
              National Monument


1906: National Monument

Size: 1,279 acres

2008 visitors: 52,297

Stamp: Yes

Rating (1-5):

About the Site

El Morro, Spanish for "The Bluff", is an imposing sandstone monolith that marks a resting place used by people of the region for hundreds if not thousands of years. Situated in eastern New Mexico, not far south of Gallup, El Morro was a welcome sight for travelers not only as a landmark, but more importantly as a source of water. Runoff from rain and snow form a pool in one of the bluff's secluded crannies, which provided a year-round source of water for thirsty people and animals. The sandstone cliffs provided shade, and as people rested, they took the opportunity to record their names and messages in the soft sandstone walls.

What You're Going to See

The massive sandstone bluff rises hundreds of feet above the valley floor, dominating the view for miles around. The pool of trapped water is an oasis in a dry area, giving reeds and birds and animals a sure drink of water year-round. The trail winds around the edge of the cliff, giving visitors an up-close view of the inscriptions in the sandstone, some of them hundreds of years old. Some are rough, others are surprisingly well-done. Hawks and other birds circle overhead, rabbits skitter across the trail. This area doesn't get a lot of rain, so the few trees stand out among the grasses. There is a 14th-century village, called Atsinna, atop El Morro. It's partially excavated.

Personal Observations

Reading up on El Morro, I understood the main attraction to be the inscriptions on the cliff's face. Now inscriptions are nice, but they don't really thrill me, so I was fully prepared to give this place a couple of subbies, maybe three if the visitor center was cool. We we got to the visitor center, I got my stamp, we wandered around the exhibits (it's a decent enough Center), and we decided to take the short half-mile looping trail to see the inscriptions. Along the way I snapped plenty of pictures of the rock carvings, although I seemed to have missed the most famous one of Don Juan de Onate. Maybe that happened when we were encouraging Luke to fill out his Junior Ranger packet. We did see the pool of water for which El Morro became famous, and took some pictures of it, although to this day Gina swears she has no memory of seeing the pool and we're making it up just to bug her. It isn't very big, and swimming isn't allowed, which is probably a good thing. Walking through the mud and marshy reeds might have been icky.

The earliest date is 1605, when Don Juan de Onate, leader of a Spanish expedition, left his name by what he called The Pool by the Great Rock. Since that time, many travellers had left names and dates and descriptions of various kinds and quality on the soft rock. But they weren't the first to decorate the rock. Carvings of animals, and other symbols, indicate that pre-European wanderers had been drinking the water for some time.

After we got to the end of the inscriptions, we came to a fork in the trail, and had a choice to make. Do we turn back for the visitor center and call it a day, or do we follow along for another one and a half miles and take the trail up to the top of the monument? It was warm that July, and there was some talk of splitting the family up, letting some travellers return for air conditioning while others trudged on. But in the end, we decided that all would attempt the bluff. And boy I am glad we did. As it turns out, the view from the top of the bluff is the best reason to see El Morro! The climb was moderately strenuous, especially since I was out of shape. I noticed, however, my kids had no problem bounding up the trail. Weasels. Or antelopes, actually. Mountain goats? Anyway, the view was wonderful, and the sandstone had caught puddles of water from a thunderstorm the night before. The breeze atop the bluff cooled us off as we wandered the semi-marked trail. It gave us a real feeling of acomplishment to complete this two-mile trail, and El Morro turned out to be a consensus favorite Site of northern New Mexico (Bandelier NM being the other). Plus, we saw the ruins of the Atsinna Pueblo atop the bluff, left by ancestors of the Zuni people. Now I ask you, why would they build a settlement so far away from water? I guess they had their reasons.

I decided to give El Morro four subbies. That's a soft rating, I think, meaning it could have been a very strong three subbies. What turned the corner for me was the excellent hike to the top of the bluff. I wasn't expecting it to be so fun, and to offer such a good view. The National Park Service is doing the public a disservice by not emphasizing this part of the Monument more (in my opinion, naturally).

Getting There

From Gallup, New Mexico, take Route 602 south for 32 miles. Turn left on Highway 53 and go east for 21 miles to the National Monument sign. The visitor center is west of the El Morro bluff (can't miss it) and south of the highway.

Nearby Attractions

About 20 miles to the east southeast is El Malpais National Monument. 90 miles to the east is Petroglyph National Monument. 60 miles to the north is Chaco Culture National Historic Park. 90 miles to the northwest, in Arizona, is Canyon de Chelly National Monument. 20 miles south of that is Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. 100 miles to the west is Petrified Forest National Park.

Visited July, 2007.