El Morro National Monument near Grants, N.Mex. Visited: March 28, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 178 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? El Morro is a large sandstone mesa whose walls contain centuries, perhaps millennia, of graffiti, from Native American petroglyphs to 16th-century Spanish conquistadores to 19th-century American railroad workers. The mesa’s top allows views into its box canyon and of its geological history. And if that were not enough, the ruins of an ancient pueblo village sit atop El Morro.
BEAUTY (7/10) From a distance, nothing about El Morro sets it apart from the other sandstone mesas dotting the New Mexican landscape. It is not until you get out of the car and take a walk around and up and look into the mesa that you recognize its beauty.
The water source that drew ancient travelers to El Morro is tucked around a corner, now reinforced with cement to prevent further erosion. It still appears a peaceful oasis amid arid land and marks the beginning of the trail of human impressions on the rock.
Which is more beautiful – handprints and animal etchings by ancestral Puebloans or the fancy calligraphy left by Spanish explorers? This is up to the viewer. Both are impressively detailed.
A hike up the mesa leads you to another hidden oasis in the form of a box canyon where trees and bushes and shades of green are nestled between rock walls which tell geological time. That is before you come across a remarkably well preserved village which may have housed up to a hundred people atop the mesa.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10) We have seen pueblo ruins, Spanish colonial missions and the reconstructed Golden Spike ceremonial railroad engines. These sites leave an indelible mark on the land, almost fixing its history in their time period.
El Morro is different. Walking along the base of the great mesa, El Morro, is like walking through the history of the American southwest. The multi-era graffiti demonstrates that time does not stand still.
It is easier to imagine people traveling to a place when you see their handwriting, signatures, overblown flowery language and rock art. A wide diversity of people have always stopped here and enjoyed El Morro’s fresh water source. Of course, now graffiti and further rock carvings are not allowed and we believe the water is unfit to drink.
CROWDS (6/10) El Morro NM was not crowded. We felt like we had the park all to ourselves.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) As the crow flies, El Morro NM is about 15 miles south of Interstate 40. However, no road goes over the 9,000-foot mountain, incidentally the Continental Divide, in between. To bypass the Zuñi Mountains, take New Mexico Route 53 from Grants, N.Mex. The road goes south and then takes a 90º turn west, meeting up with El Morro NM in 42 miles.
If you are continuing westward, Route 53 crosses the Arizona border in 50 miles and turns in to Arizona Route 61. 14 miles later, it hits U.S. Route 191. Interstate 40, Exit 339 is 24 miles to the north. The total distance from Grants, N.Mex. via the El Morro NM scenic detour and back to Interstate 40 is 130 miles. The I-40 distance minus the detour is 110 miles.
The pathway from the Visitor Center to the majority of the graffiti is paved, rises only slightly and is easily traversed. A steeper, unpaved path continues up the bluff’s side, a 200-foot rise, if you wish to continue the hike to the mesa top.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) El Morro NM had a good selection of books regarding local Native Americans, astronomy, wildflowers, cowboys and Spanish colonial exploration but nothing really stood out. We had seen nearly all of the books elsewhere, they was not an overwhelming amount of titles and little to separate it from any other Park site in the area.
COSTS (3/5) $3 per adult or free with your National Parks Pass.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) The Ranger office at El Morro NM seems to be located just behind the information desk. As a result a few helpful Rangers rotated back and forth answering questions as well as directing a few our way. “That sure was a short hike, you sure you’ve seen everything?“ “Uh, no. We just forgot to bring water,” we blushingly responded as we returned to the car.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) We knew nothing of El Morro NM prior to our visit. We had not even bothered to read the National Parks Book summary. The Mission '66-era Museum was immediately recognizable with it emphasize on glass cases, recreated drawings, small artifacts and sparse explanations. We sat down for the introductory video unimpressed.
The video itself is a segment from a longer DVD detailing northwestern New Mexico parks. When we saw the pictures of graffiti, pictographs and pueblo ruins, our interest was sparked and we eagerly left for the trail armed with the terrific El Morro Trails guidebook.
The book is $0.50 or available for loan at the Ranger desk. It has color pictures, graphics and terrific explanations for 33 stops along the Park’s two trails. Get the book or borrow it. It is essential, especially if you aim to figure out the arcane Spanish inscriptions that date back as far as 1605.
In an aside, our friend Mike is getting his PhD in medieval studies and spent a few months in Paris libraries reading old French texts. We had no idea how difficult his task must have been until we tried to read the weird letterings, odd syntax and the crazy flourishes of 17th-century Spanish.
FUN (8/10) El Morro NM is a remarkably fun place to spend an afternoon. The Park is small and its layout so perfect that it seems to be designed by a skilled urban spaces planner. The Site’s two trails are nice length and can be combined and finished in less than two hours. The half-mile Inscription Loop is paved and showcases the incredible old graffiti. Many of the inscriptions carry hilarious stories; we won’t spoil the punch lines here.
When the graffiti stops the trail splits, heading back to the VC or up the Mesa Top. We continued.
The graffiti ends as you switchback up 200 feet. You forget about the etchings as you look onto the wide expanses of northwestern New Mexico. Suddenly you are on a pleasant geology walk, ambling past complex sandstone formations. We tried to understand the rocks but were reduced to appreciating their lines, colors and lichens.
We scrambled through narrow boulder formations through the whipping wind and found ourselves at an ancient Pueblo ruin, occupied perhaps during the 13th and 14th century. We were giddy with excitement at the isolated and intact ancient home.
Up above, two hawks soared in tandem. We got out our binoculars as we descended the mesa through a wooded cliff side full of birds. The total distance of the Mesa Top Trail, graffiti included, is only two miles. In that time, we saw an incredible variety of things, all of which immediately grabbed our undivided attention. We had a terrific afternoon at El Morro NM.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (6/10) Does this place sound cool to anyone but us? We sure hope so. A side trip to El Morro NM is not that long a detour from the major east-west highway, I-40. A trip to El Morro, if only just to see the graffiti, is a nice way to break up a boring stretch of Interstate.
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