In Pursuit of Wildness: New Mexico’s El Morro National Monument

Aug 23, 2017 View Comments by

New Mexico has some of the best, less-traveled parks in America. Whether you go north or south, east or west, it is so rewarding.

This state is rich in history with scenery straight out of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Everyone loves New Mexico, especially on a motorcycle. I was born in the small village of La Joya, along the Rio Grande River, so I’m partial to The Land of Enchantment. Once a year, I find myself riding my motorcyle across some of the state’s most scenic, isolated highways in my pursuit of wildness.

In my rearview mirror is Interstate 40. A sign points me to Sanders, where I’ll take Highway 191 south. The slower pace agrees with me as I turn east on Highway 61 to El Morro National Monument. My brother Leo always said I should do this ride. “You’ll find a small campground there and you can hike high on top of the mesa … the views are amazing.” But his next words immediately caught my attention: “Juan de Oñate passed through here and inscribed his name on El Morro.”

El Morro
In 1598, Oñate made a pilgrimage across the state in search of gold. He found little of it, but his mark on our history is inscribed in sandstone here. I love this park. It is peaceful and rich in New Mexico’s history. There are nine campsites, most are covered by shady trees, and the price is right: free. Soon I’ll have my gourmet dinner—beef stew, tortillas, green chili, and a Hostess CupCake for dessert. It’s been a long day, so I’ll save the walk to the visitor center, Inscription Trail, and the Headland Trail for the morning.

My little transistor radio picks up KTNN, a Window Rock, AZ, radio station providing Indian cultural education, news, and country music. The Navajo chants comfort me after a long day, but the occasional country-western music is what I really hope to hear. The station does not disappoint me. This is a quiet spot and the sky is incredible. Shooting stars pass by like Indy race cars, one after another. I wonder if Juan de Oñate also looked up at the night sky in awe or if was he busy planning for the next leg of his expedition. As another streaks across the sky, I know he loved these stars too.

In the morning my small fire is ready for my cowboy breakfast of coffee, Spam, tortillas, and a bit of green chili. Sipping my coffee, I glance toward the huge sandstone bluff that I’ll soon climb. It rises 200 feet above the surrounding land.

Inscription Trail is a must and can be done in a short hour. There are hundreds of Spanish and Anglo inscriptions, as well as prehistoric petroglyphs. They are all valuable, but I am looking for a particular one. “Pasó por aqu픝 (“passed by here”) begins the inscription, a message left by Don Juan de Oñate, the first governor under Spain of New Mexico. According to family genealogy, one of my first ancestors, Juan Griego, accompanied Oñate in 1598 as he colonized New Mexico. The park brochure tells me that Oñate “… brought 400 colonists and 10 Franciscans north, along with 7,000 head of stock. From the beginning, hard winters, lack of food, and the great distances from Mexico caused hardship and discontent among the colonists. Oñate’s explorations finally killed the last hopes for quick riches. Returning from one of these expeditions, Oñate inscribed his name at El Morro on April 16, 1605—the first known European inscription on the rock.”

I’m feeling good, and the Headland Trail is only two miles, so off I go. Leo had said that the views of the Zuni Mountains, the volcanic craters of the El Malpais area, and the El Morro Valley are incredible. So with each deliberate footstep, I climb a bit higher. It is warm but walking feels good and I can easily see 50 miles in all directions. Perhaps Oñate stood here as well. As an explorer, he was always trying to see what might be up ahead, and this is an excellent view of the sweeping land below.

The trail is easy so I continue to the Ancestral Puebloan ruin, Atsinna, or “place of writings on rock.” Between A.D. 1275 to 1350, as many as 1,500 people lived in this 875-room pueblo, which was near the only water source for many miles. According to the National Park Service, “The Puebloans, ingenious farmers of the high desert, were master builders. Their earliest structures, half-buried pithouses, evolved into above-ground pueblos by A.D. 1000. Soon the Puebloans were building many of their villages on mesa tops, perhaps with defense in mind or perhaps simply to be high about the plain.”

A rich history lesson in just two miles. I’m not the least tired, but walk back down to my camp. In the morning, I plan to head farther south toward Pie Town along Highway 60. I can taste the coconut cream pie now.

There is little traffic on these lonely roads. A shortcut to Pie Town exists, but it is on a dirt road (603), so I continue on toward Quemado on the paved road. The little cafe at Pie Town is closed. In years past, I have camped on the free forest land across from the cafe and have eaten pie, but not today.

My ride past Datil, Magdalena, and Socorro is peaceful. I am returning home to La Joya.

Juan de Oñate would have loved a slice of coconut cream pie too, but he was likely thinking about gold as he inscribed his words on the sandstone of El Morro: “Pasó por aquí.”

Planning a Visit
El Morro National Monument is a fascinating mixture of human and natural history. Take a hike to the infamous rock rising 200 feet above the New Mexico desert between Gallup and Grants. This massive sandstone bluff was a welcome landmark for weary travelers. A reliable waterhole hidden at its base made El Morro (or “Inscription Rock”) a popular rest stop. Beginning in the late 1500s, Spaniards, and later Americans, passed by El Morro. While they rested in its shade and drank from the pool, many carved signatures, dates, and messages for future travelers to see.

To Do
Cool autumn weather makes October a prime time to explore the park. Activities include hiking, Ranger-led activities, camping, star gazing, picnicking, kids activities, and exploring the visitor center museum. Hit the museum, then take the short, pleasant hike to Inscription Rock. A tougher two-mile round-trip trek climbs to the mesa top for expansive desert views and ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village.

Hours
El Morro National Monument is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Summer hours are: visitor center 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; trails 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you plan to hike the trails, it is important to be back at the visitor center by 5 p.m.

Cost
El Morro is a fee-free area, including the campground, which has nine campsites.

For more information, visit www.nps.gov/elmo.

 

Text and Photography: Robert Griego

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