V: El Morro National Monument


This blog posting begins a series of posts from a weekend road trip across the desert Southwest. My birthday happened to land right in the middle of my internship in New Mexico, and Anton flew out to visit me. Together, we had the best time imaginable. Our original route is shown below, starting from Albuquerque and ending back in Santa Fe. Some changes were made along the way, but the final trip turned out to be almost exactly what we had planned.

El Morro Visitor Center with the two cutest Junior Rangers I’ve ever seen.


Our first stop after leaving Albuquerque was El Morro National Monument (Stop B in western New Mexico). This stop allowed us to break up the driving and stretch our legs, since we were aiming to reach Flagstaff that night. For hundreds of years, explorers of the Southwest would stop at El Morro for the reliable source of water at the base of the sandstone formation. Along the way, many of them carved their names into the walls, making the monument a “historical guestbook,” so to speak.

We decided to do the 2-mile (250-foot elevation gain) Headland Trail which allowed us to climb to the top of the bluff and look down on the valley floor. At the top of the monument, the trail winds past “Atsinna,” an Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) ruin inhabited from about 1275 – 1350 A.D. At its prime, up to 1500 people lived in the pueblo’s 875 rooms. The location was ideal because it included the only steady water source for miles, with the high bluffs acting as a defense for the Ancestral Pueblo people.

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Before approaching the edge of the bluff, you can look down into a massive volcanic crater that you will eventually circle around. I found the path hard to follow in some areas, but the general route and direction of travel is clear. On the day we hiked, the weather was almost perfect: sunny, although a bit windy with some chill.

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The view down into the valley was pretty amazing, especially considering the sheer cliffs of the monument.

Most people who know me also know that I simply love the Southwest. So I was a bit nervous for my foreign visitor after I had raved about the landscapes so much. However, his proclamation of “Yeah, this is awesome,” put me at ease. At that point I was able to think to myself “well just wait until tomorrow.” The beauty of our route is that the stops got progressively more and more astounding.

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After taking our time to explore the top of the bluff, I was getting cold and wanted to climb back down. We could see from the top that there was still snow on the ground in areas shaded by the monument, on March 25!

Once we reached the bottom of the monument, we began to see the inscriptions from centuries of previous visitors – petroglyphs, signatures of Spanish exploration parties, and Anglo-American signatures, all stopping by El Morro for water and some relief from the sun. The national monument truly is a guestbook for western explorers.

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