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El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument

New Mexico

Managed by National Park Service

Established 1906

1,278 acres

Website: nps.gov/elmo

Overview

A small pool of reliable water at the base of a sandstone bluff has attracted humans and animals for centuries in this arid region.  Ancestral Puebloans built a village atop the 200-foot-tall mesa and Spanish explorers carved their names alongside petroglyphs at a place they dubbed “el morro” (the headland).  Today, El Morro National Monument is located about 125 miles west of Albuquerque, about 42 miles off Interstate 40.

Highlights

Inscription Rock Trail, Atsinna Pueblo ruins, Mesa Top Trail

Must-Do Activity

The National Park Service visitor center offers a 15-minute film and the half-mile paved Inscription Rock Trail loop to view the carvings.  Pick up a free guidebook that provides details on the earliest European inscriptions that date back to 1605 and the petroglyphs that may be around 1,000 years old. 

Best Trail

The Mesa Top Trail loop climbs to the top of the bluff where there are Ancestral Puebloan ruins and great views of the volcanic El Malpais National Monument.  The hike is about two miles roundtrip, with interesting steps carved into the soft sandstone in places.  The trail may be closed during thunderstorms during the summer and after heavy snowfalls in the winter.

Instagram-worthy Photo

It is worth the short but steep climb to check out the ruins of Atsinna Pueblo (built in the late-1200s) atop the sandstone bluff.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/elmo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The short entrance road is paved from Highway 53.

Camping

The small primitive campground at El Morro National Monument is open year round (except during snowstorms), plus there is a private RV park located near the entrance.

Related Sites

El Malpais National Monument (New Mexico)

Cibola National Forest (New Mexico)

Chaco Culture National Historical Park (New Mexico)

Explore More – Who were the first Anglo-Americans to inscribe their names at El Morro in 1849?

Fort Bowie National Historic Site

Overview

The spring at Apache Pass has attracted humans to this part of the Sonoran Desert for hundreds of years (at least).  As you might have guessed from its name, the Apaches were the area’s inhabitants when the Butterfield Overland Mail route built a station here in 1858.  Four years later, after Apaches ambushed the Union Army during the Civil War, they constructed Fort Bowie to help keep peace in New Mexico.  The fort received an upgrade in 1868, and then was used to fight against Cochise and Geronimo until it was finally abandoned in 1894.

Highlights

Fort Bowie ruins, cemetery, stage station ruins, site of wagon train massacre

Must-Do Activity

To visit the National Park Service (NPS) visitor center, the literal “must-do activity” is to hike 1.5 miles from the trailhead.  You do pass interpretive signs, a cemetery, and ruins along the way, plus you earn an “I Hike For Health” pin just by getting there.  For those unable to hike the trail, contact the NPS for alternate access directions.

Best Trail

Getting to the NPS visitor center means hiking three miles roundtrip in a shadeless desert.  If it is a nice day, make a loop of it by taking Overlook Ridge on the way back to the trailhead.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The post cemetery has freshly-painted wooden grave markers, including one for Geronimo’s two-year-old son.

Peak Season

Winter

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/fobo/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Access to this NPS site requires driving a graded dirt road that is impassable during flash floods.

Camping

Private campgrounds are available in Bowie and Wilcox, Arizona, but we recommend a night at the NPS campground in Chiricahua National Monument (which is well-known for its ringtail and coati sightings).

Related Sites

Chiricahua National Monument (Arizona)

Coronado National Memorial (Arizona)

Tumacacori National Historical Park (Arizona)

Explore More – When did Geronimo finally surrender to U.S. troops before being sent to Fort Bowie and on to Florida’s Fort Pickens (now part of Gulf Islands National Seashore)?

Hovenweep National Monument

Overview

Partially surrounded by Canyons of the Ancients National Monument (run by the Bureau of Land Management), Hovenweep National Monument occupies a remote area on the southern Utah-Colorado border.  Established in 1923, it is composed of six units, the largest of which has a National Park Service (NPS) visitor center on the rim of Little Ruin Canyon, the location of the variable architectural styles of Square Tower Group. 

Highlights

Square Tower Group, Holly Group, Cajon Group, Hackberry Group, Cutthroat Castle Group

Must-Do Activity

At Square Tower Group a two-mile loop hike takes visitors past an impressive collection of structures that date back to the 1200s, the same period that Ancestral Puebloans inhabited nearby Mesa Verde National Park.  The variety of building styles in this narrow canyon is remarkable, from Square Tower and Hovenweep Castle to Twin Towers and the unique Eroded Boulder House.  There is almost no shade to be found on the sagebrush plain of Cajon Mesa, so visiting in the heat of summer may not be as enjoyable.  The good news is that it makes for boundless vistas, especially to the south where Sleeping Ute Mountain looms.

Best Trail

The loop trail at Square Tower Group is paved and wheelchair accessible to the first overlook at Stronghold Point, but then gets much rougher over its two miles, especially at the end where it drops into Little Ruin Canyon.  A four-mile one-way trail connects this area to the Holly Group of ruins.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Little Ruin Canyon has one of the highest density collections of ruins anywhere in the southwest U.S., including the cool Eroded Boulder House, a part of the Square Tower Group.

Peak Season

Spring and fall

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/hove/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Despite its remote location, roads are paved to Square Tower Group, but accessing most of the other units requires driving or hiking rough dirt roads.  Further east in Colorado’s Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, visitors can drive well-maintained roads to the Escalante Ruins and Lowry Pueblo, as well as the two trailheads for Sand Canyon.

Camping

The NPS runs a 30-site campground (for a fee) at its visitor center near Square Tower Group.  Dispersed camping is allowed in many parts of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.

Related Sites

Yucca House National Monument (Colorado)

Natural Bridges National Monument (Utah)

Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Explore More – Hovenweep is a Ute-Paiute word that translates as what?

Wupatki National Monument

Overview

In the open plateau northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona lies 35,000 acres set aside in 1924 to protect a collection of archaeological sites.  A 35-mile drive through Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and adjacent Wupatki National Monument passes through ponderosa pine forests and sunflower-filled meadows on its way to an arid, rocky high desert.  Archaeologists theorize the Ancestral Puebloan people were attracted to this place by the fertile volcanic ash deposited by the contemporaneous eruptions at Sunset Crater. 

Highlights

Wupatki Pueblo, Lomaki Pueblo, Citadel and Nalakihu Pueblos, Wukoki Pueblo

Must-Do Activity

The most famous of the ruins is named Wupatki Pueblo, a three-story, 100-room house inhabited by Sinagua around AD 1100.  At the height of its occupation, the structure was three stories tall and contained 100 rooms.  Its location near a spring allowed villagers to farm the volcanically-enriched soil, plus the leisure to build an amphitheater and ball court.  Here there is more than just crumbling ruins and pottery shards behind glass in a museum; there is a palpable feeling that this was a place where people lived.

Best Trail

The paved walking loop from the visitor center at Wupatki Pueblo is a half mile long and there are short interpretive trails at several additional ruins (see Highlights above), most located not far from parking lots.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Next to the ball court, do not miss the small opening to a larger cavern (or earthcrack) that breathes in or out depending upon the change in barometric pressure.  It is not hard to imagine kids playing here hundreds of years ago.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/wupa/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

$25 per vehicle (or America the Beautiful pass), which also covers entrance to neighboring Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument

Road Conditions

All roads to ruins are paved, but there is one dirt road that leads to the Little Colorado River, which forms the border with the Navajo Indian Reservation.

Camping

The U.S. Forest Service runs the Bonito Campground across from the Sunset Crater visitor center between May and October.  Dispersed camping is allowed in portions of Coconino National Forest.

Related Sites

Walnut Canyon National Monument (Arizona)

Tuzigoot National Monument (Arizona)

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

Explore More – What were the two main types of sedimentary rock used to construct the pueblos?

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Overview

In the heart of the Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona lies Canyon de Chelly National Monument.  Humans have inhabited this area for 4,500 years, leaving behind numerous pictographs and the dramatic ruins of Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.  The Navajo arrived in this region around AD1700 with sheep they gained from Spanish colonists which they utilized to weave intricate wool blankets.  Wars with the Utes, Spanish, Mexicans, and then U.S. government eventually led to their forced migration (“The Long Walk”) to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico around 1864.

Highlights

Spider Rock Overlook, White House Ruin, guided vehicle tours, horseback tours

Must-Do Activity

Four years after being forced to the uninhabitable Bosque Redondo, the Navajo were granted the largest reservation in the country and families still inhabit Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “d’shay”) to this day.  The 84,000-acre National Monument is administered cooperatively with the National Park Service (NPS).  However, entrance into the canyon is limited to guided trips and one publicly accessible trail that drops 500 feet to White House Ruin.  Overlooks along the North and South Rim Drives (17 and 18 miles respectively) are free and open year-round, though.  It not only seems like everything runs on a different clock here, but, unlike the rest of Arizona (and now New Mexico), the Navajo Nation observes Daylight Savings Time, so is always an hour later in the summer months (the same time as New Mexico until the fall).

Best Trail

White House Ruin was inhabited AD1060-1275 and is named for the white plaster used to coat the wall in the upper dwelling.  The 2.5-mile roundtrip White House Trail drops down the canyon wall and cuts through a tunnel.

Instagram-worthy Photo

At the end of South Rim Drive is 800-foot tall Spider Rock, a great spot to watch the sun set, which is an ideal time to photograph the canyon’s red sandstone walls.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/cach/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Note that there is typically a time difference because Arizona and New Mexico do not observe Daylight Savings Time.

Fees

There is no entrance fee for the North and South Rim Drives, but guided tours into the canyon do charge admission.

Road Conditions

All roads open to the public are paved, but guided tours can be very bumpy since they use the canyon bottom as a road.

Camping

The NPS runs Cottonwood Campground with 96 spaces (and running water in the summer) in a grove of Fremont cottonwood trees that turn yellow in the late autumn.  Guided camping trips in the canyon are also available.

Related Sites

Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)

Navajo National Monument (Arizona)

Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site (Arizona)

Explore More – How many millions of years ago did sand dunes turn into Canyon de Chelly’s red sandstone?