Headlands Trail

Round Trip Distance: 2 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Elevation: 7242 - 7456 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 1 hr.
Trailhead: Visitor Center
Fee: none
Attractions: Incredible scenery, pueblo

The Headlands trail is located in El Morro National Monument south of Gallop, New Mexico. The west end of the trail begins off of the Inscription Loop where it climbs to the top of the bluffs overlooking the El Morro Valley. From there it makes use of steps carved into the sandstone and follows a fun route that takes it around a scenic box canyon. Nex the trail passes through the ruins of the Atsinna Pueblo before eventually descending back down to the Visitor Center.

Getting to El Morro National Monument is as easy as putting the name into your navigation app and following the directions. From Gallup that would mean taking Exit 20 on Interstate 40 and driving south on Highway 602 for 31 miles before turning east onto Highway 53 and driving another 25 miles to the Visitor Center.

After stopping inside the Visitor Center and getting oriented the east end of the Headlands trail comes up less than 100 feet along the Inscription Loop. For this post we will be traveling the Headlands trail in the counterclockwise direction by following the Inscription Loop first and then starting at the other end of the Headlands trail.

The Inscription Loop is an interpretive trail with numbered stations that correspond with guide book entries that explain many things that would otherwise get overlooked. Hiking the Inscription Loop first allows it to be completed efficiently and before continuing on the Headlands trail you can deposit your guide book in the drop box and save having to carry it for the next mile and a half.

The Headlands trail starts out slowly gaining elevation as it follows a scenic route along the west side of the bluffs.

Near the 0.4 mile point it begins climbing a series of well constructed switchbacks.

At the top of the bluffs the trail begins coursing its way around a scenic rincon that has a prominent monolith in its midst. Ponderosa pines stretch themselves from the canyons floor up to the rim adding their green hue to the multicolored sandstone that makes up the bluffs.

The course around the little box canyon is over uneven slickrock with lots of ups and downs that are aided by steps that have been masterfully hewn from the rock itself. Kids that we watched seemed to find this part of the hike fun and adventurous.

From here the spire looks like a rocketship ready for launch or a pair of hands with palms together. It certainly draws the attention of hikers as the pass by.

The white and yellowish colors are Zuni sandstone. On top of the Zuni sandstone is a darker layer of Dakota sandstone. The variety of colors blend together to create a delightfully pleasing landscape for a hike.

On the crown of the mesa the trail passes through the Atsinna Pueblo. Atsinna translates to “place of writings on rock”. The pueblo with its commanding view of the El Morro Valley consisted of 875 rooms that may have housed up to 1500 people between ~1275 to ~1350 AD. The site has only been partially excavated. The best way to preserve sites like this is to leave the rooms filled with dirt. Some of the rooms have been cleared so that visitors can get a better idea of how they looked originally although at the time they were in use the walls were probably plastered and painted. It is very important to stay on the trail and not touch the walls as they are very fragile. It requires an ongoing effort by the Park Service to stabilize the standing walls.

A large kiva has also been exposed for visitors to view. The kiva would have had a roof through which it was entered. Kivas were used for special ceremonies but they were also a place where men would gather or work.

From the Atsinna Pueblo the trail descends a series of stairs to get back down to the level of the Visitor Center. Some of the steps have sadly been replaced with concrete which doesn't have the same appeal as quarried stone.

The Headlands trail reconnects with the Inscription Loop and comes to an end behind the Visitor Center. In the summer visitors have to be off all the trails by 5pm so try to arrive by 3pm in order to hike both trails and spend some time inside the Visitor Center. There is a campground at El Morro National Monument that is also free and can accomodate small RVs. El Morro is a little out of the way but well worth the little time that it takes for a visit. If you would like to see it for yourself then all you have to do is 'Take a hike'.