Jun 102013
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On the Road – Highway 53, The Ancient Way, in Western New Mexico

Highway 53, The Ancient Way

Highway 53, The Ancient Way

We have been camped on the Acoma Reservation for five days. Yesterday we took a Sunday drive into Grants (just fifteen miles) and then went south on Highway 53 (also known as the Ancient Way) toward El Morro in Cibola County, New Mexico, about another forty miles. The drive south from Grants quickly became increasingly more cool and beautiful as we left the heat and lower elevation and continued a high and steady climb up. Pines became more notable as the landscape changed from empty brush-filled desert to that of the higher desert mountain terrain.

El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument

El Morro is a sandstone promontory with a pool of water at its base, aptly named by the Spaniards, El Morro, Spanish for headland. Standing majestically over the pinon and juniper, El Morro is ever watching the travelers along the old Zuni-Acoma Trail, an ancient Pueblo trade route also known as the Ancient Way, which according to Indiancountrynm.org, “The Trail of the Ancients may be the most historically significant in New Mexico, having been in continuous use since around 900 A.D. The Trail of the Ancients exposes visitors to exploration routes and settlements by Pueblo and Navajo peoples, Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. explorers and settlers. It takes you through Grants, El Morro, the Ice Caves, Chaco Cultural National Historic Park, the Zuni Mountains and Zuni Pueblo, Gallup, the Bisti Badlands, Crownpoint, Shiprock, Farmington, and the San Juan River Basin.”

Filled with inscriptions such as this one, “"By here passed Pedro Romero on the 22nd of August, year of 1751,” El Morro is also known to travelers as Inscription Rock.



The area is very remote and alternative. It is a hub for the area’s rural artists as well. Along the highway we passed an abandoned roadside stand, painted in Native American art and symbols as captured in the photo above which includes a swastika. According to Wiki, the swastika, which is believed to have originated as early as the Bronze Age and has been used by peoples and cultures worldwide, "was also widely used by many southwestern tribes, most notably the Navajo. Among various tribes, the swastika carried different meanings. To the Hopi it represented the wandering Hopi clan; to the Navajo it was one symbol for a whirling log (tsil no'oli), a sacred image representing a legend that was used in healing rituals."

Another shot of the artwork on the abandoned road-side stand

Another shot of the artwork on the abandoned road-side stand

In the El Morro area there is a café, gallery, and RV park. Lively-dressed artists and hippies, locals, hikers, and passers-by alike gather at the Ancient Way Café for food, drinks and comfortable conversation. Note that the El Morro RV park offers full hook-ups and cabins.


Crater at Bandera Volcano

On the way up to El Morro, ten miles north, we passed the Ice Caves of Bandera Volcano. We did not stop in but according to their website, “Located in part of a collapsed lava tube, the ICE CAVES temperature never rises above 31 F. The natural layers of perpetual ice glisten blue-green in the reflected rays of sunlight.” We will plan to return to the caves on another trip. For more info on visiting the caves, go to www.icecaves.com.


Sanctuary Director Leyton Cougar and wolf, Sabine. Photo by: Allison Bailey. Courtesy Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary.




Also in the area near Ramah, just twelve miles south of El Morro, is the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, a wolf rescue center that provides a lifetime haven for those they rescue. The sanctuary is highly involved and dedicated to public education regarding the wolves and also offers an array of activities including guided and group tours, feeding tours, photography tours and primitive camping (no hook-ups, dumps or facilities) though RVs are welcome and also offers a cabin rental.

For more information visit




The town of Grants itself would be a good base for a day trip. Grants offers a variety of motels and campgrounds. There is a crisp feel to the air and a big, blue New Mexico sky above the town which lies just below Mount Taylor and the surrounding mesas. Seen mostly as a comfort or overnight stop on the famed Route 66, a day or two to do some regional sight-seeing is worth the stop. Also in the area are Bluewater Lake, The New Mexico Mining Museum and Cibola National Forest with Chaco Canyon only an hour and a half north.

Other accommodations in the El Morro area include the Cimarron Rose Bed & Breakfast, and Osta Vista Ranch Retreat and Vacation Rentals (Ramah) or The Hermatige at San Lorenzo Catholic Mission which offers a weekend or week's stay at hostel prices.

Regardless of whether you visit the area for a day-trip or stop overnight, there is more to this remote western region of New Mexico than meets the eye. Take a few hours to veer off the beaten path but just be aware that it is a remote and alternative region and though some facilities and services are available, they may not be exactly what you are accustomed to experiencing on the mainstream highway.

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