Rising above the New Mexico desert between Gallup and Grants, Inscription Rock is an enormous golden piece of sandstone. Now part of El Morro National Monument, the craggy beacon with a hidden pool of water at its base is like a huge natural-history museum that's attracted travelers for centuries.
Don Juan de Oñate, who settled New Mexico for Spain, stopped at the rock in 1605 after discovering what he thought was a passage to the Gulf of California. He recorded the event in a beautiful inscription on the sandstone bluff. It was the first by a European, but El Morro is marked with much older graffiti: petroglyphs carved by early Native Americans.
Cool autumn weather makes October a prime time to explore the park during the 400th anniversary of Oñate's visit. Hit the museum, then take the short, pleasant hike to Inscription Rock. A tougher 2-mile round-trip trek climbs to the mesa top for expansive desert views and ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan village. You can also take in events of the annual Ancient Way Fall Festival (Sep 30-Oct 9; www.icecaves.com/fallfestival.html) along State 53 between Grants and Zuni.
INFO: El Morro National Monument ($3, ages 16 and under free; http://www.nps.gov/elmo or 505/783-4226) is 42 miles southwest of Grants on State 53.