Maybe it’s the desert-like terrain, or it could be the tan tones of the sandstone rock, but somehow, it is not hard to imagine a row of camels striding slowly through the rugged landscape at New Mexico’s El Morro National Monument.
It is an image that will require no imagination on the weekend of September 10 and 11, 2022. On those days, El Morro National Monument in western New Mexico will bring back its Camel Corps Commemoration — a biennial event that celebrates an actual camel expedition from the monument’s history.
The Camel Corp Commemoration first debuted at El Morro in 2014, and the plan was to host the event every two years. The camel event occurred in 2016 and 2018, but had to be canceled in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A news release from El Morro National Monument says the 2022 event will include two days of fun, educational opportunities — and yes, camels. The event commemorates the role that camels played in an expedition that passed by El Morro more than a century and a half ago.
Remembering A Historic Expedition
According to information from the monument, the U.S. Army began an experiment in the 1850s with camels imported from the Middle East. The goal was to test the use of camels as pack animals in the desert Southwest.
“A camel expedition sponsored by the U.S. government passed through this area en route to California in 1857, leaving their unique mark in place and time,” says the news release. “Mounted and packed to the fullest, U.S. Army camels proved their potential for western travel.”
Along the way, several members of the expedition inscribed their names on El Morro’s Inscription Rock — one of the monument’s claims to fame, along with its magnificent sandstone cuesta (a ridge with a gentle slope on one side and a steep slope on the other).
Starting with the Zuni people who lived in the area in the late 1200s, continuing with the Spanish explorers who arrived in the 1500s, and including the immigrant settlers who passed through in the 1840s, the sandstone of El Morro has served as a canvas for art and engravings.
Inscriptions in the rock that read “Breckinridge” and “Beale” show traces of the expedition that was led by U.S. Army Major Henry C. Wayne and Edward F. Beale, a superintendent of the Indian Affairs of California who had long tried to solve the water problem on the route from the Mississippi River to California through the Southwestern desert.
In 1855, a military envoy went to Europe and Africa to study the habits of camels in captivity and ultimately bought 33 camels in Egypt and Turkey and sailed them back to Camp Verde, Texas to begin their training.
As they made their way across the west, the camel corps caused a bit of a stir. “The camels are coming,” read a newspaper headline when the animals arrived in Los Angeles in 1857. Several years later, Camp Verde, Texas would fall into Confederate hands during the U.S. Civil War, reportedly ending the camel corps.
How To Attend The Camel Corps Commemoration
El Morro National Monument is located amidst the scenic mesas and buttes an hour southeast of Gallup, New Mexico, 45 miles southwest of Grants, New Mexico along Highway 53, and about two hours west of Albuquerque.
The event will feature historic presentations that will run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (gates open at 9 a.m.). Most of the events will be outdoors, but there will also be children’s programming on the monument’s visitor center patio, including crafts and hands-on activities.
The event will feature interpretive programs by park rangers, as well as historical reenactments by Camel Corps expert Doug Baum who travels with a complement of camels.
Parking is limited at El Morro, so attendees are encouraged to carpool when possible. Overflow parking, should it be needed, is available at the Old School Gallery (across the road from the Ancient Way Café just one mile east of the monument’s entrance on Highway 53) with a shuttle service to the monument (note that face masks may be required, as the park continues to monitor conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic).
Pro Tip: Two scenic hiking trails are available at El Morro National Monument, including the Inscription Trail and the Headlands Trail. The Inscription Trail is a half-mile in length and wheelchair accessible with assistance. The Headland Trail is a two-mile loop that is moderate to strenuous.