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When does graffiti become the stuff of history? When, as on Register and Independence rocks in Wyoming, on Courthouse Rock in Nebraska and on the buttes of El Morro National Monument in New Mexico, graffiti records the passage of thousands of settlers and a region's earliest travelers and explorers. All four historic "writing rocks" are Quick Stops off the interstate highway system.

Register Rock, a 100-foot cliff 3 miles south of Guernsey, Wyo., is a Quick Stop off Interstate 25 and U.S. 26, marking the first wagon train stop west of Fort Laramie on the Oregon Trail. Hundreds of names were inscribed here by pioneers moving west over the trail between 1840 and 1860.During a single six months in 1850, as California's Gold Rush converted the Oregon Trail into a veritable wagoneers' freeway, more than 10,000 wagons and perhaps as many as 50,000 overlanders passed this way.

The 5- to 6-foot-deep ruts of their wagon wheels - and the footprints of those who walked beside them - are still plainly visible 2 miles north of Register Rock at the Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site, which also provides a self-guided explanatory tour of some of the most fascinating landmarks of America's pioneering past.

Independence Rock, inscribed with more than 5,000 names, is a towering, 193-foot-high landmark of feldspar and mica that spreads over 27 acres some 50 miles west of Casper, Wyo., off I-25 and State Route 220.

Independence Rock's inscriptions are far older than those of Register Rock. Many were inscribed by the region's earliest explorers and hunters, among them some of the West's first fur trappers. In fact, it was a trapping party headed by one of the West's premier trappers, William Sublette, that on July 4, 1830, named the rock for the celebration day.

Towering Courthouse Rock, off I-80 and U.S. 385/26 4 miles south of Bridgeport, Neb., via State Route 88, marked the end of the prairies and far harder westward going for Oregon Trail emigrants. Hundreds carved their names, hometowns and destinations on the chalklike rock.

But of all writing rocks, perhaps the most historic is the massive, 200-foot-high mesa of sandstone at El Morro National Monument, 40 miles southwest of Grants, N.M., off I-40.

El Morro ("morro" means headland or bluff) preserves among its hundreds of historic inscriptions remarkably legible graffiti made in 1605, two years before the founding of Jamestown and 15 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.

That year the Spanish governor, whose forces had explored a vast region from Kansas to the Gulf of California and had newly subdued the Indians of New Mexico, painstakingly inscribed this message (in Spanish):

"Passed by here the Adelantado Don Juan de Onate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South, the 16th of April of 1605." The "Sea of the South" was the Gulf of California.

But conquistador Onate was far from the first to record his passage on El Morro's Inscription Rock. Hundreds of Indian petroglyphs dating back centuries adorn the landmark's summit.

And among the most interesting El Morro inscription is that of Lt. Edward F. Beale who, in 1857, led west the U.S. Army's first contingent of 25 military camels.

The monument's excellent visitor center interprets many of El Morro's inscriptions, provides visitors with a historic perspective of the inscribers, and a self-guided trail map lets you view close-up graffiti left by ancient Indians, priests, surveyors, military expeditions, pioneers and later travelers. A 17-page booklet, "El Morro Trails" (50 cents), deciphers many of the mesa's inscriptions and explains each marked stop along the monument's trails.

The half-mile Inscription Trail (30 to 40 minutes) passes the signatured base of the landmark and takes you to El Morro's historic watering hole as well as to ancient Indian petroglyphs. The 11/2-mile Mesa Top Trail - 11/2-2 hours, and steep and strenuous in places - leads you past hundreds of inscriptions and, finally, to the great mesa's summit and the well-preserved ruins of a 13th-century Zuni Indian village.

El Morro National Monument is open daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day, from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is $1 per person, a maximum $3 per car.

GETTING THERE. Leave I-40 just south of Grants, N.M., at the State Route 53 exit (Exit 81). Drive south and west 41 miles on Route 53 to the hamlet of El Morro. The national monument is just west of town, on your left.