After spending approximately 4 hours driving from El Paso, Texas into the heart of New Mexico’s beautiful Gila Mountains my wife and I finally reached our ultimate destination, which was the historic Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The cliff dwellings are located in the very center of Gila National Forest and about 44 miles north of the main city in the region, Silver City:
This ancient city was abandoned by its inhabitants, the Mogollon people approximately 700 years ago for unknown reasons. The first of the Mogollon people to arrive in the area of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument did so on foot, following trails across mesas and mountains, and along the streams. These cliff dwellings were first discovered by American settlers in 1878 by a group led by Henry B. Ailman. Interestingly enough Ailman and his group stumbled upon the ruins when they decided to avoid jury duty in Silver City by organizing a gold prospecting trip into the Gila Mountains. They used the same trails the Native-Americans had used for centuries to access the area. Here is what Ailman had to say about the discovery:
Following the west or larger [creek] up two or three miles, we came upon a specimen of an old Cliff Dweller’s village situated, as was their custom, in a crevice where there was good protection afforded by a wide, overhead ledge of projecting rock. In this case, from floor to roof was about eight or nine feet. The walls were of small, flat stones laid in common mud, with no door or window frames. The walls lacked twenty inches connecting with the roof, to give the smoke a chance to escape. They had fireplaces in the center of the apartments.
In searching for relics, the only thing we could find was corncobs, very small, four to five inches long, and only in thickness like your largest finger. A fair sample of these I took with me. This dwelling was about two hundred feet up a steep hill from the creek. We concluded that they selected such sites for protection. Needless to say, Miss Virginia [soon to be his wife] got the corncobs….
Incredibly these same trails that Ailman used to access the heart of the Gila Mountains would continue to be used into the 20th century to reach the dwellings until Highway 15 was completed that has allowed automobiles to make the trip to the cliff dwellings. I for one was glad they made a road into the area because a 44 mile hike or on horseback from Silver City would be too much of an undertaking for most people to do.
The first place those of us visiting by automobile go is to the visitor center:
Right in front of the visitor center was a plaque in commemoration of the Chiricahua Apache Chief Geronimo:
Geronimo claimed to be born at the head waters of the Gila River, which means that this area would be near where he was born. From the plaque we went into the visitor center. Since this is a national monument, the visitor center is run by the National Park Service (NPS). We found the person working at the visitor center to be quite nice and helpful in regards to explaining the history of the cliff dwellings to us. My wife and I find the helpfulness of National Park personnel to be more times than not outstanding and here was no different. The visitor center also had a small museum that explained the history of the cliff dwellings as well. The museum displayed artifacts such as the pottery the Mogollon used:
This showed that the Mogollon that lived in this canyon were skilled potters that used their pots to store foods they grew or foraged in the mountains. Some of the food the Mogollon farmed on the mesa tops and along the river were squash, corn, & beans. Tools used to grind this food and even cups they used to drink out of were on display as well:
I found the fact they created such nice cups to be quite interesting. The museum also had arrowheads and sandles among a host of other items these early Native-Americans used in their daily lives:
According to the museum the Mogollon women worth clothing that consisted of small cotton blankets worn around the shoulders, “skirts” or “aprons” of yucca cord, and sandals plaited of yucca, agave leaves, and bark. The men wore headbands, small cotton blankets draped over their shoulders and probably sometimes tied around their waists as kilts, breechclouts of woven cotton, and plaited sandals. Both men and women probably wore their sandals only while walking on rocky hillsides.
The main activity besides exploring the small museum at the visitor center is to hike the one-mile loop trail that leads through the Cliff Dwellings, which hovers about 180 feet above the canyon floor.
The trail is steep in places and is not wheelchair accessible. The trail isn’t that bad though because my 8 month pregnant wife was able to complete it. The round trip for this hike takes about one hour, but if you are like me and like to take pictures and thoroughly explore the area plan for extra time. I highly recommend hikers bring water during the summer months because it does get hot in the canyon, but since my wife and I were visiting the cliff dwellings in the fall the weather was absolutely perfect.
The trail begins by crossing a walking bridge that spans the Gila River:
Here is the view looking east down the Gila River:
And here is the view looking west up the Gila River:
To the west of the bridge I could make out a beaver dam:
Once across the bridge a prominent sandstone butte welcomes visitors to the entrance of this canyon:
The trail enters into the narrow slot canyon that featured a small creek running down the center of it that empties into the Gila River:
The trail crossed over the creek multiple times with three sturdy well constructed bridges:
Since it was autumn when we visited the cliff dwellings, the trail was encompassed with beautiful fall foliage:
There was still some wildflowers out and showing their colors as well:
Here is the second bridge we crossed over:
While walking up this canyon I couldn’t help, but imagine the ancient Mogollon people walking down this very same trail to collect water from the creek, forage for food in the bushes, and chop down timber from the trees:
As lush as these mountains are, surprisingly the only wildlife we saw during our visit was this lizard:
At the third bridge crossing of the trail the Gila Cliff Dwellings first come into view:
Here is a closer look at the three caves visible from the lower trail:
After the third bridge crossing the trail begins to take a steep climb up the side of the canyon. At the very bottom of the canyon the elevation is 5695 Feet (1736 Meters) and this steep portion of the trail takes visitors to the cliff dwellings that sit over the valley att 5875 Feet (1790 Meters). The NPS conveniently put a park bench for my pregnant wife and others not as fit as myself to rest before completing the steep climb. Even the park bench provides some pretty nice views of the dwellings:
From the bench the trails continues to climb up to where it reaches the first cave opening that leads into the dwelling:
These cliff dwellings were home to approximately 15 families of up to 60 people that lived in this cave for approximately 25 years between 1275-1300 AD. Though they were here only a short time they did plenty of work constructing their village. The most well known feature of the village is this T shaped window that no one really knows what the symbolism of it really means:
As can be seen in the above photo is that the Mogollon built their homes without roofs near the top of the caves which allowed smoke to escape from the buildings. The soot from these ancient fires can still be seen today on the roof of the cave. The Mogollon also used local timbers to help support the adobe and rock walls. Carbon dating has shown that the timbers in place in the dwellings were the original ones installed by the Mogollon back in 1275; that is some pretty good timber:
Why these early Native-Americans came here is quite easy to determine considering the protection the cave provided, the abundant water from the Gila River, and abundant forests & wildlife of the mountains. Here is the view looking south further into this canyon that shows how lushly forested these mountains are:
Why the Mogollon left is harder to determine considering what an ideal location today the canyon appeared to be. Much like the other early cliff dwelling cities in the American Southwest these ruins were abandoned for unknown reasons. Some of the reasons hypothesized for the abandonment of these dwellings was the inhabitants joining another tribe, enslaved by rival Indians, migration due to drought, or maybe they just simply decided to move on for religious of cultural reasons.
The walls of this ancient city were constructed from a mixture of mud and rock that has proved to be able to stand the test of time when protected by the cave. Similar to when I visited the ancient Native-American cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument, these cliff dwellers also liked to paint the side of their walls with art:
While walking through the dwellings it was easy to imagine this being a busy hub of activity as children played, women brought water back up from the creek, and hunters prepared to go out and bring back game to eat:
Most of the structures within the cave were very small because scientists have been able to determine that the women that lived here averaged 5 feet, 1 inch in height while the men were about 5 feet, 5 inches in height. Though small they were fit and muscular. It was also determine that they had dark hair & eyes plus brownish skin. Some of the structures though were so small it hard to imagine what they were used for. I figured this structure was used for storage of food:
Some of the structures had some nice view looking up the valley from inside the cave:
Here is view looking directly across the canyon to the adjacent cliff side:
After checking out the dwellings we climbed down a wooden ladder that was constructed by the NPS to replicate what the Mogollon people would have used:
This brought us back down to the main trail where we proceeded to head back towards the visitor center to conclude our hike. The trail followed the edge of the canyon until it reached the canyon’s mouth which provided us with a nice view of the Gila River and the bridge we crossed to begin the hike:
From here the trail descended steeply down to the river:
As we descended down the trail we made sure to appreciate the bright fall foliage that we were surrounded by:
Before we knew it we were once again back at the Gila River thus concluding our visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings:
Here is some administrative information for those thinking about visiting the dwellings. According to the NPS website the Cliff Dwellings, Gila Visitor Center and trailhead are open every day of the year, including all holidays. From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the trail to the Cliff Dwellings is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The last visitors for the day are allowed up the trail at 5:00 p.m. and everyone must be off the trail by 6:00 p.m. The visitor center is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The rest of the year (Tuesday after Labor Day through Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend), the trail to the Cliff Dwellings is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The last visitors for the day are allowed up the trail at 4:00 p.m. and everyone must be off the trail by 5:00 p.m. The visitor center is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The fee to visit the dwellings is $3.00 per person or $10.00 per family. So it is an affordable way to spend a day, while getting some fresh air, enjoying the mountain scenery, and experiencing a bit of the life of our nation’s earliest Americans. So if you are either living or visiting in the El Paso or southern New Mexico area I highly recommend making a visit to these remote but beautiful mountains.