Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument offers a glimpse into the homes and lives of the Mogollon people who lived in this area over 700 years ago. The first scientific description of a pueblo ruin on the upper Gila River was written in 1874 by Henry Weatherbee Henshaw of the Wheeler Geographical Survey of the Territories of the United States west of the 100th Meridian. The Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1907.
The monument is surrounded by the Gila National Forest and lies within the rugged Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first wilderness area. The Gila National Forest has spectacular scenery ranging from high, cool mountains with aspen and Douglas-fir to warm semi-arid lowlands with juniper, oak and cactus. It is one of the more remote and least developed National Forests in the southwest. Covering 3.3 million acres of publicly owned forest and range land, the Forest is the sixth largest National Forest in the continental United States.
Many questions surround what happened to the Tularosa-Mogollon people who built the cliff dwellings in the late 1270’s but by 1300 had moved on. Breaking with tradition, these people built inside caves with rock, mortar and timbers cut between 1276 and 1287.
After the Mogollon left, no one appears to have lived here for over 100 years. By 1500 Apaches had migrated to the upper Gila River and considered it part of their homeland.
Here are a few sites that can give you more information on this interesting place:
The Cliff Dwellings site is about 1 to 1-1/2 hours north of Silver City, New Mexico. Even though it’s only 44 miles, the drive along Hwy 15 (or 35 & 15) is a slow and beautiful drive. Along the way you will cross the continental divide 3 times above 7000 feet elevation. Be sure to allow ample time to enjoy the scenery along the way.
On Saturday February 19th, my son and his wife joined my wife and me for a visit to Gila. We arrived at the trail head station, which is separate from the Visitor Center site, and found it manned by volunteers. After a short briefing about the site, we were advised the northerly section of the loop trail was closed due to ice. We learned there were a total of 7 caves of which only 6 have ever been inhabited.
As we crossed the bridge over the Gila River a large Rock formation loomed ahead. I didn’t realize it then, but that was the rocky cliffs where the cave dwellings are found.
After about a half mile,the trail switch backs up the hill and soon we got our first glimpse of the caves. Wow, that is cool! I had seen a few pictures of this site but they didn’t come close to the magnitude of the cliff and the size of the caves.
The caves are numbered with a clockwise rotation so we arrived at the small cave first. This cave has some foundations for what may have been food storage. There were also some round circles that may have been supports for large round bottom pots called ollas. This may have been a communal kitchen or food preparation area but it doesn’t appear that someone actually lived there.
A short distance later we came to cave 2. In spite of vandalism over the years, 80% of the original structure is still left here. This was an inhabitance and the “T” shaped doors were typical of the Mogollon construction. Here are a few pictures of cave 2:
Caves 3, 4 and 5 are internally connected with separate openings . This is where the majority of the inhabitance lived and stored their goods. Cave 3 is, what appears to be, the large communal gathering place. Soil was brought in to level up the floor and may have been the site of rituals.
Caves 4 and 5 contain a unique assortment of rooms. Ladders are provided to peer over walls to get a view of how they may have been used. In cave 5 there is one room with a basket of corn 700 years old! Much more corn and other foods were found, but this was left in one room to give you a feel for what it might have been like.
Cave 6 had no structure built in it but there is evidence of soot on the ceiling indicating that it was used.
Cave 7 has never been occupied. Rangers and archeologist have repeatedly repelled over the steep cliff to access it, but nothing has ever been found.
Now let’s look around a bit and see some of the stuff I missed earlier:
The volunteers do a great job of giving informative tours through the caves. It takes an hour or more for a tour of the whole place and well worth the time. There is always a volunteer wandering around answering as many questions as he can. There are volunteer opportunities for anyone who would enjoy working 4-6 months.
After a couple of hours or so we finally had seen enough and headed back down the trail. Now I watched carefully for view of the caves from the trail down by the creek.
New Mexico is a wonderful state and each has it’s own way of doing things. Now, what do you make of this?
I hope you have enjoyed touring these ancient dwellings with me and getting a feel for this very special place. Keep looking for the special sites in your world and celebrate the beauty you find there.