Inside Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila Cliff Dwellings: What To Expect When Visiting The Ruins

Cliff dwellings are relatively common in the Southwest, but few offer an insider look as clear as the Gila Cliff Dwellings in Southern New Mexico.

Not as extensive and spectacular as Mesa Verde in Colorado, or as easy to reach as Montezuma Castle in Arizona, they are still some of the best ancient sites in New Mexico. And, being able to enter the Gila cliff dwellings makes the trip to see them worthwhile.

Besides being able to enter the cliff dwellings, visitors get to explore them for free, since Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is a fee-free park year-round.

Hiking to the cliff dwellings

Entrance to the park might be free, but you need to work for the privilege of exploring the cliff dwellings: you need to hike to reach them. The trail is vertical for the most part, exposed, and rocky, so you need to wear sunscreen and/or a hat and good hiking shoes. However, it is easy enough even for young kids and older people. And, the whole loop is only about one mile long.

Hiking through Cliff Dweller Canyon

Before getting on the trail, a ranger will ask you to leave all food, candy, and gum behind. It’s not just about you potentially littering, but any sweet scent may attract wildlife. They seem to have a problem specifically with pack rats in the cliff dwellings. You can only bring water on the trail besides your camera.

The trail starts relatively flat, but it climbs 180 feet from the canyon floor, it is steep and rocky, and might be muddy at times, but I didn’t find it particularly challenging. But if you do, you’ll find several benches along the trail, perfect opportunities for a stop. Keep in mind though that you are in the desert, and it is going to be sunny on most of the trail.

We visited during spring break, and shared the trail and later the cliff dwellings with large groups, including school-age children. However, you might have a quieter visit if you go off season.

I wouldn’t visit in the summer though – and this advice is coming from someone who lives in the desert.

Cliff Dweller Canyon

View of Cliff Dweller Canyon

The trail leads through Cliff Dweller Canyon, cut by Cliff Dweller Creek, a natural spring at the head of the canyon. Besides the creek that provides a small – but constant – flow of water, you’ll cross a bridge over the Gila River before heading into the canyon.

These reliable water sources were most likely the main reason the Mogollon people settled here. Of course, water also means an abundance of plant and animal life that makes the place desirable.

The first part of the trail leads through a riparian area, filled with vegetation. It’s still desert, but it’s a green desert, filled with trees, bushes, and wildflowers in spring. About a quarter mile in, the cliff dwellings become visible through an opening in the tree canopy.

View of the cliff dwellings from the trail

As the trail starts to climb, it gets sunny and rocky, but offers great views of the canyon bottom and the cliff above. The cliff dwellings are at the top of the trail, high above the canyon floor.

Past them, the trail leads through a fire burned hillside, offering a glimpse into the way nature regenerates with grasses, flowers, and shrubs.

Entering the Gila Cliff Dwellings

The Gila Cliff Dwellings are the most spectacular archaeological sites in this area. They are also one of the few sites that allow interior access to visitors without a guide. Hopefully this can last, visitors will continue to respect the site so the Park Service won’t need to restrict access.

T-window at Gila Cliff Dwellings

To go inside the cliff dwellings, you’ll have to climb a wooden ladder. Before even entering, looking up we noticed a T-shaped doorway, common not only in archaeological sites in the US Southwest, but also in many of the Maya sites we’ve visited over the years. Over the years I’ve read and heard many different explanations for the shape, but regardless the reason, they remind me of the similarities and possible connections between ancient people on the same continent.

Inside the cliff dwellings

After climbing the first ladder, we were in large cavern, with blackened walls and ceiling, remnants of the fires the ancients who lived in them built.

Looking back to the entrance from inside the largest room of the cliff dwellings

We stopped in this cavern to look back to the entrance and the room below. The round holes where the wooden poles once formed a ceiling are clearly visible.

The trail leads through several other rooms, one of them still with barely visible remnants of ancient paint on its walls. Two short ladders lead to the top of walls inside the cavern, were you can take a peek into other interconnected rooms.

The mural on the wall is barely visible, but still there 70 years after it was painted...

The smaller of these rooms served as storage areas, the larger ones were enclosed living spaces, and others, with fire pits, were cooking areas.

And, if you know where to look, you’ll even see pictographs of two different colored snakes on the wall.

If you stay long enough, like we did, you might enjoy a few minutes of solitude in one of the rooms. Or, if you go during a less popular time, you’ll probably have a better experience. Still, no matter how crowded or noisy it gets, the experience is worth it.

Who Built The Gila Cliff Dwellings And When?

Although you’ll find many cliff dwellings in the Southwest, the Gila Cliff Dwellings are the only Mogollon sites.

Years ago, we didn’t hear much about the Mogollon culture, considered part of the Ancient Puebloans. But as archaeologists learned more about the ancient people of the Southwest, they established that it was a distinct prehistoric culture.

They lived in the area that is now southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona, and adjacent areas of northern Mexico and western Texas. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument lies near the center of the Mogollon culture.

Besides the cliff dwellings, other known prehistoric sites within the park include archaic rock shelters through Early and Late Pit House and Classic Pueblo periods. They showcase a 2,000-year sequence of local culture, ranging from semi-permanent habitations to large villages with multiple spheres of influence and then to abandonment and later reoccupation of the area by nomads.

Although it lies in the center of the Mogollon culture, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is also at the periphery of the Mimbres culture famous for its painted pottery. The archeological sites in the park also reflect the relationships between the various prehistoric cultural branches. Studying these sites help archeologists understand cultural interactions and the origins of cultural innovations.

The Mogollon People

Ancient Puebloans, the Mogollon people had different architectural style and pottery than those farther north. Still, they grew corn, beans, and squash, just like the Ancestral Puebloans in southern Arizona.

However, they didn’t have the traditional pit houses and surface pueblos like the Ancestral Puebloans farther north. Instead, they built their pueblo inside the caves of the canyon. They used rock, mortar, and timber to make these caves their homes.

The pottery they left behind suggests that they came into the area from the north, from the Tularosa River region. The timber they used in the cliff dwellings dates between 1276 and 1287. However, all evidence suggests that they moved on in the 1300s, abandoning their homes.

While living here though, they foraged the surrounding forests and the Gila River valley for native plants, they grew several crops, and they also hunted.

Archaeologists found remains of over 32 species of plants inside the cliff dwellings, most wild, including pinion nuts, acorns, grapes, and berries. Besides these, they also found grown crops like a few varieties of corn, beans, and squash. The Mogollon people grew them along the river on the bottom of the canyon and on the fields on the mesa top.

Why Cliff Dwellings?

High on the steep walls of the canyon, the Gila Cliff dwellings offered a great view, but also a strategic location for protection.

Cliff dwellings all over the US Southwest started appearing during a time of warfare and people moving into settlements easier to defend. Building in cliff caves high above canyon walls provided this defense. As a bonus, it also provided protection from the elements.

However, all people of the Southwest were still migrating. So, they eventually left even the best built villages, both cliff dwellings or others.

The Mogollon group of the Gila cliff dwellings lived here for less than a century, abandoning the village they built around 1300. No one was able to figure out why exactly they left, however, the tradition of journeying was part of their culture, so maybe it was just time to move on.

As of where they went… they did not disappear, though evidence of their culture stops around 1400. The descendants of the Mogollon people are part of today’s Pueblo culture of Southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Surroundings: Gila National Forest

Gila National Forest: View from an overlook on the road to the cliff dwellings.

Surrounded by Gila National Forest, a visit to Gila Cliff Dwellings includes at the least driving through this forest. While on the road, it is worth stopping at the viewpoints, and in several places to include a hike or two. Over three million acres of forested hills and mountains comprise Gila National Forest, best known for its wilderness areas.

The Gila National Forest includes more wilderness than any other national forest in the Southwest. These wilderness areas include mountain ranges with grassland foothills and wooded areas of juniper ponderosa pine, and spruce-fir forests, and rock-walled canyons.

Of the three wilderness areas of the Gila National Forest, the Gila Wilderness you’ll drive through to get to the cliff dwellings is the largest. In fact, comprising 559,688 acres, it is New Mexico’s largest wilderness. It is also the world’s first designated wilderness, created on June 3, 1924 thanks to the effort of the conservation pioneer Aldo Leopold. You can learn about Aldo Leopold and his work in the Visitor Center of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Dark Skies

Considering that the cliff dwellings are in the largest wilderness area of New Mexico, it is no wonder you’ll find some of the darkest skies here. The nearest source of light pollution, Silver City, lies across two mountain ranges, about 40 miles from it. In fact, the area has one of the best night skies in the continental US.

The lack of light pollution and lack of moisture and clouds in the air, make Gila Cliff Dwellings and its surroundings the best place for stargazing. Except during the monsoon season, when clouds might cover the starry skies.

Conservation and Sustainability

To keep wilderness protected, you can only explore it on foot or horseback. No motorized vehicles of any kind can leave the designated road through the forest. You won’t find resorts, food, or any other commercial areas in the wilderness.

If you decide to hike one of the trails, make sure you leave no trace. You’ll find very few true wilderness areas on our planet, so it is vitally important to conserve them.

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