Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

January 16, 2022

President Theodore Roosevelt established Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 to protect ancient Native American-created structures in the Gila Wilderness of southwest New Mexico. It’s a fantastic destination for anyone interested in the history and culture of the southwest United States (and getting there is rewarding as well).

Nancy and I visited Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on a Sunday in mid-January. Because dogs aren’t allowed on the trail to access the dwellings, we decided to board Gunther that weekend. This national monument is very isolated: despite being only about 45 road miles from Silver City, New Mexico, the drive takes about an hour and 45 minutes because of a large number of extremely tight turns.

The road (part of The Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway on New Mexico State Highway 15) is paved and well-maintained, although we saw plenty of ice and snow along the roadside.
The drive isn’t only through dense forests: there are also plenty of extraordinary vistas to enjoy. This is looking to the northeast from NM Highway 15. It’s at least another half hour to the monument from here.
Due at least partially to the Covid-19 pandemic, the monument’s visitor center was closed (which we knew prior to leaving Silver City that morning). We proceeded to the trailhead that takes hikers to the dwellings themselves, but first stopped at a pullout to read about a 1966 excavation that uncovered evidence of nearly 2,000 years of consistent human habitation at this particular site. Evidence of a pithouse structure dating from the year 200 was found, along with other buildings from between 650 and 1000, as well as Pueblo rooms from the period between 1000-1300, and finally a relatively modern three-room adobe homestead dating to the year 1883. The highway on the right side of the photo, which leads to the cliff dwelling’s trailhead, was built in 1966 over some of the excavated ruins; the stone outlines in front of our pickup represent the location of the Pueblo structure dating from between 1000 and 1300. This site is just a few steps from the Gila River (to the left of this photo), so it had easy access to consistent water for all of those inhabitants over the centuries.
The monument has a bookstore adjacent to the trail leading to the dwellings, and this American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was hanging out on the bookstore’s roof. There was a time that I didn’t think too much of crows (the big park that we once lived next to in central Denver had a very large and vocal group of them), but I’ve since begun to appreciate them more. They’re very smart and adaptable birds. While Anglos tend to have negative connotations of crows, many Native American cultures view them with quite a lot of respect. I took this guy’s appearance before our hike as a positive sign, although it’s very possible he was just eyeing my pre-hike peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
This is the trailhead view of the cliff where the dwellings are located, although the dwellings themselves are on the other side of the cliff and not visible from this point. The Mogollon Mountains, which include the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, are located in the caldera of a supervolcano that erupted about 28 million years ago. The eruption, one of several that occurred at about the same time in the same area, had an explosive power 1,000 times that of Mount St. Helen’s eruption in 1980. The volcanic material fell to the ground and, because it was incredibly hot, welded together into a rock called tuff. Later volcanic eruptions covered the tuff with another type of volcanic rock called andesite. All of the ground level of this area was once near the top of the cliffs. Following the eruptions, millions of years of erosion by water, wind and other forces created the sedimentary stone that’s in this and other cliffs. Harder types of rocks at the top of the cliff keep the ground there from eroding as quickly as the softer rocks below. A creek flowing through the area gradually carved out a canyon, and also dislodged huge boulders to expand holes in the cliff that would become caves. About 700 years ago, the Mogollons built their dwellings in those caves.
This is the West Fork of the Gila River, which starts a few miles just north of the dwellings and which one crosses over a bridge to begin the hike. The West Fork joins the Middle Fork of the Gila River a couple of miles east of this bridge near the monument’s visitor center, and they converge with the East Fork a few miles further downvalley. We’d see more of the Gila River in the weeks to come.
The short hike, a one-mile loop that passes the dwellings, is one of the more pleasant ones Nancy and I have been on in a long time. It’s shaded by trees and by the walls of the steep canyon through which Cliff Dweller Creek, a year-round source of water that converges with the Gila River, flows. The canyon and surrounding area are home to a number of species of animals like deer, turkey, and javelina – all of which provided the Mogollon in their day with food as well as materials with which to build tools. Between the animals, the trees and plants, and the water of Cliff Dweller Creek (the Mogollons likely called it something else), the cliff dwellers had everything they needed to make a home.
I regret not keeping count of how many bridges cross Cliff Dweller Creek on the way to the dwellings, but it was at least a dozen. Having helped build parts of quite a few trails, Nancy and I appreciated the work that went into developing and maintaining this one. Even though we were in southwestern New Mexico, we were glad we both had jackets for this hike – it was chilly in the shade.
To wit: I thought the material on the canyon wall on the left was evidence of a popular place for birds or maybe rodents; as we walked closer I realized that it was frozen water coming from a spring that feeds the creek.
After a very pleasant walk in the canyon, the trail rises gradually to provide this view (with a telephoto camera lens) of the dwellings. The person at the structure on the left provides a sense of scale; we were to find that she’s an National Park Service volunteer named Lena. The black streaks arising from the caves are evidence of human habitation: carbon from cooking and heating fires from 700 years ago and even further back. Soot on the cave ceilings indicates that humans lived in these caves for thousands of years before the Mogollon arrived and made improvements.

Archeologists believe, based on studying designs on pottery found within the ruins, the Mogollon people who built and lived in these dwellings originally came from the Tularosa River region, which is about 60 miles north of the monument. From dendrochronology that dates timbers used in the construction of the dwellings, researchers believe the structures were built between the years 1276 and 1287.

About 40 structures, ranging from large communal rooms to small storage areas, were built in five natural caves within the cliff. The dwellings provided homes for 12-15 families.
Lena, the NPS volunteer, said that about 90 percent of the present-day dwellings is original; the rest has been work done by NPS to help protect and fortify the structures. It’s notable that walking around the structures within Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is permitted and encouraged; that’s not the case with all NPS cliff dwelling sites because of (wholly understandable) concern about destruction from human traffic. Nancy and I have really enjoyed visiting some of the more remote NPS locations in New Mexico and Arizona, in part because of the lack of crowds.
This wood beam, or viga, is original to the cliff dwellings, and along with a series of other vigas and additional materials supported another floor above this room. The tree that the wood log came from was felled 500 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I didn’t place anything next to it for a sense of scale (it’s 750 years old), but I’d say about 18 inches of the viga is protruding from the wall.
Here is an intrepid researcher, from her tenuous perch high atop a wooden ladder, peering into the depths of one of the structures. What clues will she find as to what really happened?
This is a view looking through the natural cave opening to the canyon wall on the other side of Cliff Dweller Creek below. The holes in the walls of the structure are where vigas were placed to provide support to another floor of the still-existing room.

Despite putting a lot of effort into the construction, the Mogollon lived in these dwellings for only a short time before moving southward in about the year 1300. While research continues to determine reasons for their departure, most evidence points to a widespread and prolonged drought that forced many Native Americans into larger communities in present-day northern Mexico.

Present-day Native Americans say that the Mogollon never left; their descendants became the Zuni and Acoma Pueblo tribes of present-day New Mexico and the Hopi tribe in present-day Arizona.

The Mogollon weren’t the last Native Americans to live in this area. Evidence shows that the Apache moved to the upper Gila River in the sixteenth century. The storied Apache leader Geronimo was born very near the cliff dwellings, at the headwaters of the Gila River, in the early 1820s.

Because of the nearly two-hour drive from Silver City, the largest municipality close to the dwellings, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is not a destination one goes to by accident. However, it’s well worth the effort to get there, and we’re both looking forward to a return trip in the future.

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