Gila Cliff Dwellings:By Bob Sanchez
Ancient beauty within easy reach
Apparently, the Mogollon valued privacy.
If so, they found the right place in the remote and rugged terrain north of present-day Silver City. For about a hundred years around the thirteenth century, they lived on the relative safety of a cliffside near the banks of the Gila River. The Mogollon (pronounced muguhYON) eventually moved on for unknown reasons, perhaps joining and blending with the Apache and other groups. Whites rediscovered the caves in 1878, and by 1884 looted many of the remaining artifacts. Yet plenty of evidence remains of human activity: stone walls, areas for cooking and food preparation, and forty large rooms.
About six hundred years after the Mogollon departure, my wife and I decided to visit these Gila Cliff Dwellings. Friends told us they had made the trip, leaving Las Cruces at 6 a.m. and returning at 10 p.m. Ouch. That didn’t sound like a day trip to us.
We delayed our visit until we purchased our RV, then did a little web research that turned up Doc Campbell’s RV site in Gila Hot Springs, only a short distance from the dwellings. We eagerly planned our first trip. Of course we could have driven our car and stayed in a motel. Silver City is about 42 miles away, making it a good jumping-off point. A couple of small, no-frills campsites are also available between the Visitor’s Center and the trailhead. My wife and I chose to stay at Doc Campbell’s, with hookups for electricity, water, and—does life get any better than this?—a sewer connection. (To borrow a title from Willa Cather: O Pioneers!)
The round trip from Las Cruces is only 300 miles, but parts of the route are slow going. We took I-10 to Deming, Route 180 north to Routes 152, 35, and finally, 15. This allowed us to bypass the tricky part of Route 15 that is closed to vehicles longer than 20 feet because of the narrow road and sharp bends. That excluded us and our 25-foot RV, and it kept us from seeing Pinos Altos, which may be a good overnight stop for auto travelers with its Bear Creek Motel and Cabins. But even if you’re driving your car, be careful on that lower part of Route 15. An email correspondent told me that on the same day we went, he drove that stretch in his car and got stuck by trying to turn around on a hairpin turn, resulting in a 2-1/2 hour delay until help arrived.
Not that the rest of Route 15 is a superhighway; it’s slow and winding, but worth it. Stop at the Visitor’s Center for information and books, or drive directly to the parking lot at the trailhead. From there you can see the magnificent cliffs. You’ll pay a nominal admission charge of $3 per person (cash and exact change required), unless you have a Golden Age pass. Knowledgeable volunteer docents cheerfully answer questions and chat with visitors. Twice daily, they offer free guided tours beginning at the dwellings. Just cross a footbridge over the Gila River, and you’re on your way.
The trail is a one-mile walk with log steps and a series of footbridges that criss-cross a mountain brook among ponderosa pines, cactus, piñon, junipers, and Douglas fir. Though the walk is easy enough, the trail rises 180 feet, including one steep section. Benches are available along the way in case you tire, and you may find a walking stick helpful.
It takes only a few minutes to get your first glance at the ancient cliff dwellings. They are a marvel—no structure could be stronger than a series of caves shielded by several hundred feet of sheer cliff. It’s made of a congomerate spewed out about 28,000,000 years ago by a pair of volcanoes.
It’s easy to see the appeal, having an isolated location well-protected from elements and enemies, with access to water and wildlife. The Mogollon created forty rooms inside the six caves, and the people were probably quite safe from wild animals. They hunted and fished, grew corn, beans, and squash. Yucca proved to be a versatile resource for food, material for sandals, needles, and even soap. Archaeologists estimate the dates of the Mogollon cliff occupation to be from 1270 to 1300 AD based on close examination of artifacts left behind, for example, analyzing core samples of the wood in the vegas.
Less easy to see is why they left after living in the area for only a century. Drought, perhaps? Over the centuries, other people used the caves for brief periods and then left. The Chiricahua Apache once lived in the area until the United States forced them onto reservations in the 1880s. In 1907, Congress and President Theodore Roosevelt established the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and the Gila National Forest. If you’d like to learn more before your trip, see the Park Service’s website. On that website, be sure to click the “History & Culture” tab, which leads to the boring-sounding “Administrative History.” Don’t let the drab title fool you. This has plenty of additional information, including useful sketches of the dwellings.
During the summer, the trail to the dwellings is open from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m., and you have to be off the trail by 7 p.m. Hours vary by season, so check the website or call 575-536-9461 if you’re visiting another time of the year. The Park Service advises visitors to wear sturdy clothing and to bring water.
If you live in Las Cruces, be sure to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings at least once in your life. You’ll see a place of serene beauty that thrived in a time before recorded history.