Hidden and isolated away in the expansive 3.3 million acres Gila Wilderness are cliffs that Mongollon People went inside and used to occupy and call as home from around 1275 to the early 14th century. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located in the wilderness and in Cliff Dweller Canyon and they are among the numerous national monuments to find in New Mexico. These cliff dwellings, just one of the few in the state, was established as a national monument on November 16, 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt (one of my fave presidents ever for one of these reasons).
The national monument is surrounded by a rugged terrain landscape with steep canyons and within forested trees. As mentioned, these are cliff dwellings, which are sheltered homes built on the sides of cliffs, typically by the prehistoric Puebloan people of the southwest. Gila Cliff Dwellings are very well preserved and according to NPShistory.com, the first excavation occurred in 1962. The Puebloan people used their hard work ethic to build these pueblos inside the cliffs by using rock, mortar, and felled timber. These people lived around there trying to get by with the cultivated crops they grew and they also did hunting. Along with living there, they had to deal with the drought that can easily be experienced in the southwest, so they’d migrate.
These cliff dwellings are gems to explore and they’re quite spacious too! There are 46 rooms that archaeologists have uncovered and there are 5 caves! You should allow yourself time to see all these in a day since I only explored one cave with the limited time I had, but it’s also worth coming back to see all the other parts of the caves, making this national monument worthy of your time. Unlike the cliff dwellings of Montezuma Castle in Arizona, you can actually climb into these caves and see the creations up close with your own eyes but it takes a bit steep hike to get there.
First, I suggest putting down the address of the visitor center of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument on your GPS (I always suggest going to the visitor center first before you go driving and exploring a national park service site). Getting to this national monument is not the easiest, it can be challenging since you should expect to do a long drive through the mountain that crosses through Gila National Forest. The national monument is located right by the city of Silver City, New Mexico. It’s still about an hour and a half away from the city.
It’s truly tucked into the Gila National Forest and you’ll probably be there a good while driving through. It took us about 2 hours to get to the destination. From this drive, you’re actually going to be exploring Gila National Forest, so might as well enjoy the ride and views (there’s some scenic vistas to pull by too).
There will be no service at all throughout the forest and even when you arrive at the visitor center, just a heads up. I always use Waze as my GPS because even when you lose service, the directions keep going (and highly recommend printing directions before you go somewhere without service). Anyway, if you’re confused about where to go find the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, you can either ask the park ranger or you can turn back around go past the bridge you drove through to go to the visitor center and then you make a right from there. When you see signs for “Campgrounds”, you’re heading in the right direction, keep driving straight until you end up at what looks like another visitor center building.
You used to be able to pay for a fee to see the national monument, but now it’s free to go in and see! So, this is so awesome, considering as I’ve been to many national monuments and parks before and it wasn’t as hard or long to find compared to seeing this one, but it’s always important for all these preserved sites to have funding.
The trail to the cliff dwellings 1.1 mile and the elevation gain is 285 ft. It is also a loop. It is rated as easy, but it can be challenging depending on your level. There are some steep steps and narrow pathways. It’s right beside the streams.
Before you get hiking, you’ll be passing by a bridge and you can overlook the Gila River flowing through and the forest with mountains afar. You’ll see a sign that points to the Gila Cliff Dwellings and then the trail starts to look like stairs with some logs laid in between steps. The trail will then turn to a walkable pathway then it turns to stairs again, until the tricky part comes with slabs you have to walk on. It then turns again to a pathway.
When you see the visibility of the first cave, you can have the option to climb up to the ladder or keep walking ahead straight to see the other caves. Remember, there are 5 caves that you can see.
Going inside the caves
Once you go climb into a cave, you can see the detailed pueblos the Mongollons have built. These rooms range from small areas to more wide ones. These rooms have all left a past that is hard to imagine, but they were built to last, that’s for sure. Seeing the brickwork of the walls in person is like exploring the craftsmanship and engineering of the Mongollons. Some of these rooms were built to be storage rooms and rooms used for common use.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings is probably one of the best and only unit of the National Park Service to be a site from the Mongollons. Unfortunately, the national monument has been through vandalism, which can still be seen in some areas (such as the markings of English ABCs that the Mongollons did NOT use) but nonetheless, this national monument has preserved a huge chunk of its history to all its visitors.
Be careful when you step inside the caves and watch your steps as you enter and come out; Climbing the ladder down can be scary, so you should take your time.
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