Headed out from Las Cruces and bid my family farewell. Today was dedicated to a singular goal of visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. I have made attempts in the past (see here in 2018) and always ran out of time or got turned back due to weather changes. No more barriers today and I was pretty much the only person here. Be warned this is a long post with lots of photos – come along on the journey!
Main Visitor Center
First stop on this overcast Wednesday morning is the main visitor center. It’s on the smaller side as compared to other monuments but what it lacks in size it makes up with very interesting artifacts. Bowls, pottery, arrowheads and more are on display along with educational displays detailing the history of the Mogollon and Apache cultures.
Gila Trailhead Museum
Just down the road at the Gila Trailhead is a small “museum” that houses additional artifacts and displays of the local natural history including a full Mexican Gray Wolf taxidermy, other miscellaneous bones and fossils, and an assortment of minerals.
Cliff Dwelling Trail
The trail up to the cliff dwellings begins right at the same Gila Trailhead which starts by crossing a narrow but relatively long bridge over the West Fork Gila River. From this point of view, the trail loops clockwise up the canyon to the left and then back down the cliff to the right.
Zig-zagging up the trail are several more small bridges. Elevation gain is only a couple hundred feet and is mostly a steady climb to the top of the canyon.
Below those tiny bridges? A small runoff “creek” that has some tiny “waterfalls”. I checked the map and don’t see any springs or seeps labeled so it seems this is entirely runoff but I could be wrong. It snowed here sometime in the past day or two so it’s flowing pretty well today for being winter.
Back on the trail, the climb turns sharply up a series of stone steps and bends around the natural curve of the rocky landscape. Are you ready for today’s gluteus maximus workout?
Above the canyon you get the first glimpse of the dwellings from afar. My initial thought was how brilliant the location is: nobody would find this place by accident, very well hidden and protected by the geography against enemies and the outdoor elements.
One very cool thing that I did not expect: you can walk inside the dwellings using a series of stairs, ladders, and rock steps. Most cultural areas like this are roped or barricaded off for preservation so this is pretty amazing! Upwards and onwards!
Here’s the view from atop that first set of stairs across the other chambers of the dwelling. Mogollon people lived here sometime between 1275-1400 CE. Pretty well preserved for being almost 800 years old.
A little bit further into the chambers and you get a view of the large rocky staircase and other architectural features. In total there are around 40 rooms and archaeologists believe this housed 10 to 15 families.
Another angle from the opposite end looking back to where I stood before. This is a good view to show off the different smaller rooms inside. Some don’t have doors to walk inside but have small wooden steps/ladders for a peek over the walls.
It’s easy to let your imagination start wondering “Was this someone’s living area? Maybe they slept over here?” Other features like this large oven/fireplace are easily recognized. It’s a complex and impressive arrangement of spaces.
Here’s the view from below looking back up towards the dwellings where the ladder ties back to the stone steps a couple photos back. Imagine climbing up and down every day to hunt, gather, and do chores?
One additional cave just past the main dwellings is caved in / not excavated and off limits for exploration. Wonder if there are more rooms and artifacts underneath the rubble? Maybe someday we will find out…
From here the trail leads back down the cliff towards the Gila River. Evidence of past fires can be seen on some of the trees. It was quite slippery going down this morning as the sun had not yet reached some spots to melt the snow and ice.
Trail To The Past
Just across the entrance road is a short trail labeled Trail To The Past. Signs at the trailhead detail another cave dwelling and various rock paintings (pictographs not petroglyphs). Hard to pass that up, let’s take a look.
The trail itself gets narrow at times but is easy to make out and not overly challenging to traverse. Watch out for exposed stones that can twist your ankles and it’s gravy.
Notices are posted at points of the trail asking (warning?) not to disturb or destroy the cultural remnants so that others can enjoy them for generations to come. I’m glad to see these since it’s fairly common to see vandalism and theft in places with rock art like this.
After a couple hundred yards the trail skirts along a rocky prominence and you can find the shelter tucked into the mountain. Pretty good place to be hidden away, very well camouflaged.
Here’s a closer look peeking into the entrance doorway. Large parts of this structure are crumbled away but it’s clear how it was originally built. This is the end of the trail going in this direction.
Heading back the other way past the trailhead is a large collection of pictographs (painted rock art) on the exposed face of the cliff. From a distance they are easy to overlook but up close the rusty-red hues are hard to miss.
Some are more faded than others but keep in mind these are 700 year old paintings and for the age are very well preserved (different from petroglyphs which are carved into rock).
Of course nobody knows what the meanings (if any) the paintings convey. Were these historical? Maps to the area? Or just the expressions of artists in this culture? To me, this one with all the triangles looks like a mountain range and maybe some elk or deer at the top.
Some are more easily deciphered like this stick figure person, however that might only be the basic meaning. Maybe this character was a great leader? More questions than answers…
Others are somewhat vague or entirely perplexing but interesting to think about. The more you look at the wall, the more images become apparent. Spend some time checking this out and dream about going back in time to when they were created for a fun mental adventure!
Here’s the hike recording from the Cliff Dwelling Trail. If you look closely you see my GPS track shape goes way off course while I was inside the cliff dwelling cave. Distance says 1.7 miles but I double-checked and real distance is about 1.1 miles. Of course this doesn’t account for walking back & forth inside of the cliff dwellings but I wanted to note the disrepancy. Elevation gain only a couple hundred feet.
Here’s the track from the Trail To The Past. Distance is just over 2,000 feet or about 2/5ths of a mile. My data says elevation change is 100 feet but that doesn’t seem right to me, it was much flatter in my memory. Either way a very short and easy trail that you can hike quickly with immediate payoff of seeing the dwelling and pictographs.
Lat = 33.2268066 , Long = -108.2696533 -- Show at Google Maps
Author’s Note: Due to many reasons – none of them very good – I’m posting this from the future in April 2022. Actual visit date/time December 11, 2019 1:08pm. I’ll backdate it later so as to maintain chronological order. I’ve got an overwhelming backlog of photos to process which is probably why I procrastinate. Hope you enjoy them all the same.