The Gila Cliff Dwellings (Gila National Forest)

One of the things we didn’t get to do on our first road trip was to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings, even though we were only a couple miles from them. We just had too much driving to do.

But this time, we had 2 weeks in Gila National Forest and were bound and determined to get to the Cliff Dwellings.

The Cliff Dwellings

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were used by the Mogollon people a little over 700 years ago. There are five different caves, divided with walls into 46 different rooms. There are also a couple of other shallow caves (more like overhangs) that researchers think were used as kitchens and storage areas. The weird thing is that no one really knows why they disappeared.

One of the volunteer guides in the dwellings told us that the caves supported a population of about 40-60. Interestingly, there’s no evidence of warfare in the area until the arrival of Europeans. The cliff dwellings probably would’ve been a good place to make a defensive stand should war have broken out though since there’s only two routes up the 300 ft of elevation from the canyon floor.

The area around the cliff dwellings is both beautiful and rugged. That people were able to create a productive life based on both agriculture (squash, beans, and corn) and hunting is amazing. Compared to other parts of New Mexico, there’s actually quite a bit of water in Gila, so that makes living there easier. But the canyons are sheer and covered in rocks and trees. For the dendrologists out there, Wikipedia tells us that you’ll see “ponderosa pine, Gambel’s oak, Douglas fir, New Mexico juniper, pinon pine, and alligator juniper (among others).”

Things To Do At The Gila Cliff Dwellings

Hike to the dwellings

This one is probably a no-brainer, but the main thing to do at the Cliff Dwellings is to hike to the caves. It’s a short hike, only about 1 mile total round trip. The hike is very well-maintained with a couple of foot bridges across the small creek running through the canyon. The total elevation gain is about 300 feet and most of that is in a single section with steps built in. Otherwise, it’s a very easy, relatively flat hike.

Visiting the Cliff Dwellings costs $3 per person or $10 per family if you don’t have a National Parks Pass.

Other hikes in the area

There are too many hikes to name in the Gila National Forest, but just along the two routes up to the cliff dwellings, you can stop and hike anywhere. On the road that leads from the Visitor Center to the cliffs, there are several hikes, some longer and one very short.

The short one is known as The Trail To The Past and is perhaps 1/4 mile long. The interesting thing about this one is that you can see actual rock paintings still intact from the Mogollon civilization at one end. At the other end is another cliff dwelling with 3 small rooms (it’s the picture with Knox sitting in front of a door). Note, dogs need to be leashed in the wilderness area. We only took Knox off leash long enough for that cute picture.

Visit the Visitor Center

“Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
― Aldo Leopold

The Visitor Center is worth a stop. There’s a small museum describing the Cliff Dwellings and some of the artifacts that have been found in and around the area. Of course, there’s a store with plenty of books to purchase and rangers to ask any questions you might have.

The Visitor Center introduced us to the ideas of a man we’d never heard of: Aldo Leopold. They have quotes of his throughout the small museum that really struck us. Leopold was a forester, ecologist, and environmentalist who was instrumental in the creation of the Gila National Wilderness. For more of his quotes, check out this page.

Visit a hot spring

The Cliff Dwellings are right by an area known as Gila Hot Springs. There are several hot springs in the wilderness that you can visit.

Getting There

From where we were, it was about a 3.5 hour drive each way to get to the dwellings, so we made a whole day of it. We made an epic salad, snagged a couple apples, and headed off, planning to have a picnic lunch and get back around dinner time. Depending on where you’re coming from, there are two ways to get to the Cliff Dwellings, both of which are worth taking.

If you’re coming from the west, you’ll want to pick up NM-15 heading north from Silver City. This is the more scenic and slower of the two drives. The speed limit is 55mph, but unless you’re driving a Corvette and the road is closed to other traffic, you’ll rarely top 35. Yet again, there’s a distinct lack of guardrails. This route is through dense forest with incredible mountain views.

If you’re coming from the east, NM-35 out of San Lorenzo is the road of choice for you. The first half of this drive is much flatter than the NM-15 route, with rolling hills leading into the mountain roads that get you up to the Cliff Dwellings at about 5700 feet of elevation.

It’s actually worth taking both roads. Take NM-15 on the way in and NM-35 on the way out. If you don’t know the roads well, you’ll want to get out while there’s still daylight. In the end, both roads take about the same amount of time from Silver City, 1.5 hours or so.

No Dogs, But…

Dogs are welcome throughout Gila National Forest, but not at the Cliff Dwellings. But they do have free dog kennels that are really big. These kennels are much larger than the ones at Carlsbad Caverns. There are only 5 or 6 kennels, but that seems to be enough since Knox only had one other canine companion. The kennels are well-shaded and open-sided for airflow.

Again, dogs need to be leashed throughout the wilderness area.

The Photos

Want to know what you’re missing? Check out the photos below.