Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila Cliff Dwellings
Silver City, NM

Silver City, NM

Several years ago I became fascinated with the cliff dwellings of the prehistoric people of the southwest, and drove for two hours on a winding, narrow mountain road only to find it closed just before the cliff dwellings. No idea why, though it could have been anything, rock slide, flood, who knows. This time the weather was perfect, I checked the Park Service website ahead of time for any issues, and I was determined to get there. From Silver City, NM it’s a 44 mile drive to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, but they caution that the trip could take 2 hours. Don’t try to do it in your RV!

One thing about the desert southwest–the scenery is usually set against a deep, dark blue sky because of the dry air! At this altitude I had to slow down a little from my usual fast pace. The trail up to the cliff dwellings climbs above a little creek that runs down into the Gila River. There is a lot of greenery here for such a high, dry location, and you can see why it was popular with the nomadic folks who created the cliff dwellings. The cliffs were originally created by volcanic activity and were great for shelter from the weather and natural enemies.

These dwellings were probably only used for about a 30-year period, in the late 13th to early 14th century. The people who lived here were called the Mogollon people. There are a lot of theories about why they left, including normal nomadic patterns, defense against enemies, climate change, and just plain using up the available resources. The dwellings were discovered accidentally by prospectors in the late 19th century, and first protected by the Antiquities Act of 1906, before being transferred to the Park Service in the 1930s.

This wall shows the typical t-shaped entrance–it is thought that this was designed for a person carrying a load of firewood or something of the sort. Amazingly, the wooden posts sticking out of the walls are original–tree ring dating showed they were probably cut sometime between 1275 and 1287.

The heavy coating of soot on the ceilings indicates they burned fires in these rooms. There are various different rooms for sleeping, cooking, storage, and ceremonial purposes. We had a great tour guide (whose name I immediately forgot, sorry) who was a volunteer and had lived in the park for the past three months. Seeing the Cliff Dwellings was so worth the trip–if you do have an RV, you can detour around the worst part of the road on NM35. I also recommend Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado–a little easier to get to and far more elaborate than Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Be sure to stop in Silver City, a charming little spot to get gas, food and lodging before you brave the road to the Cliff Dwellings. I stocked up my cooler with healthy items from their Food Coop and strolled around the main street.


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