Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Written by on July 26, 2015 in NM History & Heritage - Comments Off on Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

High on a cliff above the headwaters of the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico sits a series of stone dwellings tucked cleverly into alcoves. Situated 180 feet above the canyon floor, these 40 precarious perches have level plastered floors, mortared masonry walls, plastered walls, and hearths, and were home to eight or ten families of Native American Mogollon culture. The dwellings were most likely constructed in the late 1200s and have a strong resemblance (construction techniques and T-shaped doorways) to the ancestral Puebloans that lived all across Southwestern America.

A permanent spring and the nearby creek provided water year around for these native peoples. Evidence strongly indicates that they farmed the mesa top and river valley floodplain, and that plants and animals were plentiful in the area. A shell bracelet found in the dwellings shows these people were traders — the shells from the bracelet are native to the Bay of Baja. Many other items indicate trade among the peoples of a large region including macaw parrot feathers, seeds from Mesoamerica, a buffalo scapula, and textiles from plants not grown in the area.

Considerable time was spent cultivating the area and building these astonishing dwellings, yet is appears the Mogollon only lived there for a few generations before disappearing in the early 1300s. Where did they go? Why did they leave? No one really knows for sure, but at about the same time, cultures all over the Southwest uprooted themselves and moved. Scientist speculate that drought drove many cultures from their homes. Others believe many of these cultures had used up all the resources. Unfortunately, they left no written record and we may never know why so many different Native American people choose to leave their homes around the same time period. It remains a frustrating mystery.

The Gila Cliff Dwellers weren’t alone in the area. Since 1955, the headwaters have been recognized as an area of special archeological wealth, with more than 103 prehistoric sites identified within several miles of the West Fork-Middle Fork confluence. In 1962, the original 160-acre monument was nearly tripled in size and is now known to incorporate 45 of these sites, including the TJ Ruin, a open pueblo that contains perhaps 200 rooms.

Activities in the Monument include bird watching, fishing, hiking, interpretive programs, nature walks, stargazing, and wildlife viewing. Along with all these activities, the wilderness areas of the park also offer terrific opportunities for backpacking, horseback riding and camping. Guided tours of the Cliff Dwellings are available twice daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day, and once daily the rest of the year. Several day hikes are easily accessible from the Monument. Perhaps the most popular hikes are the Middle Fork and West Fork Trails, which follow winding canyons and offer spectacular views of the soaring cliffs.

There are several popular hot springs in the area. The closest wilderness hot spring, Lightfeather, is a twenty minute walk from the Gila Visitor Center. The most popular is the Jordan hot spring, which is a six or eight mile hike from the Visitor Center, depending upon the trail head used. Private hot springs are also located in the community of Gila Hot Springs, four miles away from the Monument.

There are no campgrounds in the Monument itself, but there are several locations in the surrounding Gila National Forest. The towns of Gila Hot Springs and Silver City, New Mexico, offer varied accommodations and dining options.

Other attractions in the area include:
White Sands National Monument
Chiricahua National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
HC 68, Box 100
Silver City, NM 88061
Phone: 575-536-9461

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