Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument Things to Do

  • Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard
    Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard
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  • First view of the dwellings
    First view of the dwellings
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  • Getting closer
    Getting closer
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Most Recent Things to Do in Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

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    The path to the dwellings

    by toonsarah Updated Oct 24, 2011

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    West Fork of the Gila River
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    After checking out the Visitor Centre you will need to return to your vehicle and drive the two miles to the main parking lot for the dwellings themselves. It is not possible to view the cliff dwellings from the road so you will need to be able to walk a short-ish distance even to see them from a distance. Before you set out a ranger will give you a leaflet (the “Cliff Dweller Canyon Companion”)and explain the walk. You will also be asked if you are carrying any food or drink – only water is allowed on the trail so everything else must be left in your car.

    Leaving the parking lot, the path takes you across the West Fork of the Gila River, which was largely dried up when we were there in late September (photo one). You then follow a tributary stream, Cliff Dweller Creek, (photo two) on a path that ascends a little, with a few steps in places. So far the walk is easy, although not accessible for anyone with real walking difficulties (we noticed that one elderly lady turned back, leaving her husband to do the walk on his own). The path is mostly shaded and there are glimpses of the cliffs above you, although not yet of the caves themselves. Look out for wildlife – we spotted a good-sized lizard (photo three), which a ranger later identified for me as a Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard.

    After about ¼ mile the path arrives at the viewpoint from where you will get your first glimpse of the cliff dwellings (photo four). If you find walking difficult, you may want to turn back here, as the path is about to get a lot steeper. But while I don’t consider myself especially fit or accustomed to hiking, and I had a bad back on our visit, I did make it to the top and around the full loop without too much difficulty. So I do recommend that you give it a go if at all possible - you will be glad that you did! The steepest part is that immediately in front of you – a series of steep steps winding upwards until you emerge at the level of the dwellings (photo five). From here it is an easier and more level walk along the face of the cliff to Cave 1.

    My tour continues in “Exploring the caves”, my next tip.

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    Exploring the caves

    by toonsarah Written Oct 23, 2011

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    Cave two
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    What makes the Gila Cliff Dwellings special is not their size (several other places, such as Bandelier or Chaco Canyon have bigger groupings) but the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings, and can do so if you want to on your own. This makes it easier, I think, to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like. This was why we deliberately chose to explore on our own, but if you’d like to take a guided tour, these are offered daily at 1.00 p.m. Note though that the tours start at the Cliff Dwellings and you’ll need to allow about 30-40 minutes to walk up from the trailhead.

    Whether exploring alone or in a group, there are six caves that you can enter, although as four and five are linked it may not feel like that many. This first one is the smallest and has very little in the way of structures, but moving on to cave two (photo one) you will see some of the original Mogollon constructions. These had already been vandalised when the dwellings were first properly explored by experts, but about 80% of the original structures remained, and the rest have been carefully restored.

    There are more structures in cave three, which you need to climb up to. This is where you can really get a sense of the long-ago inhabitants, as you look up at the roof of the cave blackened by soot from their fires, or look out across the valley from its cool interior, as they must have done. Photo two shows the view of its entrance from cave two, and photo three was taken looking out from this cave.

    Caves four and five are linked, and I confess that I couldn’t work out exactly where one ended and the next began, even though a helpful ranger whom we met here explained it – the small structure to the right of my photo (photo four), with what appears to be a window, is at the point where cave four becomes cave five. There is apparently a mystery surrounding the purpose of this structure, which is too large to have been a storage area (and in any case has sooty walls) and too small to have been a dwelling.

    Without that helpful ranger we would not have known to climb the ladder propped against one wall in cave five and look down and to the right – and we would have missed seeing the pictograph (photo five) painted there by the Mogollon, and the remains of some corn husks on the floor below.

    To exit these caves you have to climb down a wooden ladder of about a dozen steps – if you don’t fancy this you can retrace your steps to cave three and descend from there. The trail then passes cave six, which you can’t enter, and then loops round the cliff face before descending steeply to rejoin the outward trail just before the bridge.

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    Visitor Centre

    by toonsarah Written Oct 23, 2011

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    Visitor Centre
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    Before driving to the cliff dwellings themselves, do make the short detour to the Visitor Centre. There are interesting displays of Mogollon artefacts from the Gila Cliff Dwellings and surrounding area and an exhibit on the Chiricahua Apache who consider the wilderness to be their homeland. There’s also a video showing what life may have been like for the Mogollon who built and occupied the Cliff Dwellings, but we decided to skip that and head on up to the dwellings themselves. We did stop to buy a few post-cards (there’s also a good range of books and a few other items) and to chat to the helpful rangers who told us a bit more about the path to the dwellings and also about some good places to picnic.

    Outside the centre, don’t miss the memorial to Geronimo near the entrance to the parking area (photo three). The Chiricahua Apache chief was born very near here (“By the headwaters of the Gila”, as the monument says). He was one of the fiercest warriors who ever lived, but he didn’t turn to fighting until after the senseless slaughter by Mexican troops of his mother, wife, children, and other tribal women in 1858. During his time as a war chief, Geronimo was notorious for consistently urging raids and war upon first Mexican and later American settlements across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1886 he surrendered to U.S. authorities and the Government moved him and the remaining Chiricahua Apaches out of their homeland. He became a celebrity in later life, but was never granted his wish to return to his homeland.

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    Cliff Dwellings

    by Basaic Written May 31, 2009

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    Cave Dwelling (Note the T-shaped Door)
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    The cave dwellings were built by the Mogollon People around 1276. these ruins indicate a lot of contact between the Mogollon and other peoples. Pottery used by the Mimbres People were found near the dwellings as were feathers from birds indigenous to Central America. The Mogollon also used t shaped doors common to other groups.

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    Cliff Dwellings Trail

    by Basaic Written May 31, 2009

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    Cliff Dwellings Trail
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    The trail leading to the cliff dwellings is a 1 mile loop trail. There is a viewpoint for the dwellings at the 1/4 mile mark that is easy to get to. I saw a lady in a knee brace do it. The trail gets pretty steep and rocky after that point. If you climb up into the dwellings you will ahve to climb down a wooden ladder or backtrack.

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    Visitors Center

    by Basaic Written May 31, 2009

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    Visitors Center

    Your trip should begin with a stop at the visitors center. Her you can pay your fee of $3 per individual or $10 per family, and collect a map of the park and any other brochures you may need. If you do not need any information about the park, you can also pay the entrance fee at a self-pay station.

    Please note that although the park is only 44 miles north of Silver City, driving time can be up to two hours due to the mountainous terrain.

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    Hike up the the dwellings

    by painterdave Updated Dec 23, 2007

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    view from the trail as you climb higher
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    There is a main parking lot where you will leave your vehicle. The park has placed a small building where there is a display of animals, and plant life with explanations. Be sure and go in here before hiking up to the ruins. There will be volunteers at the beginning of the trail who will explain where you will be going and the difficulty. This hike begins gradually along the base of the cliff, and then it will climb by switchbacks to reach the level of the dwellings. It is an easy hike which takes 15 minutes to reach the monument. It is not wheel chair accesible.
    On the steepest part of the climb, there are benches for taking a break and enjoying the fantastic view.
    You will descend on a different trail, although there are no rules about reversing your course.

    At the ruins there will be a Ranger who can explain the history and he/she will have interesting stories to relate. Be sure and take advantage of any free tours they will offer.
    The Ranger Station has some great books, stop and take a look.

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    Native American History

    by painterdave Updated Dec 23, 2007

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    The Geronimo Monument

    The road goes directly to the Ranger Station. When you stop at the Ranger Station/Museum you will see a monument to Geronimo. The museum is free, and there is a great book store there. There are numerous books available for purchase in the museum which will describe the history of this famous Apache Chief.
    This land where you will be standing was where he was born, and was his home land.

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    Pictographs

    by Stephen-KarenConn Updated Jan 4, 2005

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    Pictograph of a Man

    A pictograph, or pictogram, is a figure which is either painted or drawn while a petroglyph is one which is scratched or carved into the surface of a rock. On the walls of the Gila Cliff Dwellings are a small number of pictographs, ancient symbols which are a forerunner to modern writing. It is not known whether the pictographs found here were intended to convey a message, or were merely ancient grafiti.

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    Ladder to the Trail Back Down the Cliffs

    by Stephen-KarenConn Written Jan 2, 2005

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    Karen Decends from the Cliff Dwellings

    The cliff dwellers used rustic wooden ladders such as the one pictured here to climb up to or down from their homes. On the loop trail, the ascent is made by way of a set of stairs, and the descent by this ladder. Those who do not want to climb down the ladder may retrace their steps and go back down the stairs. From here the trail loops a different return route to the beginning. However, on the day we were there in late December, the return trail was closed due to ice, so we went back the way we had come - which was still quite icy.

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    View from the Cliff Dwelling

    by Stephen-KarenConn Written Jan 2, 2005

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    View from the Cliff Dwellings

    We thought the view of the canyon from the cliff dwellings was stunning. While we were inside, the light rain ended and fog began to lift from the valley floor. This was an everyday sight for the cliff dwellers, who lived here nestled in their comfortable home, above a rich and beautiful river, for almost two generations.

    We pondered their fate. Why did the cliff dwellers abandon this special place? Did their crops fail? Did something or someone frighten them away? Did they think they could find a better life elsewhere? Where did they go? Why? The answers to these questions remain hidden.

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    Outside Terraces

    by Stephen-KarenConn Written Jan 2, 2005

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    In good weather, the Mogollon performed many tasks on the outside ledges in front of their dwellings. We know that these people made cotton cloth, plaited sandals from yucca leaves, wove mats and baskets, painted designs on clay pots and jars, and fashioned jewelry out of shells and feathers.

    Making and repairing tools for farming, and hunting was another constant job. Then, of course, there was corn to grind and other foods to prepair. This was a busy place in the thirteenth century, with much work to be done. All the while, the people probably talked and gossiped and kept track of young children playing nearby.

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    Construction Techniques

    by Stephen-KarenConn Updated Jan 2, 2005

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    An Interior View of a Cliff Dwelling

    This area was once divided into two large rooms by a wall that ran across the front of the second terrace. The rooms probably served as living spaces. Notice the fireplace to the right side in the picture. The cliff dwellers plastered their walls and leveled their floors with clay and gave each room a hearth.

    Macaw feathers from northern Mexico and a bison rib scraper from the eastern plains are some of the items found here which indicate these people traded with other tribes. Most materials used by the cliff dwellers, however, were not acquired by trade, but were made by their skilled hands.

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    Roof Beams or Vigas

    by Stephen-KarenConn Written Jan 2, 2005

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    Above the arched entrance to this cave are roof beams called vigas (Vee-gahs). Their blackened surface suggests how the cliff dwellers used fire to soften the wood before cutting it with their stone axes. When not tending their fields, hunting, or gathering, these Mogollon people centered their daily life in and around the caves. In good weather they performed many tasks on the ledge from which this picture was taken.

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    Arriving at the Cliff Dwellings

    by Stephen-KarenConn Written Jan 2, 2005

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    It is believed that the cliff dwellers must have started building soon after they arrived in the late A.D. 1270s. In the first ten years or so, they extended their home through most of the caves and constructed about forty rooms. This cave contains the foundations of three small storage rooms and a hearth. Inside you will see two circular depressions in the floor which were probably used to support round-bottomed storage jars.

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