Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument


A summation, I thought, of lone words that paint a time, a still unfinished picture, of this place.

Isolated, in a scenic side canyon in southwestern New Mexico. On the longest wild river in the continental USA. At the dead-end of NM 15 and the convergence of the three main forks of the Gila River. The road in, forty-four miles of guard-free thousand-foot drop-offs, twists and turns, took Rove-Inn two hours.

Wild, the nation’s first dedicated wilderness, the 558,000-acre Gila Wilderness is part of 3.3 million acres of public forest and rangeland within the Gila National Forest. Contiguous wilderness protected as a result of the efforts of Aldo Leopold, a conservation pioneer whose philosophy guides our travels and the ethos of latitude65: “There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of those who cannot.” Wildly delighted we were to have one of only six sites at Grapevine Campground, five miles south of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Puzzling, cycling on the silent mountain road, a grey-bearded man in clothing so tattered and dirty I imagined I could smell it, flagged us down on our way to the campground. “I need water man,” he gasped. Not often do we buy bottled water but somewhere along the way we couldn’t pass up the bargain of $2.00 for a dozen. The sincerity of his gratitude lingers, as do the questions. Did he live rough on the road? Where was he going? What was his backstory?

High, mesas at 5,000 to 8,000 feet, rolling hills, dense forests cut by steep canyons and us, high on the beauty of our riverside campsite, the silence deepening our sleeping.

Historic, a pre-Columbian cliff village, Gila (pronounced HEE-luh) is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved in New Mexico. A 533-acre national monument since 1907. The only one in the country with Mogollon (MUG-ee-own) ruins. lnside six mostly connected caves are forty-six rooms, briefly the home of the Mimbres, (“willow people”), the best-known division of the Mogollons, whose territory once covered what is now Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico.

Rich was the natural environment. The Gila River. Nearby Hot Springs for soaking. Temperate trees such as Douglas Fir for timber, a forest of ponderosa and pinion pine, spruce, aspen Gambel oak, New Mexico juniper… Present at wilderness meals was the meat of mule deer, bison, wild turkeys, elk and duck, supplemented by corn, squash, and beans from their gardens and wild and edible plants, nuts and seeds foraged from the land. (And as I discovered on the loop back to the visitor center, wildflowers are interwoven into nature’s tapestry.) From my diary, “This is the first place of the Ancients where we can say, ‘It makes sense to have settled here.” I imagine picking manzanita apples, raspberries, mulberries and prickly pear fruit, an idyllic image quickly soured by ones of skinning blacktail jackrabbits and pounding seeds into flour. Camp cooking is as rustic as I want to get.

Super, supervolcanoes that is. The caldera of Gila Cliff Dwellings, about 15 miles in diameter, is the remnant of two supervolcanoes that erupted 24-40 million years ago.

Unguided because of cutbacks, you are on your own following the trail up to the cliff dwellings where someone is available at cave four to answer your questions. Of which we had too many for a woman I’ll call Patsy; she was undoubtedly happy to see us climbing down the ladder.

Mysterious, Gila was occupied permanently for only a quarter century between 1276-1300. And only by a dozen or so families.

Rare is there a mention of Gila in archaeological literature. Essentially, there has been no professional excavation of the cliff dwellings. In 1963, Gordon Vivian began a month’s work of excavation and stabilization but he died before he could formally report his findings.

Artistic, Mimbres’ distinctive black-on-white pottery, Tularosa style, has even been featured on a US stamp.

Regret, for a treasured souvenir, our only tangible link to Gila, gone. A figure not unlike that on the stamp, painted on the tiniest circle of pottery, delicate, wafer thin. By a woman artist from Silver City emulating Mimbre style but adding a small dash of colour. Expensive: US$65 at the Gila Visitors Center. It occupied a place of honour on our dining-room buffet for three years. Art emblematic, for me, of Gila. Regrettably, sharded in a heartbreaking accident.

Wattle, interwoven twigs that make up small structures at Gila, such a distinct sound; say it again: wattle.

Slight and small, the average Mimbre woman was 5’1″ tall (I would not be out of place) the guys 5’5″.

Controversial, based on the distinctive Tularosa pottery found here, recent archaeological thinking (though not discussed in the National Park Service brochure) is that the cliff dwellings were not built by the Mimbres but by the Tularosa Mogollon from the north. At the same time as the Medieval Warm Period was coming to an end and the Little Ice Age was beginning, a major drought occurred between 1275 and 1300. At the same time, there was a total collapse of the social and political system of the Chacoan World, accompanied by extreme violence with communities abandoning the Four Corners area and massing by the tens of thousands for safety on defensible mesa tops or within cliff dwellings.  Evidence such as “the abundance of prestige-economy marine shell jewelry, 26 macaw feathers, and 1 macaw skull; plus the architectural evidence in the commanding presence of a T-shaped door” poses the theory that Gila Cliff Dwellers were Chacoan Nobles fleeing their failing system of increasingly oppressive rule over the Chacoan Commoners. The abstract nature of the pictographs strongly link the idea that the builders of the cliff dwellings were immigrants from the north. But Chacoan Nobles didn’t make their own pottery…

Forthright, the interpretive material at Gila states outright that defense was a major factor in the retreat to occupy cliff dwellings. Others eschew “The Great Awokening” as Rex Murphy calls it and dare to be more forthcoming, truthful. Major warfare did occur in the prehistoric Southwest, argued reliably by prominent archeologists such as Steven LeBlanc and evidenced by large scale-massacres, mutilation of bodies and even cannibalism at various sites.

Overshadowed Gila is by the grander ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly (we visited all of them so I’m linking you to the two we’ve written about) and by Geronimo, the legendary Apache leader born near the Gila River headwaters, his people keeping everyone else out of Gila from the 1500s to 1870. But, but…Travel and Leisure named it the best park in the state.

Looted, between 1878 when a prospector documented the cliff dwellings and 1884 when archeologist Adolph Bandelier arrived, many of Gila’s artifacts were stolen or destroyed, even mummified bodies. The first record is of a hunting party exploring the caves in 1879 lifting a stone and unwrapping the mummy of a young child. Supposedly it went to the Smithsonian However, the only record of any mummies from Gila is from a short-lived offshoot of the Smithsonian and there is no record of those remains in Washington D.C.

Despoiled are 95% of the Mimbres’ sites in the surrounding area, vandalism that still continues today.

Abandonment, evidenced by the leaving behind of prestigious jewelry, exotic macaw feathers, personal goods and large caches of foodstuffs, suggests a sudden, unanticipated departure. Some archeologists believe the Gila Cliff Dwellers fled south to Paguime at Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, Mexico. Who startled them? How many survived? Were they Mimbres? Tularosans? Chacoan Nobles? Over a bowl of soup heated up on our campstove at a picnic bench near the Gila Cliff Dwellers visitor center, Magellan and I talked of how little we know of such a fascinating past. Still.

Aldo, as Aldo Leopold wrote: “Ability to see the cultural value of wilderness boils down, in the last analysis, to a question of intellectual humility.”


The Aldo Leopold Organization, where you can learn more about this incredible conservation pioneer.

Casitas de Gila blogpost. The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. 

Deming Journal. “Unraveling the Mummy Mystery...” April 8, 2014.

Desert USA. Prehistoric Desert PeoplesThe Mogollon.

National Park Service History of Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Travel and Leisure: Best Park in Every State.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting area to be sure, the home of Geronimo brings back memories from my reading youth, both long past. I can envision a fortification to protect ones family and belongings, looks like a well chosen place to defend against all comers.
    Sad to hear about vandalism and thefts from such a place, there is no place for such things as the past will be lost forever so someone can have a collection that will likely never see the light of day again, travesty.
    Great story and pictures, possibly these areas will open up for visitation later this summer.

    1. Sad to say but the thought that comes to mind is “Twas ever thus.” I wonder how long the wattled corncob basket will be there…perhaps they take it into the visitors’ centre every night to be sure.

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