Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument- Gila National Forest – New Mexico

This was sort a bucket list kind of thing for me. I’ve always wanted to see these and I finally got there. Of course it was raining the entire time, though I suppose it could be worse. It could have been snowing. I will admit that it didn’t diminish the impact of this ancient city in the mountains.

The drive there is a sometimes windy and treacherous roadway. It goes up across the Continental Divide and reaches nearly 9000 feet at one point. The scenery is breathtaking and one has to be careful to concentrate on the drive and not gawk at the scenery. Admittedly it is easier said than done. It takes approximately two hours to drive 45 miles. There are two roads that will take you there, New Mexico 15 out of Silver City which is the more difficult drive, it is paved all the way, but it has steep grades and very hairpin curves. The other way is by taking New Mexico 35 out of San Lorenzo and Mimbres. Though this is a longer route it is the easier to drive of the two.

When you arrive at the National Monument, established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, there is a visitors center where you can learn all the secrets of the Cliff dwellings. A short mile later and you are at the parking lot for the trail into the cliffs. The hike isn’t long, round trip is about a mile, and the path follows a small stream that appears to have been cutting through the rocks for millenia. Then the climb begins.

There is about a 200 foot climb up to get on the level of the cliff dwellings. It is well worth the effort. The dwellings can be seen peeking out of the cliffs above on the left. Since it was raining, it was easy to come to the realization that these rocks are very slippery when wet. The pathway follows closely to the cliff edge and watching your step can save your life or serious injury.

One of the best things about visiting here is the fact that the Cliff Dwellings are not roped off. Visitors can walk in and through the interiors of this ancient village.

One can only marvel at the effort it must have taken to build these magnificent buildings so high in the air inside these caves. It is a feat of engineering that is almost hard to comprehend.

Because of the unrestricted access, the buildings can be seen with every perspective. Inside these caves would have been fairly cozy living for these ancient times. They are well sheltered and it wouldn’t have been often that wind or weather would have penetrated these caves.

There is beauty and aestetics here. Primitive yet elegant. Walking in the footsteps of these long lost people brings a feeling of timelessness that reaches deep into the soul. There is a memory there, one from the ancestors, powerful and almost familiar. Is there an ancestral memory here? Probably or at least something close to it.

Above is the gorge the small stream had cut that the path followed on the way in. This is what they saw from their homes. This rugged wild region has likely not changed since the Cliff Dwellers occupied this place. This would have been what their world looked like.

Some of the buildings could still be lived in. They are well preserved enough that the Mogollon could come back and start over without much difficulty.

This village dates back to 1200 – 1400 AD. It was continously occupied through those years and it is believed they left because of environmental changes. In the early 1900s some mummified bodies were found and were lost by looters and collectors. There was a child mummy found and that is the only mummy to make it to the Smithsonian.

Archaeologists have Idenfied nearly 50 rooms inside of the dwellings where they believed there were 10-15 families living. They even had bathrooms.

There are five caves all filled with rooms like these. Most of them consist of three rooms and though the are quite close together, each dwelling was definitively destinct as its own seperate structure.

This was one of those things that I have done in my life that I felt was quite profound. Realizing how old this village was, and how we overlook these pre-European civilizations with our education and history, it is a moving experience to stand amongst the remnants of this overlooked culture. The Mogollon achieved much in their two centuries on these cliffs. Though they didn’t leave much of a record, what they did leave behind tells a story of art, engineering and tenacity. They were able to carve out homes in the most formidable of environments, live their lives where most would have perished, and raise generations of family in harmony with their surroundings.

Writing and photography by Mikel B. Classen. Copyright by Mikel B. Classen 2020.

For more information on Mikel B. Classen go to his website at http://www.mikelclassen.com

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