During the four months I spent in Deming, New Mexico, I experience many things, from stargazing to walking tours, from sip-and-paint to spending time with friends. I already wrote about checking two items off the bucket list while there. A post or two about my time in Deming is forthcoming. But I took so many photos of my day at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, it begged for its own post just so I could share some of the many photos I took.

From Deming, it was a three hour drive each way. GPS might tell you something different in terms of how long it will take to get there but don’t believe it. The drive is up a mountain road that is quite windy which means slow driving. I went in the winter so I hit many patches of ice on the road.

Photo of brown mountains covered in green trees and rocks. More mountains in the background under a light blue sky.
From a turnout spot with an amazing view as you drive up the mountain toward the Gila Cliff Dwellings. Even though it took three hours, it was a nice drive.

Interestingly, I passed a few campgrounds along the way. I didn’t think it would be that fun to drive an RV up but it can be done. As near as I could tell, all of them were dry camping in National Forest lands.

I stopped at the Visitors’ Center first. Okay, well actually, I drove past the turnoff to the Gila Cliff Dwellings and stumbled on the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitor’s Center a few miles down the road. But I sound so much more with-it if I say I planned to go the Visitors’ Center first. It actually turned out to be a good accident.

The Visitors’ Center, while small, had a film about the cliff dwellings and the people who inhabited them 700 years ago. It was wonderful. Plus, it gave me a chance to pick up postcards. I also learned to pronounce the dwellings correctly. HEE-la. The G sounds like an H.

Visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings

Once I got myself oriented and the ranger staffing the Visitors’ Center gave me instructions to get to the proper parking lot, I was off. It wasn’t hard. Basically, just don’t miss the turnoff.

Wooden sign that reads Gila Cliff Dwellings. Sitting among dead (winter) trees with a little snow in teh background.
This isn’t the sign I missed. This one is at the base of the climb up the mountain.

After talking to the ranger, who busied herself breaking up a big patch of ice, at the base of the mountain, I decided to take my hiking poles. While they warn that the trail is unpaved, steep in places and uneven, most of the time I doubt you’d need hiking poles. But I took them because, just like the road up, the shaded places on the trail were icy. The places where the sun hit the trail were muddy. During the heat of the summer, it would be advisable to take a little water with you.

All that said, I think most people could probably go. Obviously, it is not ADA accessible. When you get to the dwellings, you don’t necessarily have to go climbing up into them. There are lots of benches on the trail up for resting. Plus, the trail is a loop so even though it is one-person wide, you won’t have to step aside for anyone going the opposite direction. The loop is a mile and they say to plan on it taking at least an hour.

Once a day during the summer months, they offer a guided tour which I bet is awesome. But between the film and the brochure, you’ll still learn a lot. The really cool thing about going in winter, despite the cold and ice, I experienced the dwellings alone most of the time. Made it easier to imagine life there and made for better photos.

Gila Cliff Dwellings Tour

Rock mountain with trees. A footbridge leads toward it.
Over the bridge and up the hill. The top of mountain is my destination.

Since it was winter, the scenery up wasn’t very pretty so I didn’t take many photos. Plus I was concentrating on my footing. Still, I bet other times of year when things are green, the walk up would be pretty.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings are at the top of one side of a canyon. The Gila River runs through the canyon. In this area (desert southwest), water is precious. Easy access to a water source is one reason this location was perfect for the early people. Plus, the water was utilized by animals they could hunt.

Close up of a vertical rock of a canyon with ice and icicles.
This is the opposite side of the canyon. I thought the ice and icicles were interesting.

Interested in geology? Let me share how these were formed. About 28 million years ago, the area was a giant volcano which erupted. It shot ash and shards of volcanic glass into the sky. It fell back to the ground, still hot, and welded together into a stone called tuff. Then later volcanoes erupted spreading lava over the tuffs, escaping gas from the lava left the holes in the rock. Then the long process of erosion began and the river carved out the canyon.

Tan rock side of a mountain with two big holes (caves). Photo taken below it and through trees.
My first glimpse of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Mountain rocks dusted in snow with pine trees and other trees.
As I get toward the top of the side of the canyon where the dwellings are. This is looking across to the other side.

Although there are a few theories, the truth is scientists don’t know the purpose or meaning of the t-shaped doors which are not only found at Gila, but all over the southwest.

Sandstone mountain caves with walls built by ancient people.
I made it to the top. I visited late in the afternoon, As I took photos, I couldn’t help but start planning another trip back in the future in the early morning to see a different play of light and shadow.

Many ancient people used the caves as shelter, but the Mogollon (a prehistoric Native American peoples) built rooms within the caves. They spent five years turning the place into their home. Interesting, they only lived in them for 25 years or one generation.

Sandstone mountain caves with walls built by ancient people.
There are a total of five caves but only three are open for visitors to explore. This one isn’t opened. The Mogollon came and went through the t-shaped door. Also notice the black of the cave roof. It is layers of soot and smoke from years of fires used for warmth and cooking.

If you are wondering how archaeologists know that the Mogollon people lived in the caves 700 years ago, let me tell you what I learned. The roofs of the rooms are no longer present. However, wooden poles overhead are. Dating the trees by studying ring patterns, they know most of the rooms were built in the 1280s.

Sandstone mountain caves with walls built by ancient people. This one as a big opening with a set of stairs to go inside.
Built in present-day, the stairs, handrails and ladders assist visitors up and down, in and out various areas of the caves.
A view from inside a cave, looking out into the trees and rocks below.
I took several photos from inside the various cave openings. I just loved the view.
Inside a cave with walls built to create separate rooms.
In this photo I’m standing on one of the short step ladders within the cave for visitors to peer over into the rooms. Notice the black ceiling in the background.
Sandstone mountain caves with walls built by ancient people.
A wall of one of the rooms taken from outside the cave.
Part of the caves includes carved out stairs which are shown in this photo.
The inside of the cave is in shadow. That’s why I’d love to come back in the early morning to see if the sun illuminates more. An inside/outside shot would be awesome.
Wooden ladder placed against vertical rock with the dwellings at the top.
After you go down the steps in the previous photo, you are on a landing. To leave the caves, you descend this ladder. It was the scariest part.
A dirt hiking path lined with little rocks next to vertical rock wall of a canyon.
However, if you didn’t want to traverse the ladder, you could go back through the caves and down the wooden stairs previously shown because there is this path below the dwellings which brings you to the same ending spot.

Final Thoughts

I didn’t take photos on the way down the mountain. That side of the mountain experienced a fire (in 2013, if I remember correctly what the ranger said when I asked). As fires do, it left the mountain charred and not very photogenic. Plus, just like on the way up, I needed to concentrate on my footing so as not to ice skate my way down.

If you haven’t heard of the Mogollon people, you wouldn’t be alone. Turns out the Mongollon culture disappears from archaeological record in the 1400s (only 100 or so years after they abandoned the Gila Cliff Dwellings). However, the Mongollon people didn’t disappear. Their descendants are part of modern-day Pueblo cultures of the area.

Speaking of the Mongollon people and culture. You might find it interesting that Gila Cliff Dwellings is the only place in the National Parks Service that highlights the Mongollon. As part of this, they work to interpret, perserve and share this wonderful National Monument.

By the way, it was declared a National Monument in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

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