Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument: Climbing Into The Past

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Uncovering the History of the Gila Cliff Dwellings

Hiking through nature has so many perks. Just to name a few: peacefulness, exercise, scenery, and the mental clarity you feel throughout your journey.

We were looking forward to a hike within Gila National Forest for all of these reasons. And to top it off, this forest is home to some history that dates back nearly 800 years! 

By now you probably already know what we were excited to see…yes, incredible historic dwellings embedded into a cliff!

New Mexico’s Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is a one of a kind experience that will be enjoyed by both nature and history enthusiasts alike. 

Where Did the Dwellings Come From?

Over the course of thousands of years, different groups of nomadic people would dwell in the caves of the Gila River as temporary shelter. In the late 1200’s, people of the Mogollon Culture chose to make it a more permanent home.

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Children were even raised here over the course of time! They built individual rooms for entire families. It is told that they lived in the cliff dwellings for about twenty years.

Could you imagine growing up in an environment like this?

Eventually the Mogollon moved on, leaving the empty rooms and walls for us as a glimpse into their past.

Directions, Info, & Fees

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is located in Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico. To reach the Gila Cliff Dwellings specifically, you turn left to stay on highway 15, before you reach the visitor center.

But first, make sure you stop in the Visitor Center first for a park map and to see a few exhibits containing artifacts and pottery left behind from the Mogollon people.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument trail and visitor center are open every day of the year, except Christmas and New Years Day.

Family

$10.00 per family – per day

A family is defined as one immediate family unit of parents and children.

Individual

$5.00 per adult (16 years and older) – per day

Free entrance for children 15 years and younger.

Federal Passes

No fee for Federal Pass holders. Federal Passes are available for purchase at the Gila Visitor Center.

Gila Cliff Dwellings Trail – 1 mile loop

Like most National Monuments, there are many hiking trails you can hike in the surrounding area, but we will focus on the most popular one that leads you to the Gila Cliff Dwellings site.

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Total distance is 1 mile, a loop with 180 feet in elevation. The Gila Cliff Dwellings trail is only open during seasonal hours and closes each day at 5pm. The latest you’re allowed to start the trail is 4pm.

At the beginning of the trailhead, a park ranger will give you a detailed guide explaining the history along with a map of the cliff dwellings.

Lush and Beautiful Scenery from Start to Finish

The trail heading up to the cliff dwellings was beautiful as we expected. In the beginning, there are multiple bridges that take you over a small creek below. We enjoyed mountainous forestry the whole way up.

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Most of the incline is all done in one short section. Nothing too strenuous for most.

Once at the top you are greeted with lovely views of the valley below. For a 1 mile hike, there is a lot to offer, and we haven’t even reached the Gila Cliff Dwellings yet!

Once you reach the dwellings, you will be met with another park ranger who gives you some brief (or extensive) insight into the story of the Mogollon people. From here you climb up a ladder and actually go into the historic site itself!

Up until now, I was actually unaware that we were allowed to climb into the dwellings. So of course, this was an awesome surprise!

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Roaming Inside the Historic Rooms of the Gila Cliff Dwellings

It’s one thing to marvel at the work of the Mogollon people from below, but once you are inside the dwellings, it’s a whole different story! The dwellings are a lot larger than I imagined!

In the Gila Cliffs, there are a total of 5 caves. The park allows you to explore caves 3, 4 and 5. You enter cave 3 first as seen in the picture below. As you explore from cave to cave, you will see various man made rooms spread throughout.

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By living in the cliffs, the Mogollon’s were provided shelter from the weather and the harsh outdoor environment. In addition to shelter, they were also conveniently located next to West Fork Gila River which supplied water and methods of transportation.

Looking onto the land from the cave dwellings was a surreal experience. To think they woke up to this view everyday. 

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After you’re done exploring inside the dwellings, you can head back down from where you came up in Cave 3 or by climbing down a ladder in Cave 4 that leads back to the trail.

Once back on the trail, continue following it down the mountain. It’s a short walk down a slightly steep decline along some switchbacks.

Overall, a very easy trail to complete!

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Other Activities To Do Inside the Monument

Besides the Gila Cliff Dwellings site, there numerous other things you can do here. We already mentioned the multiple hiking trails. Ask the visitor center for more info or check online on the National Park website for trail information.

Camping is also an option at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument at 4 different campgrounds:

• Forks Campground
• Grapevine Campground
• Upper Scorpion Campground
• Lower Scorpion Campground (hopefully with no scorpions though!)

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Did You Say Hot Springs?!

Did you know there are hot springs nearby? We met a few travelers (IG @ExpandingExplorers @CharcoTravels) during our time here who invited us to hike with them to Jordan Hot Springs.

Unfortunately we had a 4 hour drive ahead of us and had no time to stay after seeing the dwellings. 

To get to the hot springs, park at the Visitor Center and start on the Little Bear Trailhead. The trailhead starts at the TJ Corral just north of the visitor center. From here it is 6 miles round trip.

Be prepared for any hike by knowing the top 10 essentials to hiking to help keep you comfortable and safe on the trail.

You can read more about the Jordan Hot Springs Trail from Daniel Zweier of Backbackers dot com.

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Nearby Amenities Before/After Visiting Gila Cliff Dwellings

If you need a place to crash, the best place to stay would be Silver City, just south of Gila National Forest. It’s about an hour and half drive to Gila Cliff Dwellings from this charming little town.

We stayed here for one night before heading up to the monument in the morning. Silver City had everything we needed like cheap lodging, since we are always traveling on a budget, restaurants, shops, coffee shops, and even a brewery! All located along the peaceful Silva Creek.

We enjoyed a morning walk with our coffee along Big Ditch Trail which takes you along Silva Creek. Conveniently located right next to historic downtown!

Another nearby town is Truth & Consequences, although this makes the drive 3 hours to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

Don’t Forget to Fill Up The Tank!

Most importantly, make sure you fill up on gas before entering Gila National Forest. You won’t be finding any gas stations within the forest.

And don’t forget about your other “tank!” Fill up on food in town or pack some food for an epic picnic up in the mountains.

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Ideal Excursion for Both the Nature Enthusiast and History Buff

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was the exact experience we were looking for including both nature and history. Technically, all you need is a day (or just a couple hours) to see the dwellings. Although if you have more time in the forest, you can spend the remainder of your time camping and hiking. 

What we love about New Mexico is the immense of amount of historic sites scattered throughout the state. Just a couple days ago we were visiting El Santuario de Chimayo up north which was equally as astonishing. So happy we were able to include both these historic excursions in our short road trip across the state!

We wish we had more time in these beautiful mountains so we could hike and check out the hot springs, but now we have more reason to come back!

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We really enjoyed walking in the footsteps of the Mogollon people and exploring the incredible little village they created in the cliff-sides. Such a treat to be able to peer back so far in time and place yourselves where they once were.

Explore the other incredible monument of White Sands National Monument just a few hours east of Silver City, New Mexico! Brilliant white sand dunes for days!

Have you been to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument?  What was your favorite thing to do here? Share with us in the comments below!

Check out our video below exploring the dwellings!

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About the Author

Shelby Kirk is the co-founder, editor, and author of We Who Roam. With a strong love for nature and adventure travel, she hopes to inspire others to get outside and explore our natural playground that we call home.

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