Gila Cliff Dwellings, NM

So a few weeks ago I told you about my trip to the Gila National Forest.  The original plan was to directly follow it up with a post about what I DID while I was there (which was go to the Gila Cliff Dwellings) but we all know how pretty much everything else we do in life gets in the way of our plans.  I neglected to consider that my internet would be turned off, and that I would be spending my days cleaning ovens and stuffing boxes.  But, I am back to tell you about the majesty and mystery of the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

The path to the Gila Cliff Dwellings looks different than the path to any other prehistoric-American-Southwest site that I have ever walked.  Take a peek:

Pretty, yes… but Southwestern?  Not to me.  But it was a beautiful walk.  I could easily imagine what must have attracted people to live here so long ago.  Speaking of the people who lived here, it’s a pretty interesting story.

The Mogollon (pronounced Mo-go-yohn) culture was one of the four main ancient Southwestern culture groups.  Archaeologists actually created these culture groups based on archaeological similarities, we have no way of knowing if they were truly four different tribes or anything, we pretty much just mushed everything together that could fit together to create boundaries for them.  In truth, that’s kind of a generalization of an archaeologist’s job description.  Anyway,  the Mogollon occupied a large area of the Southwest, including the Snake and Gila rivers.  Speculation about the beginnings of this group stem from two pasts:  either the Mogollon society evolved from an early tradition of desert archaic people, or they were people that moved up from Mexico and replaced the desert archaic group (basically took over and shoved them on out).

We may not know exactly who the Mogollon were or where they came from, but we do know exactly why they settled the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  They did it for the exact same reason that you or I would today.

1.  Resources baby!  The dwellings are tucked into a tiny little canyon with a small river flowing through the bottom during the milder months.  The Gila forest provides a welcome relief from the surrounding New Mexico high desert, and if you happened to be hiking through the area and found yourself in this little oasis, I think that you too would stop and stay a while.

2.  Shelter.  The dwellings lie in a massive natural cave.  Ancient cities are littered in cliff openings throughout the Southwest because they provide shelter from the elements, as well as a safe haven and vantage point from which to view approaching danger.

3.  It’s pretty there.  Well, this is just my own opinion, but who doesn’t want to pay extra for the view?  I have to think that even a thousand-and-a-half years ago, people paid some attention to water front property.

Like every single other society in the greater Southwest (and Latin America), the history of the Gila Cliff Dwellings is supposedly shrouded in mystery.  The History, Travel, and Discovery Channels are big fans of mystery creation, mostly I think because it makes non-nerdy people more interested in watching their shows.  If you asked them, they would tell you that every single ancient site in the Americas was mysteriously and abruptly abandoned.  Every single one of them.

Think about that for a second.

Yeah, doesn’t make much sense right?  To tell you the truth, there is really no mystery to any of these stories.  People move on for a variety of reasons (drought, famine, season change, etc.) but that doesn’t mean that aliens flew down in their ships and took them away.  It would be like someone coming into your old house after you moved to a new one, and saying that since you moved out in a week and didn’t leave a forwarding address, you must have disappeared forever and your legacy will remain a mystery for generations to come.

Not likely.

Well, I shouldn’t have gotten started on my conspiracy hype television rant but at least now you know my feelings on the situation.  To sum this all up, the cliff dwellings are a fantastic place to visit.  They’re definitely off the beaten path, so you don’t have to worry about too much traffic, or any pushing and shoving.  I really loved that unlike a lot of old sites like this, the public is still allowed to walk around inside the cave.  There are even wood ladders to climb and everything.

Fall is the perfect time of year to visit.  The leaves are changing, which makes the hike to the top a beautiful one, and the unbearably hot days of summer are far behind, leaving you able to march up the hill with a markedly decreased chance of contracting sunstroke.  Now that I say that though, I guess I do feel responsible to mention that you should still bring a whole bunch of water… don’t be an idiot.

To paraphrase this post (and it’s prequel), in the unlikely event that you find yourself in Silver City, New Mexico or anywhere else in Southwestern NM for that matter,  the Gila Cliff Dwellings are a valuable stop to add to your itinerary.  The reconstruction of the site is beautiful, and the rare hands-on quality is also an unexpected delight.  It’s so different to be able to walk through an ancient city, rather than snapping photos of it from 100 feet below, that it really makes the long drive worth your while.  Besides, what else is there to do in Silver City?

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  1. I love your approach to history. We love the Silver City area. It took us years to get there(my mother-in-law lived there for a while in the 90s and hated it so much we didn’t want to go). We did a day trip while staying in T or C. It surprised me how much I liked it- but granted, I wasn’t living there. Sadly, due to bad local advice, we didn’t have enough time at Gila to get to the cliff dwellings, we got in sight of them- but I totally agree- this landscape here is way more treed and verdant than at other ancestral sites we’ve visited. It’ on our list of places to explore further. Hopefully, we’ll make it back.

    • says:

      I hope you do get a chance to go back! It’s so neat to be able to walk through the cave (obviously everything is reconstructed, but they did a really beautiful job, and it really gives you the feeling of what it must have been like to live there). What else did you guys do when you were down in the area?

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