Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico

We passed through Silver City, New Mexico on the way to Gila Cliffs.  Silver City is home to one of the largest open pit copper mines in the country, the Santa Rita Mine.

Santa rita copper mine

Santa Rita Copper Mine

A mere dump truck

Just a dump truck

The dump truck pictured above cost 2.5 Million dollars and can haul over 300 tons of ore.  The truck is fed by a 14 million dollar electric shovel that can scoop 80 tons at a time.  All this to mine ore that contains 0.06% copper.  The ore is then crushed and concentrated, before being smelted.  The mine produces 100 million pounds of copper by this method.  Lower grade ore is processed by an electro-chemical method and about 100 million pounds of copper are produced this way.  The Santa Rita mine is a mile wide and 1600 feet deep.

Trail of the mountain spirits

The road to Gila Cliffs is a scenic byway through the Gila National Forest, a nice drive, mostly within the Forest, but there is still some private holdings in the Forest.

Cute cabin in the Gila

Forest Cabin

While neither of us is even a small part Native American, we have an appreciation for the history of the ancient people who first inhabited our land.  We have visited many of the Ancient Puebloan ruins in Arizona and Utah.  The Gila Cliff Dwellings are in New Mexico.  The earliest indication of habitation in southwest New Mexico is over 11,000 years ago when nomadic hunters migrated south from the area of the Bering Sea.

Ceiling soot

Blackened cave roof from ancient fires.

These nomads left little record of their passing, usually only fire scarred caves such as those at Gila Cliffs.  It is the later inhabitants of the Mogollon Culture that built the dwellings we are here to see.  We intended to stay for a few days so we had to search out a place to camp.  As always we look for places with all the amenities, swimming pool, rec. hall, camp store, a game room, and of course wifi and cable so we have something to do.

Coming through

Rough road to the campground's river sites.

Arriving at campsite

The Last 100 yards...always the worst.

Home for the night

Primo Campsite on the Gila River. The river is behind and below the camper, in front of the cliffs.

Peregrin in Gila

Peregrine Falcon.

Spotted towhee

Spotted Towhee.

We actually camped in a free National Forest Campground on the banks of the Gila River before driving the last few miles up to the Monument.  The cliffs behind the camper are home to a pair of nesting Peregrine Falcons, and there were lots of Spotted Towhees around the campground.

Gila sign

To reach the dwelling requires a 1 mile hike, well maintained but steep, up to the level of the caves.  On the way we found a lizard.

Spiny lizard

Spiny Lizard

Dwellings from below

First look at the cliff dwellings.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were built by the Mimbres people, a small group of the Mogollon.  They were built over a period of about 12 years and only inhabited for approximately 25 years.  The construction time was determined by carbon dating of the wood beams used in the ceilings of the dwellings and the overall habitation period from vegetation found at the site. The Mimbres were superb basket makers, and were developing rudimentary pottery skills.

Cliff dwellings

Cliff Dwellings. The wooden poles are the exposed ends of roof beams.

Much of what is known about these people, other than their constructions skills and techniques is actually only conjecture combined with the oral records of some of the modern puebloans. The Gila Dwellings are built in a series of 5 large caves.  The buildings are sheltered and protected by the caves, and the south facing caves would have provided warming sunlight in the winter and cooling shade in the summer when the sun was higher in the sky.

Another inside look

View from inside one of the larger caves.

We were allowed to freely enter many of the dwellings and also took the tour which, while interesting just provided us with more questions than answers about who the Mimbres people were, why they came, and why the left.  These protected and restored ruins are fascinating, but seem to lack the sense of reverence that infuses the wild, unprotected, ruins that we visited in past years.  I guess the well mannered and secure access trail, the signs and railings, and the sometimes heavy handed restoration work of the early Park Service take away the natural feeling, the sense that you are standing in history, from these dwellings.  I would say it is more like seeing an artifact in a museum, than in situ at the archeological site of it’s discovery.

From inside out

Some of the caves held 10 or more interconnected rooms.

The trees and steep rock face to the right of the cave itself in the above picture are actually across the canyon from the dwellings.  The inhabitants would have used the canyon floor for agriculture, growing beans and squash, and the whole canyon as a food source of wild foods such as Pinon Pine Nuts, wild olives, and native grasses for their seed to made into flour.

All in all Gila Cliffs National Monument was an enjoyable discovery, but we think we will head north, in the not too distant future, to Cedar Mesa in Utah, to find some wild ruins.


2 responses »

  1. Wow. Having you guys on the road is like having a personal ‘armchair travelogue.’ Thanks for these photos. It’s kind of surprising not to see Ted cooking over a cave fire, caveman style…

  2. Really cool going up inside the caves w you guys.!

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