The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico is one of the most remote parks we have visited in the USA. Is it worth taking the long and winding (very winding!) road to visit these ancient dwellings carved into the side of a cliff? Without a doubt, yes!
The dwellings are remarkably well preserved and provide a glimpse into the lives of people who lived there from around 1280. Even better, visitors to the dwellings don’t have to stand outside and look in; they are allowed to actually climb up inside and wander through the rooms. We have visited several ancient cliff dwellings in the USA and the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is up there with the best of them. It is definitely worth visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Where is the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument?
I wrote recently about visiting Chiricahua National Monument and noted that it is well off the beaten track. The Gila Cliff Dwellings are even more remote than Chiricahua. The nearest town to the dwellings is Silver City. The road from Silver City (New Mexico Highway 15) is narrow, very twisty and quite steep in some places. We drove it in the RV. It is about 44 miles from Silver City to the National Monument park, but it took almost two hours. Visitors in large vehicles are usually recommended to take HW 35 from HW 152 and join HW 15 further up towards the dwellings. We took this route down from the park after our visit and actually found it just as twisty with hairpin after hairpin. You can access a map of the area here.
The inside of the RV was a bombsite when we arrived at our campsite that evening. Everything that wasn’t nailed down had come adrift!
The roads are actually fine if one allows sufficient time. Nevertheless, I was pleased that Peter was at the wheel that day!
The History of the Gila Cliff Dwellings
The Mogollon people, a group of Puebloan people, built the cliff dwellings close to the Gila River in the latter part of the thirteenth century. Historians believe that up to 15 families occupied the dwellings at any one point. One can see today evidence of how they lived: where they stored food, where they gathered, where they built fires etc. There are five caves and 40 rooms in total. They built their homes inside the caves from rock, mortar and timber. In an era of frequent migrations, however, it appears that the inhabitants had moved on by 1300.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings were designated a National Monument in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Visiting the Gila Cliff Dwellings
We visited the Gila Cliff Dwellings early in December and it was very quiet. The weather was perfect, but as the dwellings are at altitude, it can be quite cold in winter. I would not like to tackle these roads in snowy conditions so would recommend checking the weather if visiting in winter.
There is no fee for entering the park or exploring the dwellings. A visitor centre is located at the entrance to the park and also a small museum at the trail head. The hiking trail up to the cliff dwellings is only about a one mile loop, but we were met by a ranger at the trail head who gave us a quick safety briefing. All good. The trail is well marked and the first part of it is very easy.
There are wooden bridges on the trail at various points and it is really quite picturesque. The climb up to the dwellings is a bit more of a challenge and there are some rocky steps, but we had no problem at all.
The dwellings can be seen from the canyon floor, so for anyone with mobility issues, it is possible to enjoy the dwellings without actually climbing up to them.
There is, of course, a better view of the dwellings the closer one gets.
Inside the dwellings it is quite light and airy and the rooms are clearly delineated. A ranger was on hand to answer any questions. He pointed out features of interest, as well as explaining how the different rooms were used.
Access to the dwellings is fairly easy, but exit requires clambering down a ladder!
How long does it take to explore the Gila Cliff Dwellings?
We took a couple of hours to walk the trail and explore the dwellings. This is probably the right amount of time for most people.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings: a rewarding insight into American history
We enjoyed our visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings enormously. It was a lovely walk through beautiful scenery to reach the dwellings and the dwellings themselves were really interesting. There is something really cool about actually being able to go into the chambers where these ancient people went about their daily lives. One can feel the history. For anyone who enjoys history, the Gila Cliff Dwellings are well worth visiting.
Which leads me on to another point. There is a widely held misconception, certainly among the British, that America has no history. In fact, it has a rich and captivating history. One only has to visit somewhere like Washington DC and wander through the Smithsonian Museums or visit the National Archives to appreciate the more recent history, but across the US there are ancient landmarks and evidence of life before America was “discovered”. One such landmark is the Gila Cliff Dwellings, but there are many other examples too. We loved visiting cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde in Colorado, Montezuma Castle in Arizona and Walnut Canyon, also in Arizona. These are just three examples of the history of America and its indigenous people before it became the USA which we know today.
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We are always fascinated when we visit places with cave dwellings. But we missed the Gila Cliff Dwellings when we were in New Mexico. It would be great to actually be able to wander inside. How interesting that there is no fee for visiting. A great spot to visit when tourism is lower.
Ive never seen any cave dwellings in person before! I also hadn’t heard of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, I definitely want to check these out.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings are fascinating Jane and certainly full of history, just a different kind to what we are used to in the UK. I thought the same about Australia until I moved here and learnt about the original landowners history.
Not sure I’d want to drive those roads in a RV though, sounds like Peter did well. Amazing there is no fee to enter the park.
Yes, I agree – it just makes me cross when I hear people say that America has no history. Peter loves driving roads like this!
We visited the Montezuma Castle in Arizona. I love that you can enter these caves. New Mexico is one of the last four US states I have yet to visit, so I will put this on my list for when I make it there.
Wow, I don’t think I’ve heard of the Gila Cliff Dwellings! They are stunning and really well-preserved, maybe because they’re not fully exposed to the elements? The surrounding area is so picturesque too. I’d love to go back to New Mexico and check them out, plus it’s great that you don’t have to pay an entrance fee.
This is right up my alley and right off the beaten track I’ll mark this down hopefully one day I’ll make it over.
It is definitely worth going out of your way to see this one, but be prepared for the twisty drive up!