Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Life Sustaining and Oh-So-Refreshing Gila River

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is just 44 miles from Silver City, NM but takes about two hours to drive due to the curvy road through these lovely mountains. We got an early start (out of the house before 9am; yeah, we're retired!) and caught a couple of turkeys crossing the road and heading off through the forest.

After about 3/4 of the drive to the Cliff Dwellings you get a spectacular view of Copperas Canyon and miles and miles of the Gila Wilderness.

View from the Copperas Canyon vista point.

Dropping down into the canyon as we approach our destination we get our first look at the mighty Gila River. It may not be so large at this time of year, but in a desert landscape every single drop of water is life sustaining. This river is the reason the Mogollon people settled here between 1276 - 1300.

After a brief stop at the visitor center where we watched the informative 15 minute video describing the cliff dwellings and what is known of the former inhabitants as well as how the dwellings were looted by those who visited the site in the late 1800's, we drove to the cliff dwelling site to hike the 1 mile trail through the ruins.

You walk up canyon dwarfed by a wall of sandstone known as Gila Conglomerate.

About a quarter mile into the canyon is the first view of the cliff dwellings, which sit about 180 feet above the canyon bottom.

The picture below gives a little perspective on how high up these caves are.

Below view is up canyon, beyond the access trail to the caves. Known as Cliff Dweller Canyon, the canyon was cut by a seasonal creek whose spring at the head of the canyon ensured a constant flow of water for its inhabitants, even during the dry months.

Approximately 80% of the architectural remains are original, including the wooden beams. The ceilings are blackened from the original inhabitants fires, as well as any fires made by the looters, before these ruins were protected by the Gila Wilderness designation in 1924.

Cave 2

Caves 3, 4 and 5
You get to walk through Caves 3, 4 and 5; feeling the immensity of the caves and imagining living there. Crops were grown in the river valley below, hunters would make regular forays into the surrounding land for game, and in the dry months water gatherers would have to hike to the head of the canyon to gather water from the spring, as the creek below would be dry part of the year.

There are a number of trails in the immediate vicinity of the cliff dwellings, so following our cave exploration we chose to hike the EE Canyon trail, starting from the cliff dwellings parking lot. This 8 mile trail would lead us through the surrounding hills and down EE canyon into the flood plain of the Middle Fork of the Gila River.

Soon the trail hit a burned area...and continued through burned forest for the next several miles. Large swaths of the Gila Wilderness have burned over the past couple of years. A sobering sight to walk through.

After miles and miles of burnt forest you want to celebrate every little bit of life you see:

Eventually we made it to the West Fork of the Gila River where we saw our first sign of animal life:

The trail description had noted four river crossings, yet there were only three. After nine long miles it was so refreshing to wade the river!

We chose to drive home the long way, taking Hwy 35 to complete the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway. What an excellent decision that was! The Lake Roberts area was beautiful and we saw many forest service trail heads from the road that bear further exploration.

We detoured through Bayard, NM, stopping at M & A Bayard Cafe for a delicious Mexican dinner.

Another wonderful day on the road!


  1. I love the cliff dwellings. So neat that you can enter a few.

    Great long hike! Love the water crossing photos!

  2. Great pictures of the cliff dwellings, thanks for sharing!

  3. The mexican food looks yummy and must have satisfied hungry hikers. That was a lovely hike and hopefully this will be in our route next time.

  4. Great pictures - Agree, being able to walk through these dwellings makes them special.

  5. Thanks for the great pictures of the cliff dwellings and what a great adventure.

  6. Thanks for this informative post. When we were in NM last year the cliff dwellings were closed due to bad weather.