Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 26, 2019

Gila Cliff Dwellings Day Trip, Southwestern New Mexico

In my previous post, I introduced Silver City, New Mexico as a practical base for exploring southwestern New Mexico. One major attraction in the area is the Gila National Forest and, within it, the rugged Gila Wilderness, the world’s first wilderness area, established in 1924, in part due to the efforts of conservation pioneer, Aldo Leopold.

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At 872 square miles, the wilderness includes multiple environments, from pinyon-juniper woodland and grassland below 6,500 feet, then ponderosa pine forest until about 9,000 feet, giving way to spruce-fir/aspen forest. There are steep ravines, cliffs, mountains, and, due to its protected nature, the vast majority of the wilderness can be reached only on foot.

A day trip from Silver City lets you see some of the wilderness and visit a prehistoric ruin: Gila Cliff Dwellings.

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The Residents

The stacked stone walls of the dwellings were built in a series of caves and overhanging cliffs by the Mimbres branch of the widespread Mogollon (MUG-ee-un) culture in the 13th century c.e.

The Mogollon occupied a large region in southern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and well south into Mexico, and the Mimbres were in their northern range. In addition to the cliff dwellings, other Mimbres groups constructed large pueblo-style communities around open plazas along the Mimbres River, south of the Cliff Dwellings.

The Mimbres are most often associated with the dramatically artistic pottery they created late in the 12th century, a style they apparently developed themselves.

mimbres property u new mexico 4689 680

This day trip provides a visit to the Cliff Dwellings and a glimpse of the surrounding wilderness. 

Reaching the Cliff Dwellings

Paved Route 15 extends about 45 miles north from Silver City, directly into the Gila National Forest, with access into the wilderness area.

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En route, you’ll pass through tiny Pinos Altos. There’s a dinner place with good food and old western decor a few blocks west of Route 15, the Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House.

Much of the drive passes through steep canyons where the road narrows and winds to an extreme degree, shadowed by pines, with glimpses of rocky cliffs on either side. The ride is a significant part of the enjoyment of this trip, and you will not travel quickly. There are dangerously curving sections that demand caution (not pictured). Relax and enjoy. It’s going to take you well over an hour to cover the distance.

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Eventually, you emerge into more open country with views of the surrounding forest and wilderness area.

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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

The cliff dwellings are a 533-acre National Monument within the larger wilderness/national forest. The Monument dates to 1907, created by presidential decree by Theodore Roosevelt.

There’s a visitor center just off Route 15 where you’ll find restrooms and potable water. Past the visitor center turnoff, Route 15 ends at the Cliff Dwelling trailhead, where there’s a parking lot.

From the trailhead you walk a one-mile loop trail that climbs into a canyon to the cliff dwellings. At a moderate pace, with time to explore the ruins, count on a one-hour round trip, depending on how often you stop to enjoy the setting.

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The terrain is rugged and rocky, with tall red cliffs rising above you.

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You cross the stream on bridges a couple of times, and eventually the ruins under the overhanging cliffs come into view.

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There are several small dwelling complexes in the area, and the visitor center can direct you to a few other cliff dwelling sites if you’re ambitious. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how much effort and ingenuity it required to build the structures and survive in the rugged environment.

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These structures will remind many readers of the larger, better-known “cliff houses” in Mesa Verde National Park, 400 miles north in Colorado.

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace Brad Nixon 9801 (640x480)

The Puebloan culture that built the Mesa Verde dwellings (and others) is distinct from the Mogollon, although they’re almost contemporary in age.

While You’re There — Hiking

The Counselor and I were determined to hike into the edge of the wilderness. After seeing the cliff dwellings, we set off on a trail we’d found on the National Forest Service website which promised to take us well up in elevation from about 5,900 feet at the cliff dwellings.

We planned to hike for an hour or so, then backtrack. We were equipped to be out that long, but not for wilderness camping. We did gain a lot of elevation on an extremely dry, hot July day. The views were stunning, but you can also see a threat looming behind The Counselor.

Gila Wilderness MV Brad Nixon 087 (640x480)

Thunderstorms are common summertime events in New Mexico, and one was approaching. High, open country isn’t the best place to be when lightning is in the forecast. We headed back down rather than be overtaken by a lightning storm at an exposed altitude.

If you hike there, remember, it’s a wilderness. You have only what you bring, and you may not encounter any other humans if you run into difficulty. You might encounter rattlesnakes or, possibly, a mountain lion. The former is more likely than the latter, but pay attention. Even the plants can be a threat.

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The prickly pear cactus blooms are beautiful, but those spines have a preternatural ability to penetrate any clothing and then the human body.

Planning Your Visit

The map shows north-south Route 15 between Silver City and the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

gila route map google

An alternative return route is New Mexico 35 through the Mimbres River valley. The Mimbres Culture Heritage Site is open to the public, one of only a few Mimbres pueblo communities not destroyed by looters. The website link has visitor information. You then return westbound on NM #152 to U.S. #180 into Silver City.

Have plenty of fuel before you leave Silver City. There are few services en route.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is administered by the U.S. National Park Service. Expect the trail to be serviceable in normal times. Winter weather can be severe at 6,000 feet. In summer, be prepared for extreme heat and sun. Carry plenty of water in your vehicle and when you hike. However, the site may be temporarily closed during the current partial shutdown of the U.S. government.

The Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness are administered by the U.S. National Forest service. Click on respective links for information about conditions, wilderness regulations and restrictions and backcountry and camping permits.

I’ve written about Mesa Verde National Park several times, including at this link.

Happy hiking, under western skies!

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Have you been there? Leave a comment.

Read more about the Mimbres culture at this link.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Some photos © M. Vincent 2019, used by kind permission. Photograph of Mimbres ware by Brad Nixon and M. Vincent, property of University of New Mexico Maxwell Museum of Anthropology. Map © Google with my emendations.


  1. Great photos. I live in the Boston area and haven’t been out that way before. Someday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you. It might take more than one trip to see it all! Enjoy Boston, which could consume a lifetime to see, itself.


  2. Even though I’ve read Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, I somehow missed that he was responsible for the Gila Wilderness. I probably read right past it. I see that the Gila monster got its name from the Gila river; did the wilderness area and forest, also?

    The areas around the cliff dwellings seem to have more shrubs and trees than I expected. Do you know if anyone has studied what the topography was like when the dwellings were populated? Was it more forested, or less? Did the people clear the land around the cliff dwellings, or encourage vegetative growth for cover? I suppose that’s all in the realm of speculation, but it’s interesting to think about.

    I did notice how close the Gila cliff dwellings and Silver City are to Bosque del Apache wildlife refuge. I’ve often been tempted in that direction, to see the sandhill crane migration in the fall. At that point, another few miles wouldn’t make any difference.


    • You’ll get me going here. Excuse me, but YOU asked. In no particular order.
      1. I think a drive would be worth it for the Bosque del Apache, period, whatever else betides. I’ve never been, and would love to. That’s one.
      2. Standard wisdom is that neither flora nor fauna have changed all that much in the past 800-1,000 years, whether you’re at Hovenweep, Mesa Verde, Chaco or in the Gila.
      What CHANGES is rainfall. It comes and goes. There are wet seasons, just-right seasons and dry ones. If too many dry ones happen in a row, the people move on. Chaco is empty, Mesa Verde is empty, the Gila is empty. Drought, overfarming and over-hunting overtook them all, and the people moved on. As it is today, water is the history of the west, and is a cruel master. In Chaco and Mesa Verde, there were successive waves of in-migration and evacuation over many hundreds of years. It’s probably the same in the Mogollon territories, but their remains have been so horrendously mutilated by pot-hunters that the record is fuzzy. Likely the same. The Hopi and Pueblo tribes of today are the inheritors of the world those cultures left when drought drove them east to the Rio Grande or west into the Arizona highlands. Just where the Mogollon went is a mystery.
      All the cultures would’ve farmed, clearing land. The clearest evidence is at Mesa Verde, where there is an intact reservoir built ca. 1300 with a couple million gallons of water capacity and obvious signs of cleared fields. Much the same is true in Chaco. The record is muddier in SW NM, but I suspect archaeologists know a lot more than I do about farming in the Gila. I’m out of my range there.
      3. Gila River. The Gila River is actually one of the great American rivers, 650 miles long. It flows out of the wilderness highlands in NM west across SW NM into Arizona, along the southern edge of Phoenix to the Colorado. You can see it from the air when you fly into Phoenix. It was a major pathway for ancient people. Artifacts from Mogollon sites in the Gila clearly came up from Hohokam sites in the lower Gila near Phoenix, including shells from the Gulf that’d been transported up through Mexico. The river wasn’t navigable, but in all but the driest years it carried water down from the NM mountains, making it a natural pathway. It’s a way we no longer think about geography, but — then — life depended on it: follow the water.
      I hope this helps. It’s some of what I try to see when I’m standing in a narrow canyon on a hot July day in a part of the U.S.A. few Americans have seen. The people who came before us saw the world in a different way.
      There IS an Aldo Leopold Wilderness that’s part of the Gila National Forest. I wanted SO much to mention it, but didn’t want to run on too long. Incredibly rich, rugged and remote, one of the country’s little-known corners, which I have not yet walked.
      Thanks, Linda, for giving me an opportunity to expand on a subject dear to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Lots of thoughts, but I’ll leave them disconnected:

        If too many dry ones happen in a row, the people move on. In 2010, Texas moved into drought, and 2011 was our driest year on record. Crops failed, fires burned: all of it. That year I came to understand the dust bowl and the use of dowsing rods in a new way.

        That also was the year I came to understand the stress of waiting for rain. People focus on hurricanes, blizzards, and floods as examples of weather disasters, but a drought is a slow-motion disaster, and for whole peoples to have to live through the “should we stay? should we go?” debate must have been terrible. There comes a point where doing anything beats doing nothing.

        All the cultures would’ve farmed, clearing land. It sounds as though their practices were pretty sophisticated. In Liberia, one of the biggest struggles was persuading people to exchange traditional slash-and-burn rice farming (dry rice) for sustainable paddies (wet rice). The amount of forest clearing that went on was unimaginable.

        The [Gila] river wasn’t navigable, but in all but the driest years it carried water down from the NM mountains, making it a natural pathway. It’s a way we no longer think about geography…

        Have you read May Theilgaard Watts’s Reading the Landscape of America? If it’s not on your bookshelf, I highly recommend it. From the back cover: “…Watts invites us to join her on ‘an adventure into the field that is called ecology.’ … She teaches us to interpret the clues that reveal the history, natural and human, of a place.”

        She begins with chapters on the Great Smoky Mountains and Indiana, then moves across the country, ending up with chapters with titles like “Reading the Records in Old Adobe Walls: the Spanish Conquest of the Grass Hills” and “Standing Alone in the Sun: Individuals of the Southwest Desert.”

        I’m still working my way through it, and presently am reading about the sand dunes of Indiana.

        Liked by 1 person

      • No, I don’t know Ms. Watts’ book. I’ll look for it.
        Sophistication of farming in the southwest did evolve significantly over time. None of the Puebloans had metalworking technology or draft animals, so it was enormously labor-intensive. Where they had enough time and resources, they established fairly sophisticated irrigation systems. There’s still a reservoir they built on the mesa at Mesa Verde that, I think, still holds 2 million gallons of water. I might have that number wrong. As you state, once the rains failed, the debate began. Terrible, indeed.


  3. Great angle on Mesa Verde! (And on the Gila Theater below too 🙂 )

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This looks like such a wonderful roadtrip, and I love the scenery.. That’s such unique and dramatic pottery as well – it reminds me a lot of Arizona and its nature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Arizona border’s not far to the west, the environment is similar across a swath in the southern part of both states. Thank you.


  5. Nice pictures, and interesting rock formations, I find the clouds really add drama to your photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t get me started on clouds! That’s the genesis of the name of my blog: Under Western Skies. Gotta have those big clouds to provide a framework for the picture. Don’t want those endless deep blue skies. Give me some big, puffy clouds!


  6. Great photographs as well as interesting historical information. I love the cliff dwellings and will definitely add this to my long list of places i’d hope to visit one day. Thank you for sharing 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • My pleasure to provide you with another “to see” place. When you go, do make an effort to visit the WNMU museum in Silver City to see the pottery. It’s genuinely remarkable art. Thanks for the comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yeah the pottery is so artistic. I saw those pictures as well – definitely visiting the museum too 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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