The Gila Wilderness
The Gila Cliff Dwellings is one of the most remote national monuments in the country. The site is located on the edge of the Gila Wilderness, the nation’s first designated wilderness area. It is surrounded by the Gila National Forest, which totals 2,710,659 acres.
There is a variety of terrain in the Gila. The area encompasses the drainage basins of both Mogollon Creek and Turkey Creek. The northeastern and far eastern sections of the Wilderness consist of high mesas, rolling hills, and deep canyons, ranging in elevation from 5,000 to 8,000 feet. The western and southwestern sections consist of high mountains, particularly the Mogollon Range, which peaks at 10,895 feet. Native vegetation includes Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, aspens and a variety of ferns.
The Gila River runs beside the road for a significant portion of the journey. The Gila is the longest wild river in the continental United States. There are no dams on the Gila. The Gila is a true wilderness area, with numerous places to pull off to appreciate the breathtaking views.
Gas up before you go. Though the cliff dwellings are only 45 miles north of Silver City, it takes over an hour to get there. There is one road in, one road out, a loop called the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway. Watch out for bicyclists. The annual Tour of the Gila follows the same route. It is extremely popular with cyclists. Besides, a leisurely pace is worthwhile. It is a scenic drive, with minimal amenities, no power lines, no people, and no cell phone signal.
This rugged area has sustained human life for a long time. Advanced civilizations rose to power and collapsed. The Gila Cliff Dwellings Monument is small, a modest 553-acres, but it represents a 2000-year old tapestry of cultural development. The fertile archaeological resources at this remote National Monument provide us with better insight into the evolution of life in the southwest.
People have lived here for thousands of years, from Archaic rock shelters, early and late pit houses, and pueblo dwellings. They built semi-permanent shelters as well as large villages. Items found at the site reveal a trade network that stretched from Mesa Verde to Mexico. When the Mogollon migrated out of the region, nomadic people from the north, the Apache, took their place.
Archaeologists know something bad happened in the 1200s. The 150-year period between 1150 – 1300 AD coincides with migration from Chaco and Mesa Verde. From north to south, everyone was on the move. The Zuni built a pueblo on top of El Morro. Cliff communities, like Bandelier, Puye, and the Gila, became common for several decades.
There are many theories about what caused the decline of the Ancestral Puebloan and Mogollon civilizations, the “Great Drought” of 1276-1299 is frequently cited as the primary culprit. Drought, crop failure, and famine forced mass abandonment of large settlements. The cause, or causes, of the “Great Abandonment” is a matter of ongoing research and debate, but the impact was widespread and prolonged. Large villages and cities that had thrived for centuries were abandoned within a matter of decades. Refugees migrated in small family groups across the southwest, with many seeking refuge in places with access to water and strategically defensive, from cliff dwellings to mesa tops.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is the only monument with Mogollon ruins. The site protects five cliff alcoves that shield the ruins of several interlinked caves. There are 40 rooms of various sizes in the caves, created with small, flat stones set in adobe mud mortar. Ancient people built the cliff dwellings between 1275-1300 AD. The caves are approximately ¼ mile above the canyon’s confluence with the west fork of the Gila River, about 200 feet up the northwest side of Cliff Dweller Canyon.
Location preserved the Gila Cliff Dwellings for centuries. The remote canyons of the Gila River forks are rugged, heavily forested, with steep canyons. After the Mogollon moved out, the Apache moved in. The Apache kept everyone else out until the late 1870s. The mud-and-stone architecture is sheltered within six caves, protected from the wind and water that reduced a nearby mesa-top site to rubble by the 1880s.
Though many people are familiar with the Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), they weren’t the only dominant player in the southwest. The Mogollon were dominant in what is now southern New Mexico, southern Arizona and northern Mexico. The Hohokam neighbored the Mogollon in what is now southern Arizona.
The Mogollon Culture is part of what is broadly defined as Oasis-American Culture. They developed agriculture early due to the proximity of reliable water sources in an otherwise arid environment. Extensive trade existed between the tribes in what is now the United States and Mexico. The trade routes facilitated the rapid spread of agricultural techniques and seed.
Note about the name: The Mogollon culture was named after Don Juan Ignacio Flores Mogollón. He was the Spanish Governor of New Spain, aka New Mexico, from 1712 – 1715. Though the culture bears his name, he had nothing to do with them. They moved on centuries before the Spanish arrived in the new world.
The Mogollon adopted agriculture after the Ancestral Puebloans. They relied on hunting and gathering until about 900 AD. Based on the water control features that are commonplace at Mimbres sites from the 900s through the early 1200s, dependence on farming increased in the 10th century.
The nature and density of Mogollon villages evolved quickly within a few centuries. The earliest settlements were small hamlets, composed of several pithouses (houses excavated into the ground surface, with stick and thatch roofs supported by a network of posts and beams, and faced on the exterior with earth), but by the 11th century the hamlets had grown into villages…or pueblos, as New Mexicans recognize them.
The Mogollon culture was cohesive between 150 – 1400 AD. Archaeological sites attributed to the Mogollon culture have been found in the Gila Wilderness, Mimbres River Valley, along the Upper Gila river, Paquime and Hueco Tanks.
The Mimbres occupied the isolated river valleys of southwestern New Mexico from about 1000 to 1250 AD. They settled on the upper Gila River and parts of the upper San Francisco River.
The exact nature of the relationship between the Mogollon Culture and the Mimbres is unknown, but the Mimbres are generally considered to be a distinct group within the Mogollon sphere of influence. little is known about them beyond their exceptional pottery, which has been described as some of the best in the world. The unusual pottery handiwork intrigues art historians and collectors, as well as archaeologists and anthropologists.
What is known about the Mimbres is based primarily on two phases of development. The Three Circle Phase, from 825 – 1000 AD, is defined by pit houses and the Classic Mimbres period, from 1000 and 1130 AD, was the pinnacle of cultural development and peak population. These two phases are distinct based on deviations from other branches of the Mogollon in both pottery design and architecture.
First Visit to the Ruins
The first recorded visit to the ruin was in 1878. Looters completely ransacked the site within six years. The McKinley administration established the Gila River Forest Reserve in 1899. The Reserve withdrew public land on the headwaters of the Gila from further homesteading until 1906. Then, in 1907, Theodore Roosevelt permanently withdrew the archaeological site and 160 surrounding acres from private ownership and he prohibited damaging or removing prehistoric artifacts.
The national monument is at the northern perimeter of the Mogollon people’s sphere of influence, with Hohokam to the west, and the Ancestral Puebloans to the north. Although Southwestern archaeologists in the 19th century were aware of ruins in the Mimbres Valley, their importance was overshadowed by the richness of neighboring Pueblo ruins. The Mimbres sites were largely ignored until the 1920s and 1930s. Chaco Canyon, Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde, and Pueblo Bonito, attracted numerous archaeologists in the late 19th century, with excavations funded and publications eager to present their findings.
Archaeologists refer to Mimbres people and Mimbres culture. We don’t know what these people called themselves or whether their unique pottery defined their identity in some way or simply made for an awesome trade commodity. The pottery is Mimbres and the people who made the pottery are Mimbres.
Inhabitants of the Cliff Dwellings
The Dwellings have withstood the test of time. Analysis of the artifacts found at the Gila Cliff Dwellings indicate two periods of use. Paleo-Indians used it as a cave shelter before 500 AD. Eight to ten families repurposed the caves during the Tularosa Phase (1125 – 1300 AD). Based on tree ring data, they built the rooms over an 11 year period of time, between 1276 and 1287. Based on the abundance of Tularosa Phase pottery, they probably came from an area 50 miles to the north, around present-day Reserve, New Mexico.
Ancestral Puebloan Influence
The T-shaped entrances on some of the exterior walls are indicative of Ancestral Puebloan influence. It is an architectural feature associated with Chacoan Culture and indicates some level of interaction. That would have happened based on trade. Numerous objects indicative of robust trade and wealth were recovered at the site during excavations, including shell jewelry from the Pacific, macaw feathers, and the skull of at least one live macaw (presumably from Mexico).
Villagers had access to a diverse diet of local game and wild plants. They cultivated vegetables, like maize, beans and squash. They left several varieties of corn, three types of squash, and several types of beans when they moved on. The amount of corn cobs left behind was so vast that it was often cited in early studies and reports. However, despite the abundance of water and game, the Mogollon didn’t stay long. They moved onward around 1300 AD.
Several mummified bodies were found around the site, but most were lost to looters and private collectors prior to the monument being established. Archaeologists discovered a burial ground and unearthed a mummified infant in 1912. The archaeological community named the mini mummy “Zeke.” The discovery gained national attention and increased the monument’s popularity. Later, the Smithsonian took custody of Zeke.
TJ ruin is 1.5 miles east of the Gila Cliff Dwellings, at the edge of a 100-foot-high bluff overlooking the Middle Fork and West Fork of the Gila River. Saltbush and native grasses obscure the low mounds of adobe and stone ruins. It is the last large, pristine Mimbres Pueblo site. The village was continuously occupied for at least 900 years, between 500 – 1400 AD. During limited excavations, archaeologists documented 227 rooms in 5 separate apartment-like blocks, with three Great Kivas, 4 communal pit structures, and a partially enclosed plaza.
Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center
HC 68 Box 100
Silver City, NM 88061
Visitor Center 8:00 am to 4:30 pm. The Gila Visitor Center and Gila Cliff Dwellings Trailhead Contact Station is open every day of the year, including federal holidays. The trail to the Gila Cliff Dwellings is open from 9 am to 4 pm. The last visitors for the day are allowed in at 4 pm. Everyone must be off the trail by 5 pm.
Fees are collected at a self-service pay station at the trailhead. Payment by exact change or check may be made at the trailhead. Change is only available at the Visitor Center. Credit card payments can only be made at the Visitor Center.
Family – $10/day
Individual – $5/day per adult (16+)
Free entrance for under 16.
The climate is usually dry, but July and August are “monsoon” months. During the rainy season short, intense storms are common in the afternoon.
Daytime highs average in the 90s (F) during the summer, while nighttime lows can drop into the 50s (F). During the winter daytime highs can reach the 50s (F), while nighttime lows can drop into the teens.
Primitive camping is also available in the Gila National Forest.
The Forks Campground is located about five miles south of the national monument. They provide primitive camping on the West Fork of the Gila River.
The river is the only source of water at the campground. It must be either filtered, boiled, or chemically treated. The campsites do not provide tables or grills. Vault toilets are available on site. Camping is free of charge and first-come, first-served. There is a 15 day stay limit. Horses are prohibited in the campground, but there are corrals nearby at TJ Corral or Woody’s Corral. OHVs and ATVs are prohibited in the campground. All firearm use, including hunting, is also prohibited. Dogs on leash only. Steep road into lower section of campground. RV’s are not recommended in this area.
The Grapevine Campground is located about five miles south of the national monument, south of the Gila River Bridge. The East, West and Middle Forks of the Gila River come together in this campground and they offer primitive camping on the East Fork of the Gila River. All campsites are on a first come, first serve basis.
The only water available is from the river and must be either filtered, boiled, or chemically treated. No tables or grills provided. Vault toilets are available on site. Camping is free of charge. There is a 15 day stay limit. Hunting is prohibited, firearms are prohibited, ATVs and Horses are not allowed in the campground, and dogs are allowed on a leash.
Doc Campbell’s general store is about 4 miles south. The cell phone reception is decent and the store has phone available, as well as gas, groceries, and hunting and fishing licenses. Hot springs showers are available for a fee. The road into the campground is steep.
Scorpion Campgrounds provide primitive camping on the West Fork of the Gila River. The Scorpion Campgrounds are approximately one-half mile south of the national monument.
Drinking water is available at the RV station, located at the parking area for the Gila Visitor Center (about 1.5 miles away). Tables and grills are provided. Vault toilets are available on site. Camping is free of charge, first-come, first-served.
There are 400 miles of trails in the Gila Wilderness. Detailed maps are available at the Visitor Center and Forest Offices.
Please pack out all trash. Check weather and river conditions before embarking on adventures. Stay out of slot canyons during storms and don’t attempt river crossings if there is any possibility of unexpected flooding.
Backpacking & Horseback Riding
Backpacking, horseback riding permits and trip itineraries are not required in the Gila Wilderness. However, it is a good idea to leave an itinerary with a friend or family member…so someone will know if you vanish.
Hikes #1-3, and 5 begin at the TJ Corral Trailhead. The Corral Trailhead is a mile from the Visitor Center, on the way to the Cliff Dwellings. Vault toilets are available at the trailhead. Day hike 4 starts at Woody’s Corral and Day Hike 6 begins just past the Visitor Center parking lot.
Day Hike #1
Little Bear Canyon/ Middle Fork Loop
Distance: 9 miles to river junction and back or 11 mile loop.
Elevation gain: 630 feet.
This is an excellent hike to get a feel for both the open mesa tops and tight canyon bottoms in the Gila River Valley. At the first junction 0.25 miles from the TJ Corral trailhead turn right. At the second junction, approximately 2.5 miles, continue straight ahead. The trail drops down into an increasingly narrow drainage (Little Bear Canyon). When the trail meets the Middle Fork trail, either return the same way or turn right for 6 miles and dozens of river crossings to the Middle Fork Trailhead near the Visitor Center. Finish the loop with a 1 mile road hike back to the TJ Corral.
Day Hike #2
Stock Bypass Loop
Distance: 4 miles.
Elevation gain: 210 feet.
While originally used to keep horses and other stock out of the National Monument and off the road, this leisurely trail also provides an opportunity for hikers to get off the canyon bottom. At the first junction, 0.25 miles from the TJ Corral trailhead, continue straight. Cross the large dry wash, Adobe Canyon, turn left just inside the wooden wilderness boundary fence and follow the trail 2.8 miles to the next junction. Turn left onto the West Fork Trail and follow it for 0.5miles and 2 river crossings to the Cliff Dwellings parking lot. Finish the loop with a 1-mile road hike back to TJ Corral.
Day Hike #3
West Fork Loop
Distance: 12 miles.
Elevation gain: 1,300 feet.
For hikers who want more challenge and variety, this hike allows access to the ridge-tops between the Middle and West Forks of the Gila River. At the first junction 0.25 miles from the TJ Corral trailhead turn right. At the second junction, approximately 2-miles later, turn left towards the meadows. This 4-mile section of the trail has frequent scenic views. Turn left at the next junction for a steep, 3-mile decent into the West Fork. Turn left onto the West Fork trail and follow it for 2 miles and 2 river crossings to the Cliff Dwellings parking lot. Finish the loop with a 1 mile road hike back to the TJ Corral.
Day Hike #4
EE Canyon Loop
Distance: 8 miles.
Elevation gain: 970 feet.
Begin at Woody’s Corral Trailhead, located 1 mile from the Visitor Center on the road to the Cliff Dwellings. Water and vault toilets are available. Encounter rocky outcrops, panoramic views, and ponderosa pine forest on this trail. A moderate climb leads to the top of a ridge separating the West Fork and Little Creek. At the first junction 3.3 miles from the Woody’s Corral trailhead turn right and follow the trail on the ridge for another 0.8 mile. At the next junction turn right to descend through EE Canyon for 2 miles. Turn right onto the West Fork trail and follow it for 1 mile and 4 river crossings to the Cliff Dwellings parking lot. Finish the loop with a 1 mile road hike back to Woody’s Corral. Or follow the trail along the West Fork with 3 additional river crossings.
Day Hike #5
Little Bear Canyon to Jordan Hot Springs
Distance: 7 miles one way from TJ Corral.
Elevation gain: 630 feet
Temperature: Approximately 90 degrees Fahrenheit
From the TJ Corral, trailhead is located 1 mile from the Visitor Center on the road to the Cliff Dwellings. At the first junction 0.25 miles from the TJ Corral trailhead turn right; follow the sign to the Middle Fork. At the second junction, approximately 2 miles, continue straight. The trail drops down into an increasingly narrow drainage (Little Bear Canyon). When the Little Bear Canyon trail meets the Middle Fork of the Gila River, follow the river upstream for 2.5 miles/15 crossings. The spring is on the right (northeast) side of the canyon away from the river, just beyond and above a marshy, grassy area.
Day Hike #6
Middle Fork to Light Feather and Jordan Hot Springs
Distance: 0.75 miles above Middle Fork Trailhead, one way.
Water Temperature: Approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit
Turn right onto the road at the end of the visitor center parking lot, drive up a small hill, turn left, and park at the Middle Fork Trailhead. Light Feather Hot Springs is located upstream from the trail head by walking past the gate down a dirt road and follow the trail up the canyon for 0.5 miles with multiple river crossings. The hot springs are located near an unusual rock outcrop on the right.
CAUTION: The water comes out of the ground at a temperature hot enough to burn your skin. Channelling some of the river water may be necessary before soaking in the springs.
Jordan Hot Springs via Middle Fork Trail Head
Distance: 8.5 miles, one way.
Water Temperature: Approximately 90 degrees Fahrenheit
From the Middle Fork Trailhead (see description for Middle Fork/Light Feather Hot Springs) continue upstream for 6 miles, approximately 32 river crossings, to the junction with the Little Bear Canyon trail. From the junction, follow the river upstream for 2.5 miles/15 crossings. The spring is on the right (northeast) side of the canyon away from the river, just beyond and above a marshy, grassy area.
Day Hike #7
Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument
Distance: 1 mile loop with an elevation rise of about 180 feet.
The Monument trail is only open during the seasonal open hours. The Trail to the Past, next to the Lower Scorpion campground, is the only other trail with archaeological significance. The trail passes a panel of pictographs and a ruin at the head of a small canyon.
Amenities in Silver City
The valley where Silver City is located was once an Apache campsite. When the Spanish arrived, the area became known for copper mining. After the American Civil War, a settlement known as la Ciénega de San Vicente (the Marsh of St. Vincent) was established. With the discovery of gold and silver, waves of prospectors arrived in the late 1800s and they renamed the mining camp in 1870, officially becoming Silver City.
Casitas de Gila Guesthouses & Art Gallery | A stress-free zone on 265 acres, convenient to Silver City. 5 Guesthouses, an Art Gallery, and a Nature Preserve with 11 hiking trails covering over 6 miles. Beautiful dark skies, great scenery. (575) 535-4455
Bear Mountain Lodge & Cafe Oso Azul | A tranquil oasis on the edge of the New Mexico wilderness, the ideal choice for quiet relaxation or unforgettable adventure. The Lodge offers refined and restful accommodations in breathtaking surroundings, with easy access to hiking, cycling, horseback riding, bird watching, nature study and wilderness. (575) 538-2538
Silver City Museum | Housed in the restored 1881 Mansard/Italianate H.B. Ailman House, the museum collection resource materials include some 20,000 objects relating to the peoples and history of southwest New Mexico.
Silver City has a fantastic food scene and several cafes for people who cringe at the thought of gas station coffee.
- The Jalisco Cafe
- Diane’s Bakery & Deli
- 1zero6 Cafe
- Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery
- Vicki’s Eatery
- Javalina Coffee House
Additional Attractions Nearby
- PIE TOWN | At the tail end of the mining boom in the 1800s an enterprising prospector with a penchant for pies realized he could make more money providing supplies and pie. A century later the tradition continues in a community dedicated to providing travelers with tasty pies.
- MOGOLLON | A lot of the silver that contributed to Silver City’s name came from Mogollon, a rowdy, remote mining town deep in the Gila, which is now a fantastic ghost town accessed by a somewhat harrowing road in. Don’t attempt during inclement weather.
- CITY OF ROCKS | An eruption in the neighboring Black Range left an array of massive boulders on the plains, providing shade for camping. Known for birdwatching, hot springs nearby and an observatory to take advantage of the dark skies.
- MIMBRES CULTURE HERITAGE SITE | The Ancestral Puebloans weren’t the only ancient culture thriving in the southwest prior to European arrival. To the south the Mogollon communities stretched from New Mexico west into Arizona.
- CATWALK | Narrow canyon trail following in the steps of Geronimo and Butch Cassidy, both of which used the canyon as a hide out.
- MAGICAL MIMBRES VALLEY & THE TRAIL OF THE MOUNTAIN SPIRITS | Take the Trail of the Mountain Spirits scenic byway, circling through the lush, fertile Mimbres valley that has provided a home and safe haven for human beings for 11,000 years.
- GILA WILDERNESS | The nation’s first wilderness area, neighboring the Gila National Forest and encompassing the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument and Mimbres Cultural Heritage Area.
- ALDO LEOPOLD WILDERNESS | Aldo Leopold loved the Gila and advocated for conservation of New Mexico’s wild places and wild spaces. It is appropriate that a wilderness area in his name neighbors the Gila, protecting more acreage from development and mining.
- CONTINENTAL DIVIDE TRAIL | The most challenging of the long distance trails in the United States, running from south of Lordsburg to the border of Canada.