Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Let’s just say you won’t ever accidentally arrive at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This monument is located at the very end of hwy 15, a long and twisty two-lane paved road. Surrounded by what is now Gila National Forest, the Mogollon people lived in these cave dwellings from late 1200’s until the early 1300's. Based on the tree rings of the timbers used for roof beams, the trees were cut down between 1276 and 1287. But just like the Anazazi people who lived in the cave dwellings in what is now Mesa Verde National Park, the Mogollon people also disappeared around 1300s and no one can figure out why.
Archeologists have identified over 40 rooms in the 6 caves in Cliff Dweller Canyon. We spent an hour visiting the caves via a short one-mile loop hike from the parking lot. Visitors are able to walk through three of the caves. Aside from the main caves in Cliff Dweller Canyon, there are smaller caves scattered throughout the area. There’s a small one-room cave a quarter-mile walk from Lower Scorpion Campground, along with a large rock wall of pictographs. We also heard about a couple more caves around 3 miles up the Gila River from the cliff dwelling parking lot. Talking to the volunteer stationed in the main cave, he said he’s come across all kinds of cave dwellings during his hikes in the surrounding national forest and wilderness on his days off.
Honestly, it’s a long drive to visit Gila Cliff Dwellings for just a one-hour tour. So, I’d recommend maximizing a trip out there by hiking the other trails around the national monument. The scenery further in the woods is spectacular (we backpacked out to Jordan Hot Springs – more on that in a separate post).
After finding out that any vehicles longer than 20 feet in length are strongly advised against taking hwy 15 from Silver City, we turned around (yes, we found this out after starting down hwy 15) and took hwy 35 to hwy 15. Although the detour is longer in mileage, it’s not time-wise. As the park ranger we talked to said, we probably could’ve made it up hwy 15 from Silver City, but we would’ve pissed off all the cars behind us and it would’ve taken us a lot longer. According to the ranger, the section of hwy 15 between Silver City and the hwy 35 intersection is very winding and narrow with several hairpin turns and no pull-outs.
The upside of taking hwy 35 is that it took us by Lake Roberts. Although there were “no swimming” signs, boats are allowed so we stopped on our way out for me to paddle. It’s also worth stopping at Clinton P. Anderson Wilderness Overlook to get a panoramic view of the result of the Copperas Creek volcano that occurred 30 million years ago. According to the information sign, Copperas Creek volcano may have looked something like Mt. Hood. We also saw several trailheads along hwy 35 and hwy 15.
It’s a really scenic drive up to the national monument. We spotted several potential boondocking spots, none of which at a quick glance looked big enough for the Toaster. But we weren’t in scout mode. I had called the cliff dwelling visitor center earlier and was told by a ranger that we could stay overnight in any of the parking lots there for free. Upper and Lower Scorpion campgrounds have sites for tent camping only. But the two parking lots can be used as boondocking sites, even though they’re not very big (they can fit at least 2 or 3 rigs). We stayed all four nights in the cliff dwelling trailhead parking lot. This worked out well because it was mid-week and the lot wasn’t filled up with visitor cars during the day. It was actually a wonderful place to stay because we were able to take evening hikes straight out our door, use a small swimming hole in the river behind us, and head out on our backpacking trip without having to drive the truck even once.
So if you’re planning a trip out to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monuments, keep in mind that there’s so much more to see than just what’s inside the national monument.
- There’s no cell signal in this section of Gila National Forest/Wilderness/National Monument starting from the “town” of Mimbres.
- There’s a ranger station along hwy 35 if you have questions about the area.
- There are two paid campgrounds (Mesa campground and Upper End campground) that flank either side of Lake Roberts.
- The entire national monument is a pack it in, pack it out park. This means there are no trash cans anywhere on the property.
- The entrance fee to visit the cliff dwellings is $5/person or $10/family. We used our America the Beautiful park pass.
- There is a fresh water fill station (free) at the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument visitor center. The dump station there has been closed.
- There are several dog kennels at the cliff dwelling trailhead. I didn’t ask about the cost.
We visited here from May 14 - 18, 2018.