New Mexico: Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

A pictograph from the Gila Cliff Dwellings
A pictograph from the Gila Cliff Dwellings

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Barry Nielsen

Over 700 years ago, deep within the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, a hunter and gatherer community built structures and dwellings within the natural caves of the Cliff Dweller Canyon. While many different groups inhabited this area over thousands of years, only one built within the canyon’s natural caves. This group was part of the Mogollon Culture, a pre-contact American Indian group that combined traditional hunting and gathering with farming. Established by presidential proclamation on November 16, 1907, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument preserves the cliff dwellings, the TJ Ruin (a small pueblo inhabited from roughly A.D. 900 to A.D. 1150), and other significant archeological sites related to the Mimbres branch, a subculture of the larger Mogollon culture area. 

These sites contribute to an ongoing discussion about who these people were, why they built the cliff dwellings, how they lived their lives on a daily basis, and ultimately, how they relate to the cultural heritage of American Indians today. This Monument is especially important as the only unit in the National Park System that contains Mogollan sites, which are rapidly disappearing elsewhere in the Southwest.

People of the Mogollon Culture constructed and inhabited the cliff dwellings between the late 1270s and 1300. The Mogollons were hunters and gathers who also incorporated farming into their daily lives. Their farms were on the mesa tops and along banks of the West Fork of the Gila River. In the fertile soil of the Gila River valley where the growing season averages 140 days, the Mogollons raised squash, corn, and beans. To complete their diets, they hunted animals, possibly mule deer, elk, beaver, ducks, and turkeys, and collected berries and nuts from the surrounding forest. They also produced pottery congruent with the Tularosa phase (1100-1300) including brown bowls with black interiors and black-on white vessels. Their clothing and sandals were of yucca cord, agave leaves, bark, and cotton.

Archeologists estimate that 40-60 Mogollons constructed the Gila Cliff Dwellings. They built their dwellings in five caves and each dwelling had approximately 40 rooms. Estimates are that no more than 10 to 15 families lived in the dwellings at a time and that multiple generations used them. The Mogollon incorporated fallen rocks into the construction of some of the different rooms. They also used thin conglomerate slabs laid in large amounts of mortar to construct other walls. Today, more than 40 percent of the walls retain this original plaster. The dwellings contain habitation rooms, storage rooms, ceremonial rooms, and communal rooms. Prepared floors can be found throughout the dwellings, while some of the rooms' floors simply utilize the existing bedrock in the caves.

Visitors may experience the cliff dwellings and a piece of Mogollon culture by following the “Cliff Dwellings Trail.” This trail leads to the dwellings, passing through some of the rooms. Ladders along the trail provide additional glimpses of the dwellings. The trail is a one-mile loop that takes around one hour round trip. The short (1/4 mile) and handicapped accessible trail, “Trail to the Past,” leads to a small Mogollon alcove dwelling and a large pictograph panel. “Trail to the Past” is accessible from the Lower Scorpion Campground. Visitors can obtain information about these trails at the Monument’s visitor center. The visitor center displays Mogollon artifacts that were found throughout the cliff dwellings and the surrounding area and an exhibit on the Chiricahua Apache, who consider the wilderness to be their homeland. A 15-minute video illustrates what life may have been like for those who built the cliff dwellings.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, administered jointly by the National Park Service and the Forest Service, is 44 miles north of Silver City, NM, at the end of NM 15. During the summer, the cliff dwellings trail is open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, and the visitors center is open from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm; the rest of the year, the trail is open 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. For more information, visit the National Park Service Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument website or call 575-536-9461.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is also featured in the National Park Service American Southwest Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: August 7, 2017