Gila Rocks!The geology in and around Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is a result of volcanic events ranging from approximately 50 million to 25 million years ago. It started with two eruptions from a super-volcano which formed the Bursum and Cliff Dweller calderas. This activity created several layers of rock from the igneous rhyolitic layer to the petrified ash piles of the Bloodgood Tuff. Somewhere in the middle is the Gila conglomerate, a cocktail of many different kinds of rock held together by a natural sandstone mortar. Earth was making masonry here long before the Mogollon!
Wind, water and fluctuating temperatures have been acting on the Gila conglomerate over the course of millions of years and have instigated a process called exfoliation, whereby pieces of rock of varying sizes flake off and fall to the ground. This is the process that created the alcoves where the cliff dwellings were built. The flakes were later found by the Mogollon people who broke some of them down even more and used them to build their walls. Exfoliation is an ongoing process that never stops until the mountain is eventually (probably in hundreds of millions of years or so) reduced to a flat surface.
Soak It In
All that volcanism has left several hot springs in the National Forest, some within hiking distance of the Gila Visitor Center. Two of the most popular are Jordan Hot Spring and Lightfeather Hot Spring. These springs are high in mineral content and have been sought out for generations for therapeutic benefits, even as far back as the Mogollon. They are known as sweet springs, however, because they lack salt and sulfur, as well as that distinct, pungent sulfur smell.
Lightfeather Hot Spring is about a 3/4 mile, twenty minute walk from the Gila Visitor Center along Trail 157, the Middle Fork Trail. It is situated in a steep canyon and flows from the base of a hill into the Middle Fork of the Gila River. The water pulses from the ground in about one minute increments and has a temperature of about 130 degrees. With such scalding temperatures, it's important to avoid the source and instead soak in the rock-lined pools constructed in the Middle Fork and maintained by visitors and local residents. Geothermal activity may cause the rocks in the riverbed to be hot in some spots.
JordanJordan Hot Spring is about a seven mile hike via Little Bear Canyon, Trail 729, or a little over eight miles via the Middle Fork route. While there are far more from the Middle Fork, each route features many river crossings. The hike is moderately strenuous and, while some do experience it in a day hike, it's recommended as an overnight. There are a number of camp sites both above and below the spring. Due to the popularity of this destination, firewood can be hard to come by. Please remember that it is unlawful to cut down trees or brush for fires; only dead and down wood should be used. Also, the spring is in the wilderness. Leave-no-trace practices should be followed.
The hot spring's pool is about twenty feet in diameter, about three feet deep, and has a water temperature of about 94 degrees Fahrenheit. For this reason, some refer to Jordan as a "warm spring." Again, it's a very popular destination, especially during periods of increased visitation, such as spring break. Planning is advised when visiting during such times. You may want to consider other alternatives such as Melanie Hot Spring or the commercial pools found in the nearby village of Gila Hot Springs.
A Note on Amoebic MeningitisWhen soaking in natural hot springs, it's important to note the possible existence of Naegleria fowleri, a free-living amoeba that inhabits soils and warm freshwater throughout the world. N. fowleri is also known as the "brain-eating amoeba" because it can cause primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) if introduced into the body through the nose. While the condition is rare, it's also deadly. This doesn't mean that natural hot springs are dangerous, but in order to avoid infection you shouldn't submerge your face in the water.
Last updated: March 22, 2021