Gila Cliff Dwellings...The Rest of the Story...

As promised I’m back today, well rested and ready to recount the tale of my trip to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. This National Monument site lies just 75 miles from the campsite here at City of Rocks but as they say, they are “hard miles”! There are two ways to get to the Monument from this location so I decided to try one way on the trip out and the other on the way back. I set out about 9:15 am and my GPS estimated 2 hours for the journey. I knew the roads would take me over the mountainous terrain of the Gila National Forest and having experienced those mountains on my way to Truth or Consequences, I knew it would be slow going. The route I took going out was Hwy 61, to Hwy 152 south, then hooking up with Hwy 15 north. The landscape was gorgeous and I stopped often for photos. I even saw a few patches of snow at the higher elevations (7,000+ feet) but it was just a scattering under the trees at the lookout points. It was a pleasant sunny 55 degrees, the perfect day for a drive. Dexter was happy to ride shotgun and enjoyed sniffing out the local critter scents at every stop. The route was hilly with plenty of curves but not too taxing for the Ram. I was totally enchanted by the lavender scrub I saw lining the Gila River along my drive. I later learned from the Ranger that this is desert willow in winter!

I arrived at the visitor center just after noon, so it was closer to a 3 hour trip with all my photo stops. After a quick tour of the museum and obtaining directions to the trailhead, I took the short drive up to begin the hike to the caves. Dexter was ready for a nap so he was happy to snuggled down into his bed while I took the hike up the hill to the Cliff Dwelling. The trail to the site is a one mile loop that gains almost 200 feet in elevation. The $5.00 fee gained me access to the entire site and Ranger Mark was on hand to answer questions and provide information about the site. The dwelling consists of 6 main rooms with over 40 separate areas. The dwellings are built into the rocky caves along a high ridge of a sandstone rock face. Not much is known about the Mogollon people who lived here. It is believed that they occupied these dwellings for only a few hundred years and left very little evidence behind. Ranger Mark showed me two small beads that have been unearthed by packrats that live in the dwelling and a small shard of pottery that has been incorporated into the mortar of the dwelling. He also helped me locate the Pictographs on the ceiling of the dwellings. It struck me how similar this dwelling was to the Frank Lloyd Wright Falling Water house I toured in Pennsylvania. Although this dwelling was much more crude than the house designed by the famous architect, the concept of incorporating a dwelling into the surrounding landscape is clearly not a new one! I am also captivated by the Petroglyphs and Pictographs I have been observing. Petroglyphs refer to art that has been engraved into the rock while pictographs are rock art that has been painted on the rock surface. Ranger Mark and I had a discussion about how we as humans seem to have an innate need to leave our mark behind, to be known, to be seen and heard, to shout “I was here and this is what I thought!” Is that why I’m keeping a blog? Perhaps that’s part of it! The rock art pictures are just another way humans found a way of expressing themselves. Ranger Mark also shared with me a recent observation made in this dwelling: The mortar in most of the dwelling is smooth, indicating great skill and care taken by the women constructing the walls. In one area, however, there is a small patch of irregular marks, almost like hash marks and divots in the mortar. It has been observed that these marks were made by a series of flat palm hands pressing into the mortar to make the prints. The depressions of finger and heels of hands are clear once you understand what you are looking at! This work was done by women and one is left to wonder about her motivation…was it an artistic act, an act of defiance, or was she just weary and wanted the job done? Was she interrupted before she could smooth it out then forgot to finish the job? Although this area is on an interior wall without much light, I find it hard to believe that the maker did not intend for this to be so. I’m certain that the inhabitants knew intimately every inch of this dwelling so perhaps, she just simply wished to leave her mark. We’ll never know for sure but it’s fun to ponder the possibilities.

After spending a few hours wandering around the dwelling, I made my way down the hill to rouse Dexter from his nap. Ranger Mark had told me about another small dwelling and group of pictographs located down a small trail on the way out of the park. Dexter and I hiked the ¼ mile ”Trail to the Past” at the Lower Scorpion Campground parking lot to view these two ancient sites. It’s remarkable to me that they have survived all these years intact and are so easily available to view.

It was getting to be late afternoon and I decided to take the alternate route back to the camper, this time all the way down 15 to Silver City, then straight on down 180 to 61. I knew that 180 was a good four-lane highway and (mistakenly) thought that 15 would continue to be a good two-lane road with a few twists and turns…as it turned out, this stretch of Hwy 15 climbed steeply into the (snow covered!) mountains and became more of a 1 ½ lane road with a few inches of snow and several inches of ice on the road in some places! Yikes! I was so glad I did not have the camper hitched behind. Luckily the road had been sanded and I made it down to the valley without a mishap other than white knuckles and a jaw sore from clenching! I’m sure in the warmer weather this ride would be beautiful but I would advise you to avoid it in winter!

I hope you enjoy the photos and if you ever get out this way, Gila Cliff Dwellings are sure worth the stop!