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Looking for somewhere off-the-beaten-path to go that will impress your kids without all the crowds? Venture to Southwest New Mexico and get a unique glimpse into the ancient past. Deep in the Gila National Forest, high up in the Mogollon Mountains, you will find the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Hike up to caves in the cliffs to see how the Native Americans who first inhabited this area lived. Read on to find out why your family should take a trip to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
What are the Gila Cliff Dwellings?
In the late 1200’s A.D., the Mogollon people moved into what is today known as Cliff Dweller Canyon. They claimed the caves high up on the cliff walls as their homes. They used mortar and rocks to form walls and rooms within the caves. These rooms included large gathering spaces, sleeping quarters, storage areas, and kitchens. The caves not only provided the extended family groups with protection from enemies, but they also gave them a shelter that was cool in the summer and, with fire, warm in the winter. (You can still see the soot from their fires on the ceilings today.) The Cliff Dweller Creek below and the nearby Gila River were convenient sources of water for these Native Americans. The canyon also provided them with many sources of plants and animals on which to feed.
Even though the Mogollons abandoned their cliff dwellings in the early 1300’s, remnants of the homes are still present today. Thanks to the preservation efforts of the United States National Parks Service, you can look into approximately 40 rooms still in existence in the caves. You can walk into and explore three of these rooms.
How do you get to the Cliff Dwellings?
The Gila Cliff Dwellings are so off-the-beaten-path that they were once considered the most difficult national monument to reach. The closest town of any size is Silver City, New Mexico, which sits just outside the Gila National Forest. Silver City is about an hour north of I-10 and Deming, NM.
The cliff dwellings are about 44 miles from Silver City. The drive will take you approximately an hour and a half, thanks to the twists and turns of the mountain road. You can either make an easy day trip to the cliff dwellings from Silver City or camp at one of several campgrounds located near them. (For more on Silver City, see our list of restaurant recommendations and things to do.)
Our visit to the cliff dwellings
On a warm, sunny Saturday in late February, we made our first visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. We left Silver City around 10:15 in the morning. During the drive through the Gila National Forest, our son repeatedly shouted out interesting things he saw out the window. Before we even arrived, he declared it to a successful outing. We reached the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitor Center at around 11:45 am, where we spent approximately 30 minutes. After a brief pit stop, we browsed the exhibits in the small museum. We also watched the 17-minute video which details the history of the Mogollon people and the cliff dwellings.
After we left the Visitor Center, we drove the short distance to the parking lot at the trail head. We spent about an hour hiking and exploring the various rooms of the cliff dwellings. On the hike up to the caves, we spotted a little lizard along the edge of the trail, but didn’t see any other wildlife. Fortunately, we chose a day with perfect weather and very few crowds. We were able to hike at our own pace without feeling like we were crowding other people or being rushed by those behind us. After we returned to the trail head, we spent a few minutes looking through the small museum located there. Once we fully explored the area, we headed back to Silver City.
On our way back, we stopped at Doc Campbell’s Trading Post for snacks. We also pulled over at one of the overlooks to take in the views of the expansive valley that spreads out through the forest. We arrived back in Silver City around 3:15 pm. This was a perfect day trip for our family.
What to expect from your visit?
While the drive from Silver City will take about an hour and a half, it is an enjoyable one that is an attraction all its own. There are not many stores or gas stations during the drive, so you should plan to bring your own food and drinks for the trip. But, you will not be able to take anything edible on the trail except water. So, leave your snacks in your car before starting your hike.
The trail is clearly marked and well maintained, and is a little over a mile from start to finish. The trail is not super steep, but does include stairs in various areas and hugs the edge of the cliff in a couple spots. There are also several bridges to cross along the way. While this is definitely a great day trip for most kids, it might not be the best hike for younger toddlers. It also may prove to be too difficult for those with mobility problems. There is an alternate trail that goes only through the canyon which will allow you to see the cliff dwellings from afar. A park ranger is posted at the beginning of the trail in case you have any questions or need assistance.
Once you reach the cliff dwellings, you will have to climb some stairs to get up to them and then either backtrack or climb down a ladder to get back to the trail. You are not allowed to touch the walls and can only go into three of the rooms. However, there are ladders and windows that allow you to look into several others. Be on the lookout for a T-shaped door which some archeologists believe is evidence that the Mogollons traded ideas with other Native American tribes.
Why you should visit?
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is unlike any other national park or monument you will visit. It is the only one that allows you to get up close with a historical way of life. You and your kids will be able to see how the Native Americans lived hundreds of years ago and imagine what it would be like for your family to take up residence in the caves. These dwellings show your kids just how easy their current life is. Additionally, because it is not a popular national monument, you don’t have to fight large crowds to see the cliff dwellings. Also, this is a free park to visit, so you will not need any cash.
We went in with low expectations and were all super impressed with how cool these caves were. The scenery surrounding them is beautiful, which is an added bonus. It is nice to get out into nature on a warm day and experience something so unique and intriguing with your family.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is one of the most unique locations you will ever visit in the United States. It is the only place to hike up to a cave and get a peek into life hundreds of years ago. This is a great way to expose your kids to a bit of history that they will actually find interesting.
For more information, visit the National Park Service website and see our tips. Not sure about hiking with your kids? Read why this is something you should do! Start planning your trip today! Happy travels!
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