Saturday, December 16, 2017

Cliff Dweller Canyon, New Mexico

We left White Sands and drove a couple of hours to Silver City, New Mexico. Silver City was founded by Silver Miners in the late 1800’s but now the only mining that we saw was for copper. Those large strip mines are quite a business in this part of New Mexico.
Silver City has an interesting downtown area. We found a great Farmer's Market and procured some Thanksgiving vegetables as well as a jar of hot spicy dilly beans. Chili peppers go in everything in New Mexico!
There were a couple of good coffee shops and several restaurants as well as a distillery. The city has a rough history that includes a major flood that destroyed much of the downtown. They rebuilt with elevated buildings and sidewalks leaving the old Main Street as a “big Ditch” that provides a place for water runoff in the event of a flash flood. It makes for an interesting downtown as the big ditch area has been developed into a green-space environment with elevated walkways and desert gardens.

The drive through the Gila National Forest gave us spectacular views.
Sunday we drove the 45 miles into the Gila National Forest to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The road, NM 15-N, is narrow and winding with expansive views of the mountains as we climbed higher. The drive took us about 1 1/2 hours that included a couple of stops to enjoy scenic overlooks.
We started off deep in the canyon and climbed about 180 feet in elevation.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings are a series of caves high in the walls of a canyon formed by the Gila River. For a short period of time more than 700 years ago a group of Mogollon people used seven of the caves as their home.
We stopped first at the Visitor Center to look at the exhibits and watch a short introductory film, then drove to the trail head.

This monument at the Visitor Center marks the location of Geronimo's birth.
There is an established trail to the caves crossing a bridge over the Gila river, a small trickle after the long hot Summer. The path is well maintained and pretty easy with one particularly steep portion that could be difficult at this elevation of 6000 feet. Luckily we have spent the last 3 months at elevations of 3000 feet or higher and are acclimated to the environment. As we walked the trail we caught glimpses of the caves through the pine and cottonwood trees that line the canyon.

The Gila River after a long hot Summer
We reached the top of the trail and stopped to catch our breath. The caves were right in front of us rising in elevation from #1 at ground level to #7 How the heck did they get up there?

The caves from the trail.
The caves are quite a combination of natural environment and adobe additions. In one place, long before the cave dwellers arrived, a large slab of rock had fallen from the ceiling. It was much to large to move so adobe was added and it became a wall that divided sleeping quarters from the kitchen and public living space.

Note how dark the sooty ceilings are.
The roofs are so blackened with soot that they resemble a night sky. We accessed the individual caves via a series of stone stairs, narrow rock bridges and wooden ladders that challenged my dislike of high places. Caves 6 and 7 are not on the tour as they are only accessible with rock climbing equipment.

Caves 2 and 3.
We met a volunteer named Brenda who had been workamping at Gila for the last 2 months. She was a fellow full time RVer and fan of National Parks. Brenda had a lot of knowledge about the cave structures and conversation with her allowed us to visualize living in them.

An outer wall across the caves natural opening.
She pointed out petroglyphs on the wall of cave 5 and was keeping notes of visitor's interpretations of them. Brenda encouraged us to explore the 46 separate rooms of the high natural homes.

Stone and adobe were used to partition the caves into rooms.

Interestingly the position of the caves allows morning sun to warm them and leaves the entrances shaded during the hot portion of the day.

Stone and adobe fireplace.
Cliff Dwelling Canyon is an abundant environment for hunter-gatherers. 24 of the 32 specimens of plant remains found in the caves were wild. Pinon nuts, yucca, acorns, berries and nuts were all present. Squash, beans and corn were also found in storage caches. These crops referred to as the 3 sisters were cultivated by many native American ancestral people throughout the west.

The caves have beautiful views.
Pottery shards and the bones of deer and small animals have been uncovered as well as the mummified remains of residents dated to that time period.
The caves are a wonderful example of life in the New Mexico High Desert 700 years ago. The 10-15 Mogollon families lived here for only 20 years, 1 generation in their culture. It is impressive that so much evidence remains of their occupation.

Ladder to cave 5.

We returned to the parking area via a second trail to complete the loop, and enjoyed a different viewpoint as we descended. This side of the canyon still has evidence of a large fire that occurred in 2011.
The Gila Cliff Dwellings are in a remote area but worth the effort to get there. We took a more easterly route home. It was slightly longer but took us through another part of the National Forest with different views.

We saw deer on the way home.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
New Mexico 15-N
It’s a long winding and beautiful drive, about 43 miles, through portions of the Gila National Forest. 15-N ends at the National Monument.

No comments:

Post a Comment