Image above: View of the Gila Cliff Dwellings from across the canyon, 1914?. Courtesy National Park Service.
Spotlight on Lesser Known History
Gila Cliff Dwellings
National Monument, New Mexico
America's Best History Spotlight
On this page we're going to Spotlight the lesser known historic sites and attractions that dot the history landscape across the USA and are worth a visit if you're in their area. And while they may be lesser known, some are very unique, and will be that rare find. You'll be, at times, on the ground floor, or maybe even know something others don't. It'll be fun. Visit them.
Gila Cliff Dwellings, New Mexico
It would be one of the first native national sites signed into Federal protection when President Theodore Roosevelt, using presidential proclamation through the Antiquities Act, established 533 acres of the Gila Cliff Dwellings on November 16, 1907. Now two significant dwelling sites of the Mimbres Culture and the Mogollon people, with several smaller sites, were preserved for generations to come and witness. Cliff Dweller Canyon has five caves with forty-six rooms. The TJ Ruins overlook the Gila River. Nobody knows why they were abandoned, but today, you can take the Cliff Dwellers trail to witness how the indigenous people lived from 1275 for several generations. Image above: Gila Cliff Dwelling, 2012, Rociomcoss. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons via license C.C. 4.0.
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Info, What's There Now, History Nearby
Gila Cliff Dwellings NM, New Mexico
While the two main ruins, Cliff Dwellers and TJ, are the main stars of the attractions around Gila, there are more sites to witness. First, smaller caves like Javalina House, West Fork Ruin, and the eleven room Cosgrove Ruin. The Visitor Center is located near the TJ Ruins and is run together between the National Park Service and the National Forest Service, as their site, the Gila National Forest, basically surrounds the monument.
For most, the Cliff Dwellers Trail, which crosses the stream at some points, is the highlight of their tour. It rises from the canyon floor, 180 feet in elevation, to near 6,000 feet above sea level. Take plenty of water and make sure you're capable of making that hike. For those that can not climb that far, about 1/4 mile into the hike you can see the cliff dwellings on the hillside above. They can be visited by guided or self-guided tour.
Image above: Gila Cliff Dwellings, 1914. Courtesy National Park Service. Below: Interior view of Cave 4, 2010. Courtesy National Park Service.
Where Is It
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument lists its mailing address as 26 Jim Bradford Trail, Mimbres, NM 88049. It is not near any of the major cities, located forty-five miles north on Route 15 from Silver City. It is nearly a five hour drive from Albuquerque, 258 miles, and 155 miles northwest of Las Cruces.
What is There Now
Gila Cliff Dwellings NM
Besides the cliff dwellings along the Cliff Dweller Trail, the park has a Visitor Center with small museum, park film, orientation, and facilities, plus a second building called the Trailhead Museum two miles north on Highway 15. That museum includes a bookstore, picnic tables, and vault toilets. A second section of the park is east of the main entrance, but to visit, you must drive through the Gila National Forest to get there.
There are two picnic areas near the Visitor Center and Trailhad Museum. There are no camping facilities at the monument, but there are four campgrounds nearby in Gila National Forest.
When Open and How Much
The Visitor Center, Cliff Dweller Trail, and contact station are open daily, except major holidays, although there is currently short staffing due to the pandemic. Call ahead to make sure of the situation that day. There are guided tours some days and no fee to enter the monument. The Gila Wilderness and Gila National Forest trails, including corral facilities, are open daily with no restrictions.
Fees subject to change.
Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Gila National Forest
There's so many attractions in the same genre as Gila Cliff Dwellings in this part of the southwest, it's hard to name them all. Then when you add in Carlsbad Caverns, Old Town Albuquerque, and White Sands, you're starting to see New Mexico as much more than a place of sand and cactus.
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Photos, History, and More Spotlights
Native Americans were well aware of the dwellings throughout the history since they had been abandoned, but the first European contact did not occur until 1878 when Henry B. Ailman went on a prospecting trip with friends to avoid jury duty and stumbled upon the ruins. Tours of the ruins would begin in the 1890's from a local resort in Silver City.
By June 8, 1906, Congress passed the "The Act for the Preservation of Antiquities," known as the Antiquities Act, giving the President the right to proclaim important sites as National Monuments. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument would follow in the footsteps of previous designations one year later on November 16, 1907.
Photo above: Visitor Center at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, 2010. Courtesy National Park Service.
Significance and Founding
"In that country which lies around the headwaters of the Gila River I was reared. This range was our fatherland; among these mountains our wigwams were hidden; the scattered valleys contained our fields; the boundless prairies, stretching away on every side, were our pastures; the rocky caverns were our burying places," Geronimo from 'Geronimo's Story of His Life."
Despite the four field surveys that were conducted in the 1870's to map the lands of the west; in the Wheeler survey, circa 1874, there was mention of dwellings on the cliffs above the Gila River. They did not explore them. It remained to Henry B. Ailman, already rich from owning the Naiad Queen silver mine in Georgetown to skip jury duty and find them.
Photo above: Entrance to the caves at Gila Cliff Dwellings with worker looking inside, date unknown. Courtesy National Park Service.
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"Following the west or larger [creek] up two or three miles, we came upon a specimen of an old Cliff Dweller's village situated, as was their custom, in a crevice where there was good protection afforded by a wide, overhead ledge of projecting rock. In this case, from floor to roof was about eight or nine feet. The walls were of small, flat stones laid in common mud, with no door or window frames. The walls lacked twenty inches connecting with the roof, to give the smoke a chance to escape. They had fireplaces in the center of the apartments.
In searching for relics, the only thing we could find was corncobs, very small, four to five inches long, and only in thickness like your largest finger. A fair sample of these I took with me. This dwelling was about two hundred feet up a steep hill from the creek. We concluded that they selected such sites for protection. Needless to say, Miss Virginia [soon to be his wife] got the corncobs," Henry B. Ailman.
Photo above: The Gambels Oak in the wilderness area of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. Courtesy National Park Service. Source of Ailman's account: H.B. Ailman, Pioneering in Territorial Silver City, ed. Helen J. Lundwall (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983), pp. 57-58, within the book, "Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument: An Administrative History," 1992, Peter Russell.
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