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Looking up to the Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Page 1

by Jerrold VanNocker

2009 Visit

North of Silver City, New Mexico is a small Group of remarkable 13th Century ruins known as the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  Through much of the 20th century, there was a lot of speculation as to who might have occupied this site. Even today, a few questions linger for why people occupied these Cliff Dwellings for 30 years and then abandoned them.

After spending the night in Silver City, New Mexico we headed up NW-15 to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings. I had made this journey before. In 1976, having just graduated from college, the Gila Cliff Dwellings were part of my great "American Journey" prior to entering full adulthood (i.e. that first significant job). While my memory of this first trip is now dim, I vividly recall climbing the ladder up in to the ruins. The Cliff Dwellings are only a little over 40 miles from Silver City, but we knew to expect the trip to take a couple of hours; 20 minutes in to our travel we encountered a sign “Cliff dwellings 2 hour drive from this point”.

As the NW-15 transverses the scenic Gila National Forest the journey up to the monument is an adventure in hairpin curves and scenic terrain. I was only able to catch fleeting glances of the vistas but as the sun glistened off the snow-covered slopes and the multi colored mountain rock, I could feel the swell of excitement. This could turn in to a really nice day!

Completely missing the road to the Visitor Center we arrived at the Cliff Dwelling’s trailhead.  It is here we are to make payment for our visit. As I study the instructions on the “pay at the box” sign, a man with a broom approaches me. Exchanging greetings, I am told, “ The canyon is cold this morning, you will need a warm jacket or coat. Once you hit the cliff wall you will be carrying them; it is nice and warm there”. “Why the broom?” I ask. “Oh, I have been up sweeping the trail of leaves” he replies.  I soon learn the man with the broom and the other guides we will meet today are all volunteers. 

When I was last here we crossed the river by way of a large log (you can still see it next to the visitors center) but now a regular footbridge has replaced it. In the 1976 visit we were escorted across the river and directly into the cliff dwellings; gaining access to them by way of a ladder. Today, we are told our tour is self-guided. From the canyon trail you can enter the dwellings without climbing any ladders but you will climb a few rugged stairs.

Crossing the bridge we veer to the left taking the canyon trail upward.  In the frozen soil we see the deep tracks of those that have ventured here in previous days.  We think back to the volunteer we had talked to at the trail head, his words “once the path warms up it can become very slippery”; now were understood.

The trail to and from the cliff dwellings is approximately one mile. The first part of the trail takes you along a small tree lined creek.

We start our assent upwards and receive our first peeks of the dwelling.  Taking the rough stairs up the slope we are soon bathed in sunshine. It is much warmer here; the caves are well suited for taking advantaged of the morning sun.

When I think of cliff dwellings, high up on a canyon wall, my immediate reaction is to think of them as defensive structures. The buildings in this cliff can be reached by walking up a slope; these Dwellings were not necessarily built for defense.  In fact, I will learn most cliff dwellings would not have been good places to ward off attacks as they lacked a source for long-term water storage or supply. 

Arriving at the first cave with our hearts beating a little faster than usual but only slightly out of breath we are greeted by another enthusiastic park volunteer. Pointing out the grinding points on the stone surfaces he explains how the numerous small grinding holes were likely used for herbs and possible pigment grinding or the cracking of walnuts. I am amazed how some of the grinding holes are so round and well formed. We are told the size and depth of grinding holes determines the type of material that would have been grinded in them. Flour would have required a larger flat grinding hole or service stone in combination with a flat grinding stone.

It would be easy to walk past this first cave, it doesn’t look like much, but a guide can point out aspects of this site that convey a lot of information about the people that lived here.

Page 2 of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument - Who were teh people that lived here?