The whole story begins, as all good stories do, long, long ago. We’re in the middle of the massive 3.3 million acre Gila National Forest, a gorgeous and remote area of SW New Mexico where mountains at ~6,000 feet hide 400 miles of trails and millennia of history. We came here to relax in the forest, hike, drink wine and play, but we also came for the chance to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Now, the Gila caves are located ~2 hours from Silver City up the snake-winding road of Hwy 15. At first sight they’re interesting, but not so unusual. After all natural caves have been used throughout history by migrating people and the location of these ones (close to a river and well shielded from the elements) makes them a logical choice.
A closer look however reveals a most interesting archeological oddity. One group of people chose to build inside the caves and lived here for the surprisingly short period of ~1276-1300. The people who did this were the Mogollon and their dwellings are what make this place so unique and interesting.
So this is the step that takes us back ~740 years in time. At that time the Mogollon were a hunter-gatherer society who traditionally lived in pit houses and surface pueblos in the mountainous areas of Mexico and Arizona. In the late 1200′s, however there descended a Great Drought in the SW which forced many populations to move, and one of the tribes migrated ~60 miles south from the Tularosa River to the Gila River valley. These so-called Tularosa Mogollon broke with tradition by establishing themselves inside the Gila caves and building dwellings of rock, mortar and trees.
Overall ~40 rooms were built inside the 6 natural caves and artifacts left behind show that the Mogollon farmed here as well as traded with other cultures during their stay. What caused them to leave after such a short occupation no-one really knows, although it’s speculated the massive drought caught up to them and exhausted resources even here. Their dwellings, however remained behind and the area uninhabited until the arrival of the Apache’s ~100 years later.
All this and more is protected within the bounds of the Gila Wilderness. The trip sparks off with a spectacular wind of a drive up the Trail of the Mountain Spirits to the upper valley. Once there, a relaxing 1-mile hike takes you up and into the caves with an opportunity to walk inside the actual dwellings (how cool is that!) Nearby trails lead to other artifacts with older pit dwellings, pictographs and even hot springs to soak it all off.
We arrived at ~10:00AM and were the only visitors so we got to stroll the rooms, chat to the rangers and take the time to meditate on life as it once was. For $3/person this is a deal and a unique opportunity to see (and walk inside) one of the most spectacular archeological sites in the area. It may be a story that started a long time ago, but this is a tale you can definitely relive today.