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Visiting Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

by Bonnie
Visiting Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Located about two hours from the nearest city in southern New Mexico, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is not a place that you will find by accident. It’s certainly worth the drive, though. The short hike up to the cliff dwellings is interesting. Walking through the historic caves and rooms is surreal. The drive to the monument only adds to the adventure of your visit.

Archeological evidence indicates that these cliffs were used for shelter by various groups of people over thousands of years. The most recent of these groups were people of the Mogollon Culture. Not only did the Mogollon people seek shelter in the caves, but they also built at least 40 rooms, created pottery and traded with other groups. 

The first cave along Cliff Dweller Trail at Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.
The fist cave used by humans along the path.

Interestingly, these caves were only used by the Mogollon for about twenty years – from around 1280 to 1300. While archeologists can use pottery and other artifacts to trace the movement of various cultures, there are no clear answers as to why these cliff dwellings were inhabited for such a brief period of time. 

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Getting to Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila Cliff Dwellings NM lies several hours north of I-10 and west of I-25 in the southwest portion of New Mexico. The closest reasonable-sized city is Silver City, which itself is well off the interstate. From Silver City, it’s nearly a two hour drive through a remote area with very little in the way of towns or services.

Our F150 on the snow-covered roads to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
Our drive through the mountains on the way to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

Our visit in late December, just days after a snowfall, made the drive on Hwy 35 from Silver City even more interesting than usual. Having snow on the ground made the already slow and winding drive a little bit treacherous. We made the trek without any major problems but we were certainly thankful to have a four-wheel-drive in a few places. 

I will say, though, that while the snow made the driving more difficult, it also provided for some breathtaking scenery. 

Mountain views on the way to Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.
Beautiful views on the way to Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

For those wanting to avoid some of the winding roads, an alternate route on Hwy 35 east of Silver City reduces the stress of driving quite a bit. Taking this alternate route does add some mileage, but doesn’t add much in terms of time. Anyone driving a motorhome or pulling a camper definitely should take Hwy 35. 

We chose to take Hwy 15 there and Hwy 35 back to turn the drive into a bit of a loop. While both drives are interesting, Hwy 15 from Silver City is certainly the prettier drive. Just be ready for the twists and turns of mountain driving.

Gila Visitor Center and Trailhead Museum

You certainly should start your visit at the Gila Visitor Center, which serves Gila Cliff Dwellings NM along with the surrounding 3.3 million acres of Gila National Forest.

The Gila Visitor Center serves the National Forest and Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.
The Gila Visitor Center services both the national monument and the wilderness area. Be sure to head to the back for a brief exhibit and movie.

At the visitor center, you’ll find flush toilets, a small exhibit, the park film and a small but well-stocked bookstore. Be sure to watch the 20-minute film to learn more about the region and the Mogollon people. 

A short drive from the visitor center takes you past a couple of campgrounds to the trailhead parking lot. At the trailhead, you’ll find a couple of pit toilets and a small museum. In this museum, you’ll find a few exhibits on wildlife in the area and the history of getting to this remote park.

Cliff Dwellings Trail

From the parking lot, you’ll take the one-mile loop trail to the cliff dwellings. While most people should be able to handle the hike to the cave, there is a somewhat steep climb and uneven terrain. For those with limited mobility, the dwellings are visible from the bottom of the canyon, about 1/4-mile into the hike.

Snow-covered footbridge on the trail to the cliff dwellings.
The trail up to the caves follows this creek bed, which was used by the native people who settled here as a convenient water supply.

The trail takes you through Cliff Dweller Canyon, switching back and forth across Cliff Dweller Creek. This first part of the trail is relatively level, but not paved. A series of switchbacks and “stairs” will get you up to the natural caves. At the top, the trail winds past and through the 40 rooms built inside five caves. 

I have to say, getting to walk through the caves and peer into most of the rooms was, perhaps, the coolest part of the trail. Seeing the black soot on the cave ceiling is obvious evidence that people lived here, building fires to cook and stay warm. 

The rooms in the caves at Gila Cliff Dwellings.
You can see several structures under the cave ceiling.

Several short ladders allow you to look over the walls and into the various rooms. The labyrinth of rooms is quite impressive! We probably spent 15-20 minutes just wandering through the rooms and taking pictures. 

After you’ve wandered around the caves, a steep ladder takes you down a level where you can continue the short hike back to the parking lot.

Grant backs down the ladder after viewing the cliff dwellings.
Grant climbing down one of the ladders.

Our visit took nearly six hours, round-trip, from Silver City. We spent roughly two hours driving each way and about two hours at the park.

Where to Eat in Silver City

Once you leave Silver City you are pretty much on your own for food, drinks and gas. Make sure you have plenty of gas and some snacks at the very least. We did not spot anything that appeared to be open. In other seasons, you might find a small market, but you’ll still want to be prepared with most of what you need. 

The streets of downtown Silver City, NM near Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.
Downtown Silver City

In Silver City, you will find a good number of local and chain restaurants along with a grocery store. I’d guess there is more than one grocery store but we weren’t looking for one so I can’t say for sure. 

Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery

After returning to Silver City from Gila Cliff Dwellings NM, we stopped at Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery for an early dinner. This was a great stop for both food and drinks! Whether you are staying in Silver City or just passing through, we highly recommend stopping here.

Burgers and beer at Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery.
Grant got a Silver City Burger and a rye pale ale for a late lunch/ early dinner at the Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery.

The menu offered a good variety of burgers, flatbreads, salads and local specialties. We each opted for a burger: the Silver City Burger for Grant and the LTC Burger for me. The Silver City was topped with a bourbon BBQ sauce, cheddar cheese and an onion ring. Grant really enjoyed the BBQ sauce, which had a bit of an extra kick to it. The LTC burger was topped with green chiles, bacon and cheese. I was a little worried that the chiles might make it too spicy for me, but it really was just tasty and delicious.

Beer and Spirits

Little Toad Creek brews their own beer and carries a few bottles of other local beer. You will not find any mass-produced beer, such as Bud Light or Corona, here. Grant had the E9 Pale Ale and the Hop-A-Long Rye-PA, their twist on an IPA. While he enjoyed the Pale Ale, the Rye-PA had a more complex and complete flavor profile. 

A small batch whiskey and chili vodka cocktail at Little Toad Creek Brewery and Distillery.
A whiskey on the rocks for Grant and cucumber, lime and chili-infused vodka cocktail for Bonnie.

We also sampled their Sapo Grande Aged Whiskey, which we both really enjoyed. There was just something unique and interesting about it. It really wasn’t smokey or oaky, it was just different and tasty. We hoped to get a bottle to bring home with us. Sadly, they only distill in small batches and do not sell bottles.

For my first drink, I chose the Green Chile Cucumber Gimlet, made with their own Green Chile Vodka. I have to say, the muddled cucumber and fresh lime juice balanced out the vodka nicely.  There was just a hint of spice but it wasn’t overpowering at all. After sampling the whiskey, I knew I needed more and had an Old Fashioned for my second drink. That whiskey really was nice and smooth and made for an interesting cocktail.

Icicles on a small pine tree at Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.
Icicles on a small pine tree at Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.

Little Toad Creek also has its own silver run, tequila, red chile vodka and coffee, orange and peppermint liqueurs. Along with aged whiskey, they also do a small batch spiced rum. Sadly, there was no spiced rum available when we were there. 

Where to Stay near Gila Cliff Dwellings NM

We combined our visit to Gila Cliff Dwellings NM with visits to Chiricahua National Monument and Fort Bowie National Historic Site, located in southeast Arizona. For a central location to all three sites, we chose to stay at the Hampton Inn in Lordsburg, NM for four nights. 

Rhyolite Canyon in Chiricuahua National Monument.
Rhyolite Canyon in Chiricahua National Monument.

Let me be clear here: If we were doing this trip again, we would NOT stay in Lordsburg for more than one night. The hotel was not the best Hampton Inn we’ve ever stayed at, but it was comfortable. The biggest perk: it only “cost” 10,000 Hilton Honors points, which is about the lowest redemption rate you’ll find the US.

Silver City is a MUCH bigger city with many more options for hotels. That said, Silver City does not have any Hilton properties, which is our preferred hotel chain. That is one reason why we chose Lordsburg. We also wanted one central location to cut down on changing hotels.

Looking out a window at Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Looking out one of the windows in the Gila Cliff Dweller complex.

While driving around Silver City we found quite a few good-looking hotels, tons of options for restaurants and a cute downtown area. We can’t recommend a specific hotel, but it is the closest city to Gila Cliff Dwellings NM and has plenty of good options.

If we were doing this trip again, we would most likely stay in Silver City. Deming is another reasonably-sized city along I-10 that would be a good option. It’s about an hour south of Silver City and an hour east of Lordsburg. It also has a Hampton Inn for 10,000 points per night. 

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Lordsburg, NM

Located right off I-10, Lordsburg is easy to get to. Unfortunately, it is very small with not a lot of options for food or much of anything else. 

We ate dinner at Kranberry’s Chatterbox on our first night. It seems to be the “main” local restaurant in town. It was ok. Certainly, nothing to get excited about but decent. On our second night, we got pizza delivered from Mama Rosa’s. The pizza was nothing special but was tasty and reasonably-priced. Not having to leave the hotel made it very convenient!

The walls built inside the caves at Gila Cliff Dwellings.
You can see the structure of the walls and how the Mogollon people built these homes.

There is a small grocery store in Lordsburg where we got some bread, peanut butter and jelly to make lunch for a couple of days. Across the street from the grocery store is a liquor store, if you need to stock up on alcohol. As best we could tell, that is the only place to get alcohol in the city – no bars and no restaurants serving even beer or wine.

You’ll also find a McDonald’s right by the Hampton Inn. The only bad part about McDonald’s is that it basically doubles as the Greyhound bus station, so lines can be long at times. There is an Arby’s at the Pilot on the east side of town and a Subway at the Love’s on the west side of town. 

Grant and Bonnie hiking the trail to Fort Bowie NHS.
Heading into some snow/freezing rain on the 1.5-mile trail to Fort Bowie.

Those are the highlights of the town. Thankfully, we stayed busy visiting Gila Cliff Dwellings NM, Chiricahua NM and Fort Bowie NHS. Still, it was a long four nights in Lordsburg and we would not recommend spending that amount of time there.

Final Thoughts on Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Despite the time and difficulty to get there, Gila Cliff Dwellings NM is a great park and well worth a visit. We have previously visited the cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument just east of Flagstaff, AZ. 

Grant taking pictures of the rooms at Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Grant up on a ladder taking a picture.

While similar in style, the Gila Cliff Dwellings are much more impressive and intricate in how the various rooms are built. The trail at Gila Cliff Dwellings also takes you into the caves and through the rooms. At Walnut Canyon, you can easily see into most rooms, but you can’t walk through the rooms. 

The drive to Gila Cliff Dwellings NM is not easy, but it is beautiful. It really makes for a great day of exploring. And, with millions of acres of National Forest, there are plenty of other hiking trails in the area.

Looking out on the canyon at Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.
Looking out on the canyon at Gila Cliff Dwellings NM.

If you’re looking for other nearby national parks to explore, there are MANY in New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the southwest US parks. On this trip, we visited the aforementioned Chiricahua NM and Fort Bowie NHS; we also visited White Sands National Park in Alamogordo, Salinas Pueblo Missions in Mountainair and Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, TX.

We are certainly looking to spend more time in this area to explore all the other great sites in the southwest!

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