Cliff Dwellings Trail

A photo
This trail to the Gila Cliff dwellings is a one-mile hike with a small amount of elevation gain that provides intimate views into the former dwellings of native peoples that inhabited the area from the 1280s through the early 1300s. The cliff dwellings are situated approximately half-way up the south-facing cliff and one can imagine the area full of people grinding corn, preparing skins, talking, playing, and carrying out the many daily activities of life. The trail along the cliff dwellings is not shaded, so one can warm up on this part during the winter, and cool off in the summer as one enters the shaded dwellings. Nice views are obtained from the dwellings. Ranger-guided tours provide a wealth of detail about the people who lived here in the past.

Hike data:

Controlling agency: National Park Service; Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Region: Southwest; Gila.
start: 5777ft; 1761m end: 5777ft; 1761m
min: 5738ft; 1749m max: 5961ft; 1817m
elevation gain/loss: 223ft; 68m.
All elevations from GPS. The trail is a loop so you gain and lose all elevation changes.
Length: 1.63mi; 2.63km. Length from GPS track.
surface: Unknown
condition: Excellent
ease of following: Easy
obstacles: None.
Fee: $3.00. The fee is per person. You need exact change, which you can get at the nearby visitor center.
Season: All year. Snow may limit accessibility in winter. Call ahead if you are unsure.
Dogs: No.
Bikes: No.
Handicapped accessible: No.
General notes: Guided tours are offered; the time varies with the season. Check at the visitor center or trailhead for details.
Trailhead facilities: picnic area, vault toilet(s), water. The water is at the nearby visitor center, not at the hike trailhead.
Hike attractions: geology, history, scenery.

When we hiked it:

Date: 2005-12-30
Time it took us: 2:18.
Usage (people/hour): 33.48. We probably missed some people in the count. This trail is one of the busiest we have hiked.
Cleanliness: 9. We saw one piece of litter on the whole trail.


Waypoint Type Description
GILACDTHTrailheadGila Cliff Dwellings trailhead


Paper maps:
Map name Cartographer Year Scale Topo map? Online access Notes
Gila National Forest US Forest Service 1997 1:126720 N from Amazon (purchase) South half
Gila Wilderness US Forest Service 1984 1:63360 Y from Amazon (purchase) East half
Mogollon Mountains BLM 1987 1:100000 Y from Amazon (purchase)
Wildernesses of New Mexico US Forest Service 1981 1:1000000 N No online copies. Base map with national forests, wilderness areas and highways.

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Getting to the trailhead:

From the town of Silver City, take NM 15 north. The road winds its way for a total of 44 miles, and a sign near the beginning notes that to get to the cliff dwellings may take as much as two hours. It took us about 1.5 hours. The sign also notes that trailers over 20 ft are not recommended. Given the road, we can second this note.

At about 24.9 of the 44 miles, you come to the junction with NM 35. Continue on 15.

At about 41.3 miles, a sign indicates the Cliff Dwellings to the left. After turning left, the road dead ends at the Cliff Dwellings Trail parking lot in about a mile.

If, instead of turning left you had gone straight, after about 0.5 mile, you reach the visitor center, where there are flush toilets and water. They can also make change for the fee for the Cliff Dwellings Trail.

No image

About the hike:

bridge across the west fork of the Gila River

You start across this bridge, which takes you across the west fork of the Gila River. Before you cross the bridge, get one of the trail guides. They are $0.50 if you want to keep it, or they have loaner copies that you can return at the end of your hike.

After you cross the bridge and start up the trail, look to your right at the stream coming down the canyon. When we hiked, the stream completely disappeared into the gravel.

The trail climbs and dips, overall staying near the canyon bottom, and not far from the stream. Think back to the time of the Mogollon people, walking this canyon in the 1280s through the early 1300s.
the trail
cliff face with shelter cave and rock varnish
As you walk, you will begin to get a glimpse of the cliff wall to your right. In this cliff face, you can see a small shelter cave which was never occupied, as well as some interesting rock varnish.
Right before you begin climbing the canyon wall to get to the cliff dwellings, you get a view of where you will be in a few minutes.
the cliff dwellings
view down the trail
When you are most of the way up, this is the view back down the trail. The park service volunteer in this photo was heading off for his lunch break when I took this photo.

At the top of your climb, you head across the bottom of the cliff toward the dwellings.

Parents, please do not let your children throw rocks. Remember, the trail is below.

Trail to the cliff dwellings
Diana and the stairs into the second cave
At the second cave (the one in the picture above), you can enter by going up the stairs.
Inside, you can see the ceiling blackened by residents who used the cave before the Mogollon people arrived.
inside of cave with soot-blackened ceiling
workroom with mano and metate stones
You also see this workroom.
The cave that you enter is the largest of the caves with dwellings, and the dwelling inside contains several rooms.
view of several rooms in the dwelling
room with corn cobs on the floor
This room has corn cobs on the floor. Presumably, it was a storage room? You need to look at the larger image (by clicking on the one to the left) in order to be able to see the corn cobs.

You can return to the trail either via this ladder or via the stairs that you used to enter the cave.

Be sure to notice the view up the canyon.

Kenneth Ingham on the ladder leading out of the cave
prickly pear in front of a closed cave containing a dwelling
The trail next goes past this closed cave with a dwelling.
The trail begins to descend. First, you go down these stairs.
switchback in the trail
The trail winds around the cliff as it descends. Eventually, you end up just above the river, and then back to the bridge to cross it.
Even though you are past the cliff dwellings, keep your eyes open for other, interesting sites. Since we visited in the winter, the ice crystals had made this walnut shell beautiful. The contrast in temperature was amazing---between two of the caves, it was warm enough that a guy was sun bathing with no shirt. Here, ice remains in the shadows into the afternoon.
ice crystals on a walnut shell

Plants we saw along the trail:

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