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Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico

(NPS Photo) Archeologist records data at cliff dwelling site.

For centuries, the Gila Cliff Dwellings lay hidden by the topography of southwestern New Mexico, sheltered in six caves in the remote, deeply incised canyons of the Gila River. The mud-and-stone structures were protected from erosion by wind and water which reduced nearby ancient sites to rubble. Gila Cliff Dwellings is in the center of the Mogollon culture area, on the periphery of the Mimbres branch. The people who lived there were a subset of the larger culture famous for the painted pottery found that is found in southwestern New Mexicoo, southeastern Arizona, and adjacent areas of northern Mexico and western Texas. Gila Cliff Dwellings NM is the only unit in the National Park Service that contains Mogollon sites. Known archeological sites at the national monument range from a rock shelter dating to 400 AD to Archaic rock shelters through Early and Late Pit House and Classic Pueblo periods, as well as an Apache grave and remnants of a historic cabin. After the cliff dwellings were abandoned by the Mogollon about 1300, the Apache Indians became the first to protect the site. The Apache occasionally entered Cliff Dweller Canyon but did not disturb the ancient pueblo sites and left little trace of their activities. The Apaches deterred most visitors until they were driven from the headwaters of the Gila River in the late 19th century.

The first recorded visit to the dwellings in 1878 brought attention to the remote site - including that of looters, who ransacked the dwellings for artifacts. In response, the federal government withdrew public land on the headwaters of the Gila River from further settlement until 1906 by establishing the Gila River Forest Reserve. On November 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a proclamation to establish Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument under the National Forest Service. The proclamation described the site as “a group of cliff-dwellings of exceptional scientific and educational interest, being the best representative of the Cliff-Dwellers' remains of that region” (Proc. No. 787). Jurisdiction over Gila Cliff Dwellings passed to the National Park Service in 1933, back to the U.S. Forest Service in 1975, and then returned to the National Park Service again in 2003.

Archeological investigations at the headwaters of the Gila River have demonstrated the richness of the archeological record in the area. Over 100 ancient sites have been identified within several miles of the West Fork-Middle Fork confluence. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy, using the Antiquities Act, tripled the size of the national monument to include “additional cliff-dwellings and pit-house sites needed to round out the interpretive story” (Proc. No. 3467), or about 45 of these sites. One of them is the TJ Ruin, an open pueblo that contains perhaps 200 rooms. The national monument plays an important role in cultural preservation in New Mexico by preserving sites that are unique in the southwestern area of the state. Many other sites in the surrounding area are lost to science and history due to the looting of artifacts and erosion by the elements.

Today, Gila Cliff Dwellings NM consists of 533 acres. Every year, approximately 47,000 visitors come to the national monument to visit the dwellings.

Visitors to Gila Cliff Dwellings had the following to say about their experience:

  • “AMAZING - More impressive than Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon.”
  • “Have visited other sites: most of the Anasazi public parks/monuments and a few private, plus other stone dwellings from the period. None of them now allow or are prepared for entry like Gila is. It is wonderful to stand inside and look out at what must have been a similar view 700 years ago. Thanks. Please preserve such an intimate experience.”
  • “Brought all my reading about cliff dwellers to life.”
  • “I came here as a child, now I bring my children. Later my grandchildren.”
  • “Step away from the super info/lifestyle highway, slow down take in what was and what can be.”
  • “Worth every inch of trail.”
 

MJB/TSM

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