Gila Cliff Dwellings, NM

I was on my way back from the McDonald’s Observatory in Texas to Utah, when I veered over to the west-side of Southern New Mexico for exploring the Gila Ruins National Monument.  It was in July of 2013.   The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is in the Mogollon Mountains approximately 60 km north of Silver City, New Mexico.

Generalized map of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument lies 71 km north of Silver City on state-road 15.

Map for Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, (image taken from the public domain pamphlet provided by the National Park Service).

Archeological evidence suggests that many different groups of people have inhabited this area over thousands of years. What motivated Mogollon to build inside the caves between the 1270s and 1300?

A public domain, ancient tribal map of the south-western United States, (note the location of the Gila Cliff Dwellings)

     Considered by archaeologists to be on the northernmost portion of the Mogollon People’s sphere of influence between 1275 and into the early 14th century, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is home to two prominent ruin sites.  The Monument landscape ranges in elevation from around 5,700 to 7,300 feet above sea level.  The terrain around the ruins is rugged and arid, and contains steep-sided canyons cut by shallow spring rivers and mesas and bluffs forested with Ponderosa pine, Gambel’s oak, Douglas fir, New Mexico juniper and pinon pine.

Hiking towards the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico, USA

     The area geologic history stems from the Oligocene epoch and volcanic activity that subsequently covered the area with ash.  Three rock units can be observed along the hike up to the cliff dwellings.  The oldest unit, is Bloodgood Canyon Tuff, which was erupted from the Gila Cliff Dwellings caldera, (pictured below) 28 million years ago. Gila Cliff Dwellings Nation Monument lies on the eastern margin of the caldera. The tuff is overlain by basaltic and andesitic lava flows at are estimated to be 25 to 26 million years old. The Gila Conglomerate, a sedimentary unit that contains pieces of older volcanic rocks, including the Bloodgood Canyon Tuff, caps the sequence.

The volcanic calderas found near the Gila Cliff Dwellings in New Mexico

     The cliff dwellings are built in shallow caves that formed at about the same stratigraphic level along weak (somewhat less cemented) zones within the Gila Conglomerate.  Around 500,000 years ago, the Gila creek carved alcoves into the conglomerate, particularly in places where the conglomerate is soft.  Presently, the alcoves are now stranded high and dry above the creek and  continues to enlarge by roof collapse.  The Gila Conglomerate in the caves displays an unusual feature not typically seen in sedimentary rocks. Closely-spaced exfoliation fractures that cut across the bedding in the conglomerate are aligned roughly parallel the cliff face or the geometry of the cave openings and enlarging them.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico 2013

     The  Mogollon people made use of natural caves to build interlinked dwellings within five cliff alcoves above Cliff Dweller Canyon.  Archaeologists have identified 46 rooms in the five caves on Cliff Dweller Canyon, and believed they were occupied by 10 to 15 families.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

      To make the dwellings safer and more comfortable, the Mogollons used fallen rocks from nearby caves to construct some of the 46 rooms, and also incorporated unique wall designs in strategic areas. The walls were built using conglomerate slabs laid in large amounts of mortar, and you can still see evidence of this today — in fact, 40 percent retain their original plaster.

One of the outer rooms of the Gila Cliff Dwellings

     Looking at the marvelous structures within the Gila caves, it is easy to appreciate the culture, innovation, and hard work of the Mogollon people. Originally a hunter-gatherer community occupying the Gila wilderness, they used resources from the surrounding forest for food and to build their homes.    

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, 2013

     Signs of modern architectural design can also be seen around the dwellings, including a distinct storage room, communal rooms, and habitation rooms. It is easy to see why other cultures learned so much from the Mogollon people’s innovation.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico, USA; 2013

     Pictured below, the Kneeling Nun overlooks Chino Mine and is also  located in south-western New Mexico, which is about 32 km east of Silver City.  The legend of the Kneeling Nun tells how a local nun nursed an injured Spanish soldier back to health and then, despite her vows, fell in love with him.  As a result, she was cast out from her convent and then turned to stone, to spend eternity kneeling atop a mountain in prayer.  I’m not sure about the likeness below.

The Kneeling Nun next to the Chino Mine in New Mexico

     However, the real story starts 35 million years ago, when a volcanic eruption sent a hot flow of pumice, ash and gas surging across this landscape.  The volcanic debris hardened into solid rock and then slowly eroded after being uplifted by the formation of the Santa Rita Range.  Wind, rain, and winter frosts then eroded the volcanic deposit to reveal this unusual stone monument called the Kneeling Nun, (pictured below).

The Kneeling Nun in New Mexico
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