Adventures at Gila Cliff Dwellings (Days 16-17)

Our last morning in Alamogordo, a breakfast-table conversation ended up totally changing the course of our day — resulting in one of the most memorable experiences of our southwest adventure.

The day before, while visiting White Sands National Monument, I’d picked up a super handy brochure of all the national parks in New Mexico. (I mentioned that we fell a little in love with New Mexico’s state parks; well, their national parks game is also strong.) As I sat eating my oatmeal, studying the brochure, I began listing all the places we now needed to stop so I could get more stamps in my National Parks Passport. Ryan came to read over my shoulder, and immediately noticed the photo of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

“IS THAT IN NEW MEXICO?!” he asked. Apparently he had seen a painting of these cliff dwellings as a child — and had always dreamed of seeing them for himself. And here we were, just four hours away. Clearly, Tombstone would have to wait.

So, here’s the thing about Gila Cliff Dwellings. Google maps makes it look like a pleasant drive along a fairly major road. I had a conference call to take on the way; a quick peak at the AT&T coverage map showed I should be in service well before we reached the cliff area. But you can probably guess where this story is going; as we drove, I watched my service bars slowly ebbing away, with a rising sense of panic. Finally we turned the car around. As soon as we reached a spot with service, we pulled over to the side of the road; Ryan ate a PB&J, I took my conference call, and we got back on the road.

And what a road it was. Words cannot describe how winding the road up to the visitor’s center was. I spent the entire drive alternatively clutching at the dashboard, begging Ryan to keep his eyes on the road, and praying we would just plunge off the edge of a cliff and get it over with. I should mention that Ryan and I have wildly varying memories of this road; he recalls sweeping vistas, plunging overlooks, and a drastically differing landscape than we’d seen in any of our travels to date.

By the time we arrived at the visitor’s center, I was in a fine state. Ryan says I was actually green. I’m not sure what the deal was — I think it was a combination of dehydration and too much working on the computer in the car. But you can imagine my delight when the ranger informed us that the monument was not open until five o’clock, as we’d assumed; instead, the trail closed down at four, and we wouldn’t be able see the cliff dwellings that day. Add on the fact that we were out in the middle of nowhere, with no campground reservations and no cell service, and I was pretty much ready to lay down in the parking and pray for the day to end.

Fortunately Ryan was immune to my drama and the park ranger was super helpful. He directed us to the four (free!) campgrounds in the area and assured us that the Gila Cliff Dwellings were well worth the visit. We did a quick drive-by of all four campgrounds, and settled on the Forks Campground, as the other three were already looking a bit crowded.

Camping at Forks is free of charge and first-come, first-served with seven dispersed campsites. It was pretty primitive — the only water available is from the river and must be either filtered, boiled, or chemically treated, there are no tables or grills, and there were no showers, just vault toilets.

But we were alone in the campground — and our site sat on a cliff high above the Gila River.

Gila River Our Streamlined Life

Naturally, as soon as we set up camp we hiked down to the river. We took off our shoes, enjoyed the sunshine, and enjoyed the cold water.

Wiped Out at Gila Cliffs Our Streamlined Life

I took a few moments for an attitude adjustment …

Gila River View Our Streamlined Life

And we chilled out and looked up at the cliffs above us.

Gila River Camping Our Streamlined Life

After hiking back up to the campground, Ryan made us a most excellent fire. I was very grateful for it as that ended up being one of the coldest night’s we’d experience on the trip, with temperatures dropping down into the 20s.

Fire Maker Gila Cliffs Our Streamlined Life

The next morning dawned clear and bright. After a quick “dry clean” session with my Burt’s Bees wipes and dry shampoo, we headed to the base of the cliff dwellings to meet up with the ranger-led tour group.

Gila Cliff Dwellings 1 Our Streamlined Life

As we began the short but steep hike up to the cliff dwellings, we were treated to a gorgeous view of the houses set back into the cliff, framed by clear blue skies.

Gila Cliff Dwellings 2 Our Streamlined Life

The ranger was very knowledgeable, and told us all about the nomadic Mogollon people who used the caves of the Gila River as temporary shelters in the late 1200s.

Gila Cliff Dwellings 5 Our Streamlined Life

The cliff dwellings are so stable and well-preserved that visitors are allowed to climb up inside them and see the various rooms. (One of the reasons I’d thought we could skip Gila Cliff Dwellings was because we planned to visit Montezuma’s Castle in Arizona. I’m glad we didn’t rely on that as our only cliff dwelling experience; you can only view Montezuma’s Castle from the ground.)

Gila Cliff Dwellings 4 Our Streamlined Life

It was crazy to imagine what life must have been like for the people who lived here — spending the days farming in the fertile land near the river, then hauling their crops up the cliffs for their families.

Gila Cliff Dwellings 3 Our Streamlined Life

They didn’t even have the use of these helpful and not-too-wobbly ladders!

Gila Cliff Dwellings 6 Our Streamlined Life

Our trip to the Gila Cliff Dwellings ended up being extremely memorable, and I’m so glad we took the time to veer from our itinerary to check it out. I should note that this was the only night on the trip when we relaxed our bare minimum campground requirement of “running hot water in any form” — and it was totally worth it. The campground was one of the most beautiful (and peaceful) we’ve ever stayed at, and the entire experience stands out in my memory as one of the highlights of our southwest adventure.

Campground: Gila National Forest Forks Campground

  • Tent site, no hookups.
  • Cost: FREE
  • Pros: A beautiful, quiet campground overlooking the Gila River. Wooded and peaceful, miles from civilization. Easy access to Gila Cliff Dwellings. A great option for car, van, or tent campers. We first visited the nearby Upper and Lower Scorpion Campgrounds and they were quite crowded … traveled about a mile the other direction and had the whole forest and river to ourselves! And … did I mention it was free?
  • Cons: The only facilities are vault toilets. No water or trash receptacles.
I'm the oldest of 12 crazy kids and two pretty awesome parents. My love of travel developed during my early years traveling the globe as an Air Force brat. I'm a runner, a writer, and a reader, and I love cooking up good food and cozying up our camper.

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