While boondocking in the Gila National Forest, Team Gritty headed off in Big T on a twisty mountain road to explore the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. At the 7,440-foot elevation mark, we drove past the Gila Wilderness overlook (not wanting to slow Big T’s momentum, we decided stop on the way back to camp). After we crested that mighty hill, we dropped Big T into low gear and began the windy, at-times-stomach-lurching 1,800-foot descent down to the Gila Cliff Dwellings. It was difficult to keep our eyes on the road—the expansive views stretch for miles on both sides of the road.
After a pit-stop and visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings Visitors’ Center, Team Gritty drove to the trailhead and hiked into Cliff Dweller Canyon. We crisscrossed wooden bridges over Cliff Dweller Creek and marveled at the great number of birds—especially large flocks of robins—in this cool and shaded riparian habitat. Soon we shed our jackets as we ascended the rocky trail, 180-feet upward to the well-concealed 13th-century cliff dwellings.
In 1884, Adolph F. Bandelier, the first archeologist to document the cliff dwellings, wrote about the nearly hidden caves: “To one coming from the mouth of the cleft, the caves become visible only after he passes them, so they are well concealed. But while it would be difficult for an Indian foe to take the place by storm, its inhabitants could easily be cut off from water or starved…. With all its natural advantages, therefore, this cave village was still extremely vulnerable.”
Team Gritty wandered from cave to cave, peering into the ancient Mogollon structures built inside the caves. A couple of the walls sported ladders, and of course we had to climb up and have a look…. Many of the ceilings were covered in layers of black soot—physical records of cooking, heating, and perhaps ceremonial fires. In Cave 5 (of 7) we spotted two pictographs of figures on the ceiling.
According to the National Park Service (NPS), most of the wood used in the Cliff Dwellings is original. From 31 core samples taken from the site, the NPS says, “dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) indicates that the trees for the Cliff Dwellings were cut down from 1276 to 1287.”
By the time the archeologist Bandelier had visited the dwellings in the mid-1880s, the caves had been looted and worse by relic-seekers and vandals. One miner, James A. McKenna, and his friend, Jason Baxter, explored four of the caves in the summer of circa 1883. Fifty years later, McKenna noted in his memoirs, Black Range Tales, that in the dwellings he found turquoise beads, many “stone hammers and war axes,” and ceramic pots, or ollas, painted with designs and images of deer, bear, and elk. And another interesting find—he uncovered a “perfect mummy:”
“The sex signs had either decayed or been removed, but all who saw the mummy believed it to be the remains of a female. The length of the figure was about eighteen inches. It lay with knees drawn up and the palms of the hands covering the face. The features were like those of a Chinese child, with high cheek bones and coarse, dark hair. The age of the child at the time of death was thought to be two years. The body was kept for weeks in the show window of a store in Silver City….”
Continuing along the one-mile loop back to the parking lot, Team Gritty also discovered a few interesting critters, including one local resident familiar to the Rangers, a Crevice Spiny Lizard enjoying a bellyful of warmth from a rock along the trail.
After a picnic lunch, Team Gritty visited the Lower Scorpion Campground’s “Trail to the Past,” and viewed a large rock wall of well-preserved pictographs, as well as a small two-room structure in a cave-like setting further down the trail.
Back at our campsite that evening, Team Gritty enjoyed a glass of wine over a campfire with fellow Airstream neighbors, Wayne and Sarah, who have a great blog we realized we’ve been following for years (http://tinwheel.blogspot.com)!
Among many topics covered, including the breathtaking view of the stars that evening, we chatted about the interesting people we’ve encountered on our journeys. Just that afternoon, we’d met a fascinating older gentleman, Cliff, who was touring the Southwest this winter before driving back to his home state of Alaska. A real gem and storyteller, we greatly admired Cliff’s adventurous spirit, his passion for exploration, and his desire to brush up on his language skills (he’s learning Spanish while he travels so that he’ll be able to teach English in Ecuador next winter).
So, with glasses raised, Team Gritty toasts Sarah, Wayne, Cliff, and all our fellow travelers … and to the next adventure around the crooked bend in the trail….