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Published: July 30th 2012
Shot from the ascending trail. Nearly invisible from the valley floor.
In 1964 my 5th grade teacher had our class put together a scrap book on all of the United States. My assignment was New Mexico. I penciled out a barely legible request to the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce asking them to send me whatever they had about this so called; 'Land of Enchantment'. Two weeks later I received a fat manila envelope stuffed with color brochures covering everything from White Sands to the Grand Canyon. Heady stuff for a 10-year old Chicago lad who had never traveled beyond the Southside. What really caught my eye was the tri-fold, four color masterpiece covering the cliff dwellings. Houses in caves. I was enchanted. After dealing with Kennedy's assassination and those chilly autumn months of school spent learning to duck and cover while my Dad filled our evenings with passionate backyard bomb shelter building plans (Dad had neither the building skills nor a large enough yard but I feigned enough interest to keep him happy) these ancient southwestern condos looked like the answer to all of my childhood anxieties. I could see my grinning self pebble pelting Fidel’s Commie pate as he tried in vain to scale my aerie refuge. I vowed to
visit them as soon as I was able. It took me 48 years to make the trip.
The Gila cliff dwellings are reached via a narrow winding mountain road (State Road 15) that runs north of Silver City. The 45 mile distance will take 2 hours to cover unless you are blessed with both a Porsche and no traffic. Silver City is a mining town engaged in open pit copper recovery. The silver gave out long ago. The Burg offers every type of fast food franchise that you can think of in addition to a super Wal-Mart and a bevy of low-end motels. There's a great visitors center on Bullard Street offering sage advice and hundreds of brochures for area attractions. Most people pass through Silver City on their way to the cliff dwellings. New Mexicans had told Karen and I great stories regarding the charms of Silver City but we found little charm there and no reason at all to tarry.
State Road 15’s hairpin turns and steep ascending and descending grades will require your full attention. Pinos Altos is a small town along the way and I do mean small. We spied one restaurant there and
it was out of business. You would be well advised to buy foodstuffs in Silver City and bring them with you if you are planning on eating during your visit. The vistas are stunning but there are few places to pull over and enjoy them. If you are a hiker there are a myriad of trails crossing the road as well as a few camping areas. When you reach the Cliff dwellings you will find a visitors center staffed by a single, knowledgeable ranger. There are restrooms and water fountains. Fill your water bottles and canteens there. You will need water for the climb up to the cliffs. The visitors’ center also offers some archaeological artifacts and a short video. When we visited in July there were maybe a half-dozen other tourists. The short road to the cliffs has two camp grounds called Upper and Lower Scorpion. For info on camping call 575-536-9461 or visit www.nps.gov/gicl
The cliffs sit on the West Fork of the Gila River. When we arrived the river was fouled with soot and ash from recent forest fires to the northwest of the park. The area around the cliffs suffered a burn last year. The
formerly cinnamon colored pine trunks are covered with a shiny char glaze and the areas beneath the trees, burned clear of brush, are now ablaze with wild flowers of every hue. The one mile long cliff trail loop is steep and at altitude it can become taxing. A couple, suffering from more than a passing acquaintance with salted snacks, arriving when we did, never did make it to the top even after utilizing the log rest benches that line the rough pathway.
The entry fee is $3 per person. Bring exact change. There are seven caves. Five of which can be accessed by visitors. These are tended to by a park ranger who will be happy to answer any questions and who will also point out some pictographs left by the previous residents. When we were there they offered a single guided tour for interested parties. This tour took place at 1 PM daily. There are ladders for the more adventurous. The adobe structures within the caves are pretty much all original save some work done by the park service to shore up the walls. The site was tragically vandalized in the early 19th
century by local residents. Clay
pots were used for target practice and the original roofs were destroyed by set fires. The walls are covered with the initials of early visitors/ miscreants.
The dwellings are located in a narrow, picturesque valley filled with game and edible plants. It must have been paradise for the original 12th
century residents. It’s a beautiful spot and well worth the drive. The pines twitter with birdsong and Zen-like melodies bubble up from the Gila River.
We returned to Alamogordo via 35 to 152 to 180 to US10. This was the best part of our trip. Unfamiliar with this part of New Mexico we were constantly amazed at the variety of terrain and color that surrounded us. Winding roads passed through Ponderosa pine forests which give way to broad mountain meadows filled with white, purple and red wildflowers. We cruised through undulating plains dotted with hot, vaporous volcanic springs and drove beside oak-lined creeks bracketed by rolling, horse dotted hills. Small adobe brick buildings were the only signs we saw of humanity. We would strongly recommend this excursion to anybody spending time in southern New Mexico.
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