Honoring the Culture of Gila Cliff Dwellings

Colorful red, orange, and blue sunrise over the reddish cave dwellings at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
— National Park Service

Tucked away in a quiet corner of southwestern New Mexico, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument offers an incredible link to an often-forgotten past. The Mogollon people built these unique cliff dwellings in a protected cave near the Gila River in the 1200s, where they lay undiscovered for hundreds of years.

Where it all began

Stars and the Milky Way over a purple-blue night sky at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Janice Wei/NPS

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.

Mainly located in the Gila River Valley, Mogollon farms grew corn, squash, and beans. The Mogollon people had to be precise and effective when the conditions were favorable, as the growing season was only 140 days long.

To supplement their diet, they participated in hunting, combining mule deer, beaver, elk, and duck with berries and nuts from nearby forest areas. Of course, the forests during those times were a lot denser and more challenging to navigate, and had more potential hazards embedded within.

As the area was a center of traditional Mogollon culture, Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was established via a presidential proclamation on Nov. 16, 1907. Today, the monument preserves the cliff dwellings where the Mogollon people built their homes, as well as the TJ Ruin – a small pueblo area that was inhabited between the years 900 and 1150.

The vibrant Mogollon culture

Structures and dwellings built into the sandy and rocky ground and cliffs at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
National Park Service

Nothing speaks more strongly to the vibrant and extensive culture of the Mogollon people than the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The area is filled with archeological structures, carefully constructed caves, and other sites that offer insight into the group’s daily lives.

Archaeologists estimate that the Gila Cliff Dwellings were constructed by 40 to 60 Mogollons who displayed remarkable engineering skills for the time period.

The dwellings consist of five distinct caves, each of which contains about 40 rooms. To make the dwellings safer and more comfortable, the Mogollons used fallen rocks from nearby caves to construct some of these 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.

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.

Experiencing the culture firsthand

Red painted pictographs on a tan stone wall at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument


National Park Service

Wondering how you can maximize your visit to the national monument? Be sure to follow the Cliff Dwelling Trail to get a taste of Mogollon culture and immerse yourself in the experience of the monument. The trail leads into the dwelling themselves, and even takes you into some of the rooms. For a non-strenuous trek, following the 1-mile trail is an excellent way to explore the area. Don’t forget to also check out the visitor center where historical Mogollon artifacts are displayed.

With Mogollon attractions rapidly disappearing all over the southwest, the Gila Cliff Dwellings may soon be the only unit in the National Park System to house Mogollon sites. Visiting this monument will give you a glimpse into the lives and activities of the Mogollon people, shedding light on who they were, why they built their homes in the area, and how they lived.

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