Along the Trail of the Mountain Spirits in the Gila National Forest of New Mexico are the fascinating Gila Cliff Dwellings.
This site is in the National Forest, and is jointly administered by the Park Service and the Forest Service. Unlike the ruins at Mesa Verde, these are largely un-excavated and receive relatively few visitors. In the couple of hours we spent there, we saw about a dozen others. The visitor center had some interesting displays of artifacts, but the real action was out on the trails.
The ruin itself has forty-six rooms spread over five caves. It was discovered in 1878 by a man from Silver City who’d organized a quick prospecting trip in order to get out of jury duty. After improving the access to the site, he built a resort at the hot springs and began providing guided trips. Shortly thereafter, the discovery of mummified remains in the caves piqued the interest of both scientists and the general public.
Nowadays, you get to the caves by a footpath that climbs ramps and stairs about 200 feet over the course of a half mile and deposits visitors on ledge from which ladders and stairs rise into the caves themselves. One of the things we really enjoyed here was the access. We were able to walk through almost all the rooms and imagine what the life might have been like for the mostly nomadic people who settled here a thousand years ago to learn how to grow crops.
The caves were staffed by a very knowledgeable young man who was able to answer all our questions. At the foot of the trail we spoke with a young woman, a trained archaeologist, who was also a volunteer at the site. Just before we left, while visiting the museum, we finally encountered the only ranger at the park, who told us he’d just arrived onsite a few weeks earlier. We’ve seen this at many parks, where most of the work is done by volunteers. A good use of resources, to be sure, but it seems the park staffs are getting smaller and smaller as visitor numbers increase. Hardly any of the desert parks we visited on this trip were offering ranger programs, even though it was their busy season.
After the caves, we continued along the Trail of The Mountain Spirits, making our way south on New Mexico 15 through the mountain wilderness. The Class B Roadtrek RV gave us an advantage on the twisty, narrow roads from which the views were spectacular. All along the way were attractive small Forest Service campgrounds, any one of which we’d have been happy to spend some time visiting.