Three Short Hikes at Gila Cliff Dwellings


Adventure Guru
Jan 20, 2012
Crossposted from my blog.​
We took a family vacation to Southwest New Mexico around Labor Day. Gila Cliff Dwellings was one of our destinations. We got there too late to see the dwellings the first day, but we did have a nice little hike to the Lightfeather Hot Springs. The springs are located 1/2 mile or so above the visitor center, along the Gila River. You have to wade across the river twice on the way to the springs.
The hot water comes out of the ground, then flows to some pools right in the river itself where it mixes with the river water to cool down to a suitable temperature. The pools were pretty filled up with junk and detritus from the fires of 2012 when we got there. I spent a while cleaning out the pools and redirecting the river water to help flush them out. The water was nice and the kids sure liked it too!
Here's where the water comes out of the ground. It is extremely hot- don't jump in here! I found it interesting that there's a wilderness boundary about 50 feet past where the hot springs are, leaving the springs NOT in the wilderness.
There's a small rock overhang nearby with a roof blackened from countless fires. Geronimo was born near the headwaters of the Gila, perhaps nearby. He undoubtedly soaked here a time or two himself.​
This was one of the three hikes in the park that are shorter. We had the place to ourselves and as dusk began to fall, we hiked back to the car and drove down the road to our campsite.​
The second hike we went on at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was to see the dwellings themselves. They're on the south side of a cliff and not visible from the road. The trail is only about a mile long, but it's pretty fun. The dwellings are not as impressive as those at Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon, but they are pretty neat nonetheless. A stop at the visitor center first will give a good overview of the dwellings, their inhabitants, and the area.
It's really almost one huge cliff dwelling, but there are several smaller alcoves as well that have dwelling ruins in them. The main dwelling is pretty hard to photograph because of the lighting.
There's a ladder or two that are optional, but we chose to take the fun way and use the ladders.
More of the ruins. The rangers make sure that you don't eat or drink anything while you're in the ruins. Doing so could attract rodents, which would contribute to the destruction of the ruins.
There are also some pictographs that a park ranger can point out to you. They're hard to photograph as well, unless you have a fancy camera. This is definitely the most popular trail at Gila National Monument. The hot springs are another good trail, and the Trail of the Past is the 3rd of the shorter trails.
We almost missed the Trail to the Past. After doing the hike to the main ruins, the kids were ready for lunch. We drove to the Gila River and had a nice couple of hours splashing and playing in the river, catching tadpoles, and eating food. If you're at Gila Cliff Dwellings in the warmer months, be sure to take time to play in the river. We had a great time. After lunch was over and we packed the kids back in the car, we almost drove back to our campsite for the rest of the day. We decided that we were only here once, so we might as well go back and see this trail. I'm glad we did. The Trail to the Past leads to a much smaller ruin, as well as some pictographs. Sometimes there are rattlesnakes in the ruin, so please be careful!
The ruin is smaller, but it's a lot more fun because it's unsupervised by park personnel, and there's not a huge cliff nearby to make moms nervous. We checked out the 2-3 rooms of the ruin, then went to the other end of the trail to see the pictographs. Definitely worth it.
There is a fairly extensive panel with lots of people and other creatures. Is this Bigfoot? If so, it's definitely a HE!
Lots of pictures and paintings, some of them quite high up. The Trail to the Past is one of the overlooked trails at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, but it's very worthwhile, and being only 1/4 mile, the kids like it too.

Takeaways from the Gila Cliff Dwellings:
  • Gila Cliff Dwellings is small enough that one day is pretty sufficient
  • Take time to play in the river, we went to one of the use areas south of the town of Gila Hot Springs
  • Jordan Hot Springs is a pretty popular destination if you are looking for a longer hike


Alien from over the pond...
Sep 5, 2012
Cool, nice to see the dwellings again.
My last visit there is 18 years ago.
Thanks for sharing. :)
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