Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
One of the more remote NPS national monuments in the Southwest, Gila Cliff Dwellings lies deep in the mountains of the Gila National Forest, surrounded on all sides by wilderness areas, over an hour's drive from the nearest town on steep, winding roads, and situated well away from main cross-state routes in New Mexico.
The monument is a small site of just 553 acres, containing the ruins of interlinked cave dwellings built in five cliff alcoves by the Mogollon peoples between 1275 and 1300 AD, reached today by an easy one mile loop trail along a narrow canyon.
The time needed to tour the caves is less than the time spent driving to them, though the journey across the steep, forested hills and valleys is part of the attraction of the ruins, as is their out-of-the-way location. The nearby area has plenty of other features of interest including hot springs, more ancient sites, national forest trails and fishing along the Gila River.
The main road to the monument ends at a parking area by the West Fork of the Gila River, from where USFS trail #151 continues north for 33 miles, right across the Gila Wilderness. But most people come here for the ruins, a short distance along a steep-sided ravine (Cliff Dweller Canyon), on the far side of the river. The fee to enter is $3 per person, paid to a ranger at the start of the path. The trail follows beside the narrow, overgrown, tree-lined streambed, crossing several times on wooden bridges and after 0.25 miles reaching a viewpoint of the dwellings, built quite high in the south-facing canyon wall.
The path then climbs 180 feet, above the trees and back across the base of the cliffs to the caves. Rangers are in attendance to answer questions, and stop people climbing on walls or otherwise straying from the path, which passes through some rooms, past others viewable using ladders, then returns down a wooded hillside to the carpark. The five caves contain over 40 rooms and the site is inspiring enough but not quite in the same league as places such as Chaco Culture or Mesa Verde.
The round trip takes about 5.5 hours from Gila, and ranger guided tours are offered twice a day in summer, or once a day in winter. The only other easily reached ancient sites in the vicinity are along the short Trail to the Past, 0.5 miles before road's end, next to the Lower Scorpion Campground. This passes a panel of pictographs and one ruin at the head of a small canyon.