RV Trip 3.7 City of Rocks SP – Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument – December 26 – 31, 2017

We drove through Deming and stopped at the Luna Rossa Winery for a tasting. The server told us that New Mexico was actually the first place that started to grow grapes long before California. This winery produces the most grapes (2,000 acres) of any of the 50 wineries in New Mexico (St. Clair produces the most wine). They had excellent dry Italian Reds so we picked up several bottles at very reasonable prices. Our favourite was the 2014 Refosco.

Next stop was City of Rocks SP where we had made a reservation for an electric site for one night. They only have 10 electric sites (with the host in one) and only 2 of those are bookable. Our hope was that we could get an electric site for the second night but instead we had to take a primitive site with no services but that worked out fine. It just meant we couldn’t use our electric heater (which we’ve used every single night in NM so far) and had to use our propane furnace. However the primitive site was much prettier so we were glad we had switched.

I’ll explain a little about the rock formations and then let the pictures tell the rest of the story of this very cool place. The rocks forming the City of Rocks are known as the Kneeling Nun Tuff and were produced by a very large volcanic eruption 34.9 Million years ago. The violent eruption of volcanic pumice, ash, and hot gas was 1,000 times greater than the Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980. The magma escaped through a vent and was so hot when it erupted that the volcanic material compacted or welded to form the dense rocks we now see. During the cooling process cracks or joints formed perpendicular to the ground and thus the orientation of the rocks. Then over millions of years the erosion process formed the rocks in to the bizarre shapes. It was amazing how such large rocks were just balancing in place.

The main thing to do in this area is to walk around amongst the rocks and see all the shapes. It was also popular for rock climbing. The rocks would get really spectacular colours at sunset and at sunrise as you’ll see from the photos. Sharon and I rode our Mountain Bikes around the 5 KM Hydra Trail that surrounds the rocks. There was another 5 KM round trip section up to the top of Table Mountain at an elevation of 5726’ so I decided to MTB it as well (Sharon was feeling under the weather so didn’t do this section). It turned out this uphill section was a bit outside my MTB skill level so I did have to walk my bike through the extremely rocky sections. The way down was much easier;-) However the views from the top were worth the extreme effort! On the day we left we drove the RV up to another observation point. What a special place to visit, hope you enjoy this subset of our photos!

If you’ve read the earlier blogs you will know that we had wanted to go to the Gila (pronounced Hee-la) Cliff Dwellings National Monument but weren’t able to because the roads had been closed due to snow. Now the roads were open again so we decided to detour back up to see them. Since the road was quite challenging (especially for the RV) we decided to stop overnight at an RV Park in Mimbres and then do the 2 hour drive to Gila first thing in the morning. The road from Mimbres to Gila is narrow, twisty, has lots of low tree branches along it (which means we had to cross the center line to avoid them), had no guard rails with steep drops into the valleys, and crosses up and over the Continental Divide. We could still see snowy sections where the sun wasn’t reaching to thaw it out. Along the road we saw the Vista Ruins, Lake Roberts, and several different viewpoints.

Once we reached the National Monument area we went to the Visitor center so we could look at the exhibits and watch a short video about the Puebloan people from the Tularosa River region of the Mogollon (mo-go-yon) area that they believe built the Cliff Dwellings from 1276 through 1287 (based on the timbers used in the structures). The archeologists can’t explain why they only used the dwellings for a short time period. Others like the Apaches in the 1500’s may have used the dwellings and a prospector found them in 1878 but by the time Archeologist Adolph Bandelier arrived in 1884 looters had already stolen artifacts and destroyed some of the history. In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the Gila Cliff Dwellings as a National Monument to prevent further damage and vandalism. Ecologist Aldo Leopold was the assistant district forester for the Southwest area and in 1924 helped persuade the US Forest Service to establish the Gila Wilderness as the US first designated wilderness area.

The actual Cliff Dwellings are a couple of miles away from the visitor center. It wasn’t very busy even though this was the Christmas Holiday week. The trail to the dwellings is a 1 mile loop and climbs 180 feet from the canyon floor. They had a ranger at the trail entrance to see our national park pass and another volunteer ranger in the dwellings to answer questions. The blue skies were contrasting with the reddish tinge to the rocks and looked spectacular. There are 7 caves in total although only 6 have dwellings and only 5 are accessible on the walking trail.

Cave One was a small one family dwelling with some storage areas and circular hearth and ash pit.

Cave One

In Cave Two the looting and destruction were extensive so the archeologists are speculating that the smallest rooms were storage, medium sized were residences, and large rooms were for communal gatherings. Approximately 80% of the structures are original from the 1200’s! They took small plug samples of the trees used in the structure to date the buildings to 1280’s.

Cave Two

For Cave Three you climb a wooden ladder and immediately felt the cooling temperature. The cave opening angles allowed the higher summer sun to keep them cooler and the lower winter sun to enter partially to warm the spaces. You could also see black soot on the ceiling from fires in the caves. The large back area was likely an indoor courtyard and forward rooms may have been used for ceremonies.

Caves Four and Five had wooden ladders to peer over the walls where we saw some pictographs, some corn cob remains and the unusual two story structure between the cave openings. The lower room was too low to stand in so likely was storage and upper room had a ventilation port at the top so may have had fires and therefore been a residence but again it is speculation. All the caves have fairly consistent temperatures so this may explain how it’s stayed so intact after all these years. Another phenomenal place to visit!

After you finished the 5 caves you climbed down another wooden ladder and walk along the front edge of the caves to see the structures from the outside. We also saw a cute little gecko. As the trail descended back in to the canyon we went through an area where a lightning strike had burnt the trees (the path was quite slippery as the ice hadn’t melted). We saw the West Fork of the Gila River and in turn went to do the West Fork Trail but you had to do a river crossing which we weren’t prepared for so we returned.

On the way out the entrance road there were two more stops we made. At Lower Scorpion Campground they had a short trail to the past where you could see a smaller sized cliff dwelling as well as some pictographs.

Our last stop in the park was another archeological site where they found ancient Pithouses underneath the ruins of adobe homesteads. It was interesting to learn how the Pithouses evolved in structure and how the initial Pueblo Adobe structures didn’t have a door but instead you would climb up a ladder and enter through the roof.

After we finished with the park we checked in to the Gila Hot Springs Ranch RV Park and before dinner we walked across the road to go down and see the hot spring pools (not as nice as Riverbend in TorC). However the views of the cliffs along the Gila River were spectacular. After we returned to the RV we were treated with the horses grazing through the RV park all around our vehicle;-)

That evening was one of our coldest so far as it got down to 20 F and we learned something new about our RV. The Grey and Black tanks were fine as we had the heating pads installed around them at the factory. Our pump and fresh water tank were fine as they under our bed in the RV. However the flow goes from the fresh water tank to the water filter under the kitchen sink and those lines go somewhere through the floor so they are exposed to more cold and froze during the night. Consequently when we turned on the water pump in the morning it couldn’t build pressure due to ice somewhere in the lines. We drove south (down the scary NM 35) and by lunch time we were at the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site (MCHS) and the lines had thawed out as we had reached 70 F so everything was functioning fine. We were glad none of the lines had burst.

The MCHS was small but was very well organized with rooms on the Mimbres, Apaches, miners, the settlers and railroad, and the Doctor who had a Homestead on this property. It was interesting learning how the Mimbres farmed the “Garden of the Three Sisters” which were Corn, Beans and Squash. The archeologist students still come to this location to study and document the history. There was a walking trail outside that led through the Mattock Ruins area and you could go down to see the Mimbres River although it wasn’t a good trail as I slipped and fell. Back in the Doctor’s office it was interesting to read about the Quackery doctors or traveling medicine men;-)

Back on the road we passed the Santa Rita/Chino Open Pit Copper mine but it was hard to get a photo as they had the observation point locked up for the holidays. We also stopped at Fort Bayard which is now a medical and veteran facility but they were closed for tours.

Open Pit Copper Mine

We ended up in Silver City at the Rose Valley Ranch RV park (which is quite nice) and booked in for two nights so we could get some laundry done and finish this blog which will likely be the last one for New Mexico as we will head in to Arizona tomorrow January 1st. We’ve spent a month in southern New Mexico visiting with friends (Becky and Ed) and seeing some spectacular locations. The day time temperatures have been very comfortable for December but we’ve also had really cold night time temperatures. We still have tons left to see in Northern New Mexico but we’ll save that for a warmer time of year;-)

8 comments

  • Have you been to Santa Fe NM? I may get to visit as my brother’s wife has family there. PS Try to get a roadrunner picture for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We haven’t been to Santa Fe yet Paula as it is far colder up there so not so nice for camping at this time of year. However we’ve heard it’s very pretty so it’s on our list. I’ll try for the Roadrunner shot for you but they’re hard to get because they move so fast. We’ve seen lots though😉

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  • Hi Joel & Sharon, ….. The city of rocks remind us so much of “Goblin Valley State Park” in Utah, (off Utah hwy # 24). … If you guys haven’t been there, you might want to check it out sometime.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much for the feedback John. Someone else had also told us about Goblin so I had it in my to do list😉 I’ll put two stars beside it now!

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  • What beautiful and unique geography you’ve seen! You could put a dislcaimer before the photos of the City of Rocks….”viewer discretion is advised”. 😀
    And I think that cute little gecko that you saw was the Gila Monster.

    Happy new year to you both and keep on truckin’!

    Ella

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ella and hope you guys had a great New Yeats Eve party. We’ve been offline for the last 4 days in Chiricahua Arizona. We did 30 Kms of hiking in 3 days. The next blog will also blow you away😁

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