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Confessions of a Kayak Virgin
Getting your feet wet in the Gila River.

Gila Coptering
Following the Gila River by helicopter.

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A Bully Birthday

Teddy Roosevelt takes the cake at this month's Gila Cliff Dwellings centennial festivities.


It's not every day that you get to celebrate a 100th birthday. And the National Park Service and the folks at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument have made a very big deal of the site's centennial milestone this month, inviting the pubic and a pretty impressive special guest to the birthday party.

"We have a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator coming, and we're going to reenact the signing of the documents that established the cliff dwellings as a national monument," says superintendent Steve Riley. "He'll do one reenactment at the first celebration, on the actual anniversary (Nov. 16) in Silver City at the Silco Theater, and then another one up here at the visitors' center the next day (Nov. 17)."

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt — the real one — proclaimed the Gila Cliff Dwellings a national monument, establishing it as an historic site and thereby protecting it for future generations. In 1924, following a campaign by forester Aldo Leopold, the surrounding forests were declared the first national wilderness area. And on April 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed a proclamation that added approximately 375 acres containing additional archaeological sites "to round out the interpretive story of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument."

Throughout 2007, special events have built on the monument's centennial theme, "Celebrating a Century of Storytelling." Events have included a ruins tour, a special National Junior Ranger Day, stargazing, lectures on ancient pottery shards and storytelling. A Dutch-oven cooking extravaganza included demonstrations, live music and cowboy (and cowgirl) poetry. Some activities connected with the third annual Gila River Festival were held at the cliff dwellings. And there have been cartoon workshops, book-signings and an Earth Science Week, for which Alotta Gelato in Silver City created a special flavor named "Gila Conglomerate" in honor of the area's unique geology.

A special exhibit at the Silver City Museum has generated additional interest in the cliff dwellings site. "The last couple of months have been busier than in the past few years. Our visitation numbers definitely are up," Riley says.

Visitors have been taking away mementoes of their visits to the dwellings, in the form of books and gifts from the visitors' center shop. The Western National Parks Association in Tucson, a nonprofit cooperative of the National Park Service, operates the bookstores and gift shops at 63 national parks throughout the West.

"We have some special 100th anniversary items," Riley says. "We have this little seed pot, about the size of your fist, painted with Mimbres animal designs. There are special packets of native plant seeds that come with it. We're on our third special order of those. And, sorry for the cliche, but the 100th anniversary T-shirts are flying out the door like hotcakes!"

About 43,000 people a year make the winding — some might say "arduous" — drive to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. (Though the signs accurately depict the distance at 44 miles from Silver City, the trip takes up to two hours to navigate, owing to some pretty sharp turns, in many places breathtakingly guardrail-free.) Busy Saturdays in the tourist-heavy summer draw some 350 visitors — which is at least six times as many people as once lived in the cliff dwellings.

The walk from the area at the base of Cliff Dweller Canyon to the top of the trail where tours of the cliff dwellings begin takes 20 minutes to half an hour, depending on your fitness and stamina. It's a somewhat steep climb of 180 feet, which may feel like more to folks not acclimated to the 5,800 feet above sea level altitude. Including the return journey, it's really just a one-mile loop. Guided interpretive tours occur once or twice each day, depending on the season, but visitors are welcome to tour the cliff dwellings by themselves, too.


Paleo-Indians, nomadic hunters and gatherers who arrived about 8000-7000 BCE, first appeared in the Southwest in the fertile period after the last ice age, arriving as all the prehistoric locals did — courtesy of the Gila River. Developing agriculture — corn brought up from Mexico, along with squash and beans — caused the wanderers to, well, put down roots.

The cliff-dwelling Mogollon people, so later named after a Spanish governor, came to this ruggedly beautiful canyon, 44 miles north of Silver City, about 1280 AD. A drought on the Colorado Plateau, it is posited, pushed them out and led them to seek refuge in these caves eroded into the sandstone cliffs. From here they probably hunted within about a hundred-mile radius.

Perhaps only 20 years after establishing their home in the side of a mountain — incidentally creating what is today one of southern New Mexico's most popular tourist attractions — the cliff dwellers vanished. Possibly, they'd simply exhausted the limited resources of the canyon area and had no choice but to move on to greener pastures.

The modifications and additions the cliff dwellers made to the caves blend seamlessly with what nature had crafted. Manmade walls, interrupted only occasionally by small openings, face toward the canyon. Here and there the park service has made minor repairs with concrete, and there are even a few concrete re-creations. But for the most part, the dwellings are the real deal — essentially 700-plus-year-old condos.

The passage of time and the depredations of early Anglo visitors to these caves have made much of the cliff dwellers' world a mystery to modern archeologists, leaving the functions of many of the rooms a mystery to historians.

If you go:

Nov. 16: Gila Cliff Dwellings Centennial Birthday Bash — 6:30 p.m. Special guest "Theodore Roosevelt." Silco Theater, 311 N. Bullard St., Silver City.

Nov. 17: Official Centennial Ceremony — 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument and Visitor Center. Demonstrations, music, food. Mile marker 43, N. Hwy. 15.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is a 44-mile drive — about two hours — north from Silver City on Hwy. 15. Admission is $3 per person, $10 per family for the day. The monument is open every day, with fall hours from 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. The Gila Visitor Center is open 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. In the fall, guided tours are offered only once per day; call for times. 536-9461, www.nps.gov/gicl.

The first non-native to see the cliff dwellings, as far as history knows, was Silver City pioneer Henry B. Ailman, whose 1881 home is today the Silver City Museum. In 1878, journeying to avoid jury duty in Silver City, Ailman stumbled upon the cliff dwellings, certainly the archeological find of a lifetime.

Other Anglo settlers didn't have much opportunity to follow up on Ailman's find, however, since the Chiricauhua Apache — who'd first arrived about 1500 AD — occupied the area for much of the 1880s. By the time famed Southwest archeologist Adolph Bandolier arrived on the scene in 1884, vandals, curiosity seekers and looters had gotten to many of the cave's treasures. Bandolier would write that the site had been "rifled."

Enter Teddy Roosevelt and those history-preserving swipes of his pen. Now let him cut the cake.

— Donna Clayton Lawder


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