New Mexico day two
23.09.2011 - 23.09.2011
We had spent our first night in the state in the now-closed Inn on Broadway, situated in a lovely house with bags of character (and now operating, I have realised, as Serenity House B&B). The house is over 100 years old (which I know is old by US standards, although our own home in London is the same age and we think nothing of it!) According to our host, who welcomed us, it was once home to a madam who ran a string of brothels in the area, though I noted there was no mention of that on their website – perhaps they thought it might deter some visitors?
Anyway, we had a very comfortable night’s sleep in the pretty Hummingbird Room. Waking early, as I usually do (and always on holiday) I wandered downstairs in search of the morning coffee that had been promised. I was poured a large mug and it was suggested that I might like to take it out on the porch, which I did. I was joined there by the resident cat, Midnight, who was very friendly – so much so that getting a photo was quite a challenge as she kept coming too close to my camera, and to the rather hot mug of coffee I had to put down in order to take it!
Midnight the cat
Once Chris and the other guests were up, we had an excellent breakfast – cheese muffins with delicious chilli marmalade, fresh melon and blueberries, raisin pancakes and crispy bacon. The only sour note was introduced by our hostess who, although very friendly, spent rather too much time complaining to the whole room about a recent slightly unfavourable review on Trip Advisor. The message was clear – a better review was expected from us!
The (closed) museum in Pinos Altos
After breakfast we checked out and drove north out of Silver City on winding Highway 15. A few miles out of town we made a little detour into Pinos Altos, a sleepy remnant of the once-Wild West. The town was founded when three frustrated 49ers stopped to take a drink in Bear Creek and discovered gold here. Word spread, as it always did, and soon there were over 700 men prospecting in the area. Roy Bean operated a mercantile here in the 1860s before moving to West Texas to gain fame as Judge Roy Bean. Today several buildings of that era remain and have been restored, including the Buckhorn Saloon which is still open for business in the evenings (but not on the morning when we visited).
Buckhorn Saloon and old opera house
A peek inside the Buckhorn Saloon, and a rather less well-preserved building
Town Hall sign
The small town hall above and the fire station in my photos below are not in the town itself but on the main road just before the turning off. They were beautifully lit by the morning sunshine, unlike many of the more interesting buildings in Pinos Altos itself which were unfortunately in shadow. I guess you need to come in the afternoon if you want to capture the saloon at its best, and if you made it late afternoon, you’d be able to enjoy a drink or meal here too.
Fire station, Pinos Altos
Fire station sign
But we had other places to visit today …
Gila Cliff Dwellings
From Pinos Altos we drove on north along Highway 15. This is not the easiest of drives – a sign soon after leaving Silver warned us that the journey time to the Gila Cliff Dwellings is about two hours. This may seem surprising as it is only 43 miles but at the speed you need to drive this road (SLOW) it does take close to two hours. It’s worth it however, as this is really a lovely drive with lots of stunning views along the way. It is part of one of the state’s many Scenic Byways, this one known as the Trail of the Mountain Spirits. We made a point on this trip of driving as many as possible, so there will be more in future blog entries for sure. There are few places on this one where you can pull over to admire the view, however, so it was hard to get any photos this morning.
The highway ends at the Gila Cliff Dwellings. These were built by the Mogollon people within the natural caves high in the cliffs lining the canyon of what today is called Cliff Dweller Creek. They lived here between 1275 and 1300 AD, farming the valley floor by day and retreating to the safety of their lofty homes at night or when danger threatened. Archaeologists have identified 46 rooms in the six caves, and believed they were occupied by 10 to 15 families. There are also structures used for storage, and signs that some were used for ceremonial purposes. What makes them special is the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings. This makes it easier to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like.
Cliff Dwellings panorama
Before reaching the Cliff Dwellings themselves we made a short detour to the Visitor Centre. There were interesting displays of Mogollon artefacts from the caves and surrounding area, and an exhibit on the Chiricahua Apache who consider this wilderness to be their homeland. There was also a video showing what life may have been like for the Mogollon who built and occupied the Cliff Dwellings, but we decided to skip that and head on up to the dwellings themselves. We also bought a few post-cards and had a chat with the helpful rangers who told us a bit more about the path to the dwellings and also about some good places to picnic.
Memorial to Geronimo at the Visitor Centre
Outside the centre we spotted a memorial to Geronimo near the entrance to the parking area. The Chiricahua Apache chief was born very near here (‘By the headwaters of the Gila’, as the monument says). He was one of the fiercest warriors who ever lived, but he didn’t turn to fighting until after the senseless slaughter by Mexican troops of his mother, wife, children, and other tribal women in 1858. During his time as a war chief, Geronimo was notorious for consistently urging raids and war upon first Mexican and later American settlements across Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1886 he surrendered to U.S. authorities and the Government moved him and the remaining Chiricahua Apaches out of their homeland. He became a celebrity in later life, but was never granted his wish to return to his homeland.
After checking out the Visitor Centre we went back to the car to drive the two miles to the main parking lot for the dwellings themselves. It isn’t possible to see the cliff dwellings from the road so you have to be able to walk a short-ish distance even to see them from a distance. As we set out a ranger gave us a leaflet (the ‘Cliff Dweller Canyon Companion’) and explained the walk. He also asked if we were carrying any food or drink – only water is allowed on the trail so everything else has to be left in your car. We had already eaten our lunch at the picnic area near the car park, so were fine to continue.
From the parking lot the path led across the West Fork of the Gila River, which was largely dried up when we were there (late September). It then followed a tributary stream, Cliff Dweller Creek, on a path that ascended a little, with a few steps in places.
West Fork of the Gila River
Along Cliff Dweller Creek
So far the walk was easy, although not accessible for anyone with real walking difficulties (we noticed that one elderly lady turned back, leaving her husband to do the walk on his own). The path was mostly shaded and there were glimpses of the cliffs above us, although not yet of the caves themselves. Looking out for wildlife we spotted a good-sized lizard, which a ranger later identified for me as a Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard.
Collared Crevice Spiny Lizard
After about ¼ mile the path brought us to the viewpoint from where you can get a first glimpse of the cliff dwellings.
First view of the dwellings
This is the point to turn back if you find walking difficult, as the path is about to get a lot steeper. The trail is described as being a mile in length, but we felt that it was probably longer than this, though it’s hard to judge when you’re stopping frequently – either to catch your breath on the steep parts, to take photos of the fantastic views in places, or to explore the interior of these fascinating caves. On the late September day when we were here it was also pretty hot, especially on the long shade-less descent from the caves, so in mid-summer it must be even more so.
I don’t however consider myself especially fit or accustomed to hiking, and I had a bad back on our visit, yet I did make it to the top and around the full loop without too much difficulty, so I was glad I had given it a go. The steepest part is that immediately beyond this first viewpoint – a series of steep steps winding upwards until you emerge at the level of the dwellings.
The dwellings seen from the top of the ascent
From here it is a more level walk along the face of the cliff to cave one.
Exploring the caves
What makes the Gila Cliff Dwellings special is not their size (several other places, such as Bandelier or Chaco Canyon have bigger groupings) but the fact that you can explore inside the caves and buildings, and can do so if you want to on your own. This makes it easier, I think, to conjure up images of the people who once lived here and to imagine what their lives must have been like. This was why we deliberately chose to explore on our own, rather than take a guided tour.
Whether exploring alone or in a group, there are six caves that you can get a close look at on this trail, although as four and five are linked it may not feel like that many. The first one is the smallest and has very little in the way of structures, but moving on to cave two we could see some of the original Mogollon constructions. These had already been vandalised when the dwellings were first properly explored by experts, but about 80% of the original structures remained, and the rest have been carefully restored.
Dwelling in cave two
There are more structures in cave three, which you need to climb up to. This is where you can really get a sense of the long-ago inhabitants, as you look up at the roof of the cave blackened by soot from their fires, or look out across the valley from its cool interior, as they must have done.
Cave three from cave two
Looking out from cave three
Caves four and five are linked, and I confess that I couldn’t work out exactly where one ended and the next began, even though a helpful ranger whom we met here explained it – the small structure to the right of my photo below, with what appears to be a window, is at the point where cave four becomes cave five. There is apparently a mystery surrounding the purpose of this structure, which is too large to have been a storage area (and in any case has sooty walls) and too small to have been a dwelling.
Cave four, with five beyond
View from cave five
Without that helpful ranger we would not have known to climb the ladder propped against one wall in cave five and and would have missed seeing the pictograph painted there by the Mogollon, and the remains of some corn husks on the floor below.
Pictograph in cave five
To exit these caves we had to climb down a wooden ladder of about a dozen steps. This was the longest of the ladders but like all of them was sturdy and stable so should have been easy enough to descend. However it was in full sun and the wood had got surprisingly hot – so much so that I could barely hold it!
Ladder from cave five, after descending, and looking up at cave six
The trail then took us past cave six, which you can’t enter, and then looped round the cliff face before descending steeply to rejoin the outward trail just before the bridge.
Panorama of Cliff Dweller Canyon on the descent from the caves
By the time we had finished our walk it was time to leave. We needed to retrace part of the winding route along Highway 15, and drive a little distance on nearly-as-winding Highway 35, to reach our base for the night. Unlike this morning, we did find one place where we could pull over and properly take in the view.
On the Trail of the Mountain Spirits, near Gila Cliff Dwellings
There is no accommodation at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, and many people visit as a day tour from Silver City (which is perfectly possible, though it’s quite a long drive). But we wanted to have more time to explore the caves than this would have allowed for, so I hunted around for other options and found a group of cabins in a rustic spot near Lake Roberts, known unsurprisingly as Lake Roberts Cabins.
We knew this was a pretty isolated location, with no restaurants in easy reach, so we planned to make our own dinner in our small cabin. The website told us that the on-site General Store sold ‘Groceries, including canned goods, microwave dinners, and other convenience foods …Staples like bacon, fresh eggs, milk & butter … and Seasonal garden fruits & vegetables’. So we planned to buy the makings of our evening meal there on arrival. However when I had rung to confirm our reservation a couple of days before, and to enquire about the store opening times, the owner told me that although they stayed open till about 7.00 pm, he had been running the stock down as it was late in the season (the last week in September) and he would have very little from which to make any sort of meal. So we shopped ahead in Silver and when I saw how empty the shop was, we were very glad that we had!
But before eating we had time to check out Lake Roberts itself, about half a mile away from the cabins. The lake was created in the early 1960s by damming Sapillo Creek, but it nestles among the pines in a very natural-looking way, although its deep blue waters are perhaps a surprising sight in this otherwise quite rocky landscape.
Back at the cabin we made our simple meal and relaxed. At one point during the evening we spotted a deer from our porch, although unfortunately not when I had a camera to hand.
On the porch of Cedar Cabin
The seating area
The small cabin suited us just fine. We had a small sitting area with a sofa and a table and two chairs. There was a TV for watching VHS tapes only, which could be borrowed free of charge from the store, so we watched a film after it got too dark and chilly to sit out on the porch.
A kitchenette opened directly from this, with a microwave, two ring gas stove, fridge etc, and all the crockery and cutlery two people might need. The bedroom was really only big enough for the double wood-framed bed, which was comfortable enough but very creaky – when one of us turned over, both woke up! Although it got very chilly after dark, being quite high above sea level here, the cabin stayed warm all night, so despite the creaking bed we were very happy with our choice of accommodation.