The idea of saving an unspoiled wilderness began here

Time Before Now, June, 1924Dashing British mountain climber, George Mallory started up the north slope of Mt. Everest the first day of June.  Six days later he disappeared and never heard from again.   Poet Robert Frost was awarded the first of four Pulitzer prizes and teenage short order cook, Lionel Sternberger, was serving up the nation’s first cheeseburgers in his family’s Pasadena, California, diner.

June 3, 1924

On this day New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness made its world debut – the first area to officially limit human activity, preserving the natural state of an environmentally significant place. It’s a concept that has caught on around the globe.

Combined with the adjacent Aldo Leopold Wilderness, more than 500,000 acres of pristine land are part of Gila National Forest. (Above, the wilderness area, 1914)   It contains some of New Mexico’s most beautiful and diverse real estate.  From spruce, aspen and Ponderosa pine at higher elevations, spires and canyons descend to grassy foothills supporting equally diverse wildlife.  

The National Forest came first, established in 1905 by the godfather of America’s public lands, President Theodore Roosevelt.  In addition, he established the historically significant Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument two years later.  Even before Teddy, however, the instinct to preserve this singular region resulted in the Gila River Forest Reserve under the General Land Office in 1899.  A total of 2,710,659 public acres now stretch into four southwestern New Mexico counties.    

The idea of a separate and protected wilderness was proposed by conser-vationist Aldo Leopold. (Right)  Beginning as an Arizona forest assistant in in 1909 when it was still a territory, his career as an author and conservation educator spanned nearly four decades.  President Calvin Coolidge is credited with the Gila Wilderness creation. A New Englander and a fan of the great outdoors, three years later he and the First Lady spent an entire summer at Custer State Park in South Dakota’s Black Hills. 

Cooledge at South Dakota’s summer White House in 1927

Twentieth century man was not the first to find the spot unique.  The prehistoric Mogollon culture thrived here from about 200 CE until the time of Columbus.  Archeologists can only speculate about their origins, perhaps descended from farmers in central Mexico.  Evolving from small settlements of pit houses to large post and beam pueblos and finally to cliff dwellings.

Depiction of early Mogollon pueblo

Foragers at first, the Mogollon lived in small mountainous settlements, building recessed waddle and daub structures.  Becoming more dependent on maize farming, they moved down to the river delta with extensive irrigation systems and above-ground pueblos.  Cliff dwelling occurred in the 13th and 14th centuries, prior to the Spanish. 

Believed to be the first pottery in the Southwest, it was introduced by the Mogollon, leading scientists to believe the technics migrated from Mexico.  Beginning with brown and white coil pottery, what is known as the Mimbres period produced sophisticated black and white geometric designs and stylized birds and animals. 

Examples of Mimbres pottery

The Mimbres people were located in isolated valleys along the Gila River.   Archeologists are unsure of how or even if, the two cultures are related.  Both appeared to disappear sometime in the fifteen hundreds, perhaps with the arrival of the Spanish in the mid fifteen hundreds.  

The entire region derived its name from Juan Ygnacio Flores Mogollon, the 36th Spanish governor of New Mexico.  Appointed in 1712, he was relieved of his duties for suspected malfeasance by royal order three years later.  Apparently Flores Mogollon had already skipped the country by then.   Neither the defrocked governor nor his many material assets could be found.   

He left behind not much more than a lovely signature (left) and a bad name, which still lingers on a New Mexican mountain range, an entire indigenous culture and an 1890’s-era ghost town.   Mogollon,New Mexico, home to the abandoned “Little Fannie” silver mine, once saw as many as 6000 miners crowded into the makeshift community. With a reputation as one of the West’s wildest mining towns, it’s isolation made it the perfect location for wide open saloons, gamblers, grifters and bordellos.   

Luckily, the spectacular Gila cliff dwellings benefited from the same isolation, as well.  It wasn’t until 1878 that the first recorded visit by hunters from Silver City was documented.  Within six years, however, the site was extensively looted, leading President William McKinley (left) to order up the 1899 forest reserve. 

Still considered “way out back,” the five natural alcoves contain more than three dozen rooms, the original wooden beams dating from the 1260s to 1280.  By about 1300 the cliff houses and the surrounding fields were abandoned.  Still isolated, the’ve escaped abandonment today.  Several thousand visitors each month are willing to make the mile-long trek to follow the path of the ancient Mogollon.

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, 26 Jim Bradford Trail, Mimbres, New Mexico, is 37 miles north of Silver City, New Mexico.   One of the most remote of the country’s national monuments, venturing there may not be for less hardy. Using New Mexico Highway 35 through the Mimbres Valley takes about two hours and is the route recommended for RVs more than 20 feet long. According tot he U.S. Forest Service, there is no cell phone coverage throughout the area and travelers should be prepared to be self-sufficient.  

The Gila Visitor Center, open year round,* includes a park store, wheelchair accessible rest rooms and adjacent picnic area. No trash cans or dump stations are available. The small Trailhead Museum contains a natural history exhibit highlighting the surrounding area and is the trailhead to the cliff dwellings.  The mile-long loop trail to and through the monument is a rocky steep rise to about 6,000 feet.  Depending on the season, the trail can be icy or muddy and is not wheelchair accessible.

Visitors should allow about an hour and to bring water with them. Food items and pets, other than service dogs, are not allowed on the trail.  Free kennel facilities are available. The Visitor Center is open daily, 8 to 4:30 except New Years, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The Trailhead Museum is open daily 10 to 4.  Admission to the monument is free. Wear sturdy shoes, check for local weather conditions, take water and be prepared to pack out everything you pack in.  For more information go to, call visitor information at  (575) 536-9461 or write 26 Jim Bradford Trail, Mimbres, NM 88049.

*In accordance with CDC guidelines, new safety measures are being instituted.  As of May 21, the trail to the monument is open but the visitor center, restrooms and museum are closed.  Go to the website for current information.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.