New Mexico's Triple Hitter

Visit 3 Destinations Near Silver City, NM

by George Oxford Miller

Rand McNally’s 2010 Road Atlas highlights Silver City, New Mexico, as one of the five “Best of the Road” destinations in America. Surrounded by scenic desert and rugged mountains and with a history that dates back 2,000 years, Silver City offers a triple-hitter for cultural and natural attractions. You can travel to Gila Cliff Dwellings, City of Rocks State Park or Whitewater Canyon in trips of under two hours. This quaint city has plenty of lodging and restaurants to sustain you between your adventures.

The original 700-year-old timbers still support the Gila Cliff Dwellings.

T-shaped doorway, common in precontact Southwestern stacked stone buildings


Gila Cliff Dwellings

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, 40 miles from downtown, reminds us how forces uncontrollable, and often unpredictable, influence life in the Southwest. Standing in the courtyard of the ruins of the multifamily structure, you’d guess the residents left in a hurry. Six-inch cobs still fill a stone corncrib and painted images peek through the dust on 700-year-old plastered walls. The inhabitants also left pottery, now stored in museums, with intricate black and white designs unique to the area.



700-year-old corn cobs are still in the Gila Cliff Dwellings

Interior of one of the dwellings at the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

“The Mogollons chose this side canyon for their 42-room complex for good reasons. The sun angle creates natural heating and cooling,” the ranger tells us. “The summer sun shines over the opposite ridge but the canyon casts a shadow of cooling shade across the cliff dwelling. In the winter, the sun penetrates the rock shelters and warms the living areas.”

The Mogollon Mountains with abundant game and lush canyons ideal for farming have sustained humans for 2,000 of years. Pit houses date back to 100 A.D. and the Apaches roamed the mountains, the stronghold of Geronimo during historic times. Yet, only one generation of Mogollons with no more than 10 families built a permanent home here.

We climb a wooden ladder into the largest home site tucked into a rock shelter high on a cliff near the Gila River. The half-standing rock walls give no hint why the Mogollons abandoned their home in 1300 AD, a mere 30 years after moving into the canyon.

The Gila Cliff Dwellings were built in 1300 AD and abandoned 40 years later.

Gila Cliff Dwellings as seen from a gorge below. Rociomcoss / CC BY-SA (

The ancients left their mark, literally, up and down the Gila River. The Trail to the Past, about a mile from the cliff dwellings, leads to a stone cliff covered with pictographs. The ochre rock paintings depict animals, circles, symbols, and mysterious human stick figures. The rocks hold tightly to the secrets of peoples who for thousands of years believed these rivers and mountains sacred.


Hiking the trails over mesas and through scenic canyons in the national monument, I can easily see why the Gila region captivated Aldo Leopold when he worked for the Forest Service. The dedicated conservationist led the Forest Service to establish the Gila Wilderness Area in 1924, the nation’s first. The Gila River remains the longest undammed river in the Lower 48. More...

City of Rocks State Park

The City of Rocks stands on a flat desert basin.

A view of City of Rocks in NM. Guywets / Public domain

Abandoned cliff dwellings and curious rock art aren’t the only bizarre features around Silver City. Like a demented artist, 30 million years of erosion have sculpted a cluster of freestanding volcanic rocks into a fractured city with narrow avenues and fanciful shapes. Approaching City of Rocks State Park, in the desert 25 miles south of Silver City, I have visions of a fairy-tale city with Hobbit-like creatures scurrying around.

No formal trails lead through the boulder-strewn playground. Think of the 680-acre park as one giant discovery zone. With little imagination, we see a stone rabbit towering above us, then like magic a jackrabbit materializes and hops into the shade under a bush.

Petroglyph images on the rocks.
Petroglyph on rock at City of Rocks
A 50-foot pelican perches over a campsite, while a real great horned owl sits on her nest in a niche at the top of a 100-foot pinnacle.

The wow-factor increases in the center of the bizarre boulder field. Avenues lead through squeeze slots and building-sized rocks invite kids of all ages to scramble topside to view the playscape city.

One crawlway leads into a cave formed by a jumble of rocks. A petroglyph stares at us at eye level. A thousand years ago, another person, perhaps as mystified as we are by the hallucinogenic landscape, chipped the image of a dancing stick man either wearing a feather headdress or having a really bad hair day.


“Did you see the Kokapelli pictographs?” a visiting archaeologist from the University of Arizona asks us in the Visitor Center. With directions and a sketch, we scurry over the rocks like treasure hunters with a confusing map. Finally, we locate a palm-sized rock that covers a little hole in a boulder. Inside hides the perfect image of the hump-backed flute player painted in deep black. Nearby, a 3-foot image decorates the top of a boulder.

Both images look like they were painted yesterday, and maybe they were. “I think they probably date back to the 1930s,” the archaeologist says. More...


Whitewater Canyon

Leaving the parched desert, drive 60 miles west of Silver City to Glenwood and discover what must have been paradise for Geronimo. A catwalk clings to the wall in narrow parts of Whitewater Canyon.When the U. S. Army put a death warrant on every male Apache in New Mexico, Geronimo and his band of warriors took refuge in the narrow recesses of Whitewater Canyon. After Geronimo surrendered in 1889, miners discovered rich lodes of gold and silver high in the inaccessible canyon.


Graham Mining company built an ore mill near today’s picnic area and powered its generators with water piped through the rugged canyon. The canyon walls were so steep that they built a catwalk to support the pipeline. The mine closed in 1908 and in the 1930s the CCC rebuilt the catwalk as a recreation area for the Gila National Forest. Today, the 2-mile loop Catwalk National Recreation Trail rates as one of the most scenic trails in the West.

Deep shadows cool the wooded canyon and wildflowers with dancing butterflies line the trail. In tight places, the metal catwalk clings to the walls with the stream tumbling below. Overhead puffy clouds dot the strip of blue sky, and just when I think the view can’t get more scenic, the creek cascades over a boulder waterfall and creates a popular swimming hole. The trail finally dead-ends as the canyon narrows, but an extension climbs to top the mesa and continues into the Gila backcountry.

Exploring the mountains and desert around Silver City, it’s easy to see why the Mogollons and later the Apaches and Aldo Leopold considered the Gila to be sacred territory. They knew what Rand McNally, and many others, are just discovering. More...


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