Cliff Dwellings, or, Why I’m Glad to Live in a House with Stairs

In 2010, I was visiting my family in New Mexico while my auntie was also there. We took a road trip to Pagosa Springs, CO and then headed off to seek some rock art and ancient ruins. We didn’t manage to leave until 11 AM which was mildly perturbing to some of us and thus set us off on the wrong foot. Our first route choice let to a “Road Closed” sign. We bypassed the next route option because it was small roads and we were afraid it would be too slow. Ha ha. Ha. We stayed on the bigger roads for longer and had to make a choice between two parallel roads and, of course, chose the wrong one. We had to stop at the entrance to a national park and, here’s a handy tip: when the park ranger expresses surprise at your chosen route, you might want to rethink.

Abandoned farm near Stinking Lake on one of our many detours

Soon we ended up on the back dirt roads of the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation with an imperfect map and not another soul to be seen. The shortcut I wanted to take, clearly marked on the map, was nowhere to be found in real life. Our next turning, obviously the only correct option, had an ancient sign stating the inevitable and by now quite humorous “Road Closed.” So we turned around and studied the map intently, only to be woken from our studious stupor by a beep-beep from the only car we’d seen in an hour. We continued on, hoping that the mishmash of tiny faint lines on the map would a) be clearly marked and b) lead us to our destination, which seemed to be getting farther by the minute.

To make a long story just as long, I somehow managed to navigate our way through tiny roads with no signs. We came across one more of our favorite “Road Closed” signs but after a mere 4 hours of driving to cover about 90 miles, we made it to the trailhead for Nogales Cliff House. The walk was very gentle to start with, tracing along an arroyo in deep woods, but after 1/2 mile or so turned straight up.

View on the hike

After a bit of scrambling, we reached our destination, the 8th-13th century cliff dwelling known as Nogales Cliff House built by the mysterious civilisation known as the Gallina people. Sadly, much of it has been eroded even since its discovery in 1916, but there are still many remaining partial walls and one stunning kiva pole.

Note burned kiva pole

A former window from a collapsed wall; note fingerprints around edge

Incredible wallpaper

Cliff dwelling from afar

On our way back down, we saw the only petroglyph on the site.

Petroglyphs nearby: three snow geese and one man

Needless to say, our planned visit to four archaelogical sites was reduced to only one. The drive home was stunning, but boy were we pooped. Guacamole and margaritas were the only things we could manage for dinner.

Incredible rock colors on drive home


5 thoughts on “Cliff Dwellings, or, Why I’m Glad to Live in a House with Stairs

  1. Wow Cassandra – it really looks like a magical adventure!

    I’m sure it was frustrating, but remember that by taking ‘the road less taken’ you got to see many things that many fewer people have seen. How is it you manage to do such COOL things?!

    Boy oh boy – guacamole and margaritas sound like the perfect end to a day like that… plenty of the first and just enough of the second!

    Enjoy the rest of your trip. Keep us posted…


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