My visit to the Gila Wilderness and its cliff dwellings happened early on in the Original Beetle Roadtrip. In many ways it was in the Gila, that a 24 year old Aldo Leopold found his footing. As someone who really enjoyed Leopold’s writing, it was only a matter of time for me to visit the wilderness he proposed and the very first Federally recognized wilderness in the United States.
I found a nice place to camp in the national forest, driving the Beetle across a stream to limit my neighbors, and from that campsite, I explored the Gila.
Theodore Roosevelt designated the cliff dwellings a national monument in 1907. The monument is 533 acres, and had just over 41,000 visitors in 2016. To me, there seemed to be almost that many people there when I visited. It became a challenge to get a picture taken without a person in the frame, but I worked at it.
The dwellings are located in an absolutely beautiful part of New Mexico. It was easy for me to see why the Mogollon people settled here, and I wondered why they abandoned it years later.
Hiking the trail early in the morning, I was lucky enough to come across a black bear on its morning excursion. Later in the day, I met up with a couple who had seen a mountain lion. I was not at all surprised by either in this beautiful, rugged terrain.
The above is one of the earliest known published images of the Chaco Canyon area. The artwork is by Richard Kern from his exploration of the area with the military’s reconnaissance of the Four Corners country, led by J.H. Simpson, in 1849. The account of the expedition was published in 1851.
I first visited Chaco Canyon during The Beetle Roadtrip. I spent an entire month exploring New Mexico, and Chaco was among the favorites. The southwest, in general, is so vastly different than the Far North, and I find the country fascinating.
Chaco is an International Dark Sky Park, and the sky was truly brilliant at night. It was here and in the Grand Canyon that I spent the most time looking up at the Milky Way. It is highly unusual for me to be able to sit outside and watch the stars move across the sky, while in shorts and a t-shirt.
Starting around 900 AD, Chaco Canyon became a major culture center for Ancestral Puebloans, and a hub for ceremony and trade. Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the “Great Houses”, had at least 650 rooms. Its massive walls were 3 feet thick.
The petroglyphs throughout the area are absolutely astounding. I could have spent the entire month exploring Chaco Canyon alone, if left to my own devices.
The park itself is just over 33,000 areas, and it saw 39,000 visitors in 2011.
It was a short run on Sunday in the heat and battling the wind. The Rover was getting hot, I was getting hot, my right foot was way past hot, so I pulled over for a much needed shower and AC.
Then the wind picked up. I couldn’t believe it was going to blow harder. I crawled under The Rover to check ALL fluids, and had a full gallon of gear lube knocked over by the wind. When I opened the driver’s door, items flew out the rear end. Insanity.
Still windy today, but the temps dropped 20 degrees and The Rover ran fine. No over heating problems, no vapor lock, and I was able to drive until sunset.
After crossing back into the States, one of my camps was in Columbus, NM at Pancho Villa State Park. It’s a cool, little park in its own right, with a cactus garden and some interesting long-term tenants… but it was the history tied to Pancho Villa that caused me to stop here over other parks.
I received an extremely enthusiastic greeting upon arrival by a passionate museum volunteer. I parked The Rover in the primative area, which happened to be by the very first grease pit used by the U.S. Army, then explored the museum that is at the entrance to the park.
The museum was great, with an even-handed viewpoint of the Columbus Raid, and exhibits were in both English & Spanish. The museum staff was phenominal in their knowledge & attitude.
9 March 1916 Pancho Villa’s troops raided Columbus, New Mexico. The reason’s for the raid, and why Columbus was chosen, are still being debated, but the acquisition of supplies was certainly a goal. The battle lasted for an hour and a half. 75 raiders, 10 American civilians, and 8 U.S. soldiers were killed. Several buildings in Columbus were burned to the ground. It is doubtful that Pancho Villa ever entered the town.
The park museum has exhibits from both the Villa raid, and the Punitive Expedition that General Pershing led into Mexico from Columbus. It features a Curtiss “Jenny” bi-plane, a Dodge staff car from the Pershing era, a Jeffrey Quad armored vehicle (precurser to the tank), and a Dodge convertible that was riddled with bullet holes as its occupants fled Columbus and Villa’s men.
(Would it be a good time to mention that I saw SUV’s in Mexico with similiar inflictions? Of course, those had been torched, as well as shot.)
My favorite vehicle, however, was the FWD truck built by the Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. out of Wisconsin.