Trail of the Mountain Spirits
southwestern New Mexico
Like most of New Mexico, the southwestern part is rich in human history. This byway blends antiquity with a mystical landscape. The drive starts just off I-25 at exit 63, about 2½ hours south of Albuquerque. Heading west, the first point of interest is tiny Hillsboro. Once prosperous thanks to gold and silver mining, it’s now more of a living ghost town with shops, a couple of restaurants and numerous historic buildings. Then, the scenic byway climbs steeply into the Gila National Forest and eventually enters the Gila Wilderness. This area is so important that in 1924, it became the world’s first designated wilderness when the U.S. Forest Service set aside 755,000 acres. There’s evidence humans have been active here for more than 11,000 years. And the byway ends at the most significant example: Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. A trail leads into a canyon where the Mogollon people lived more than 700 years ago. Walking along cliff walls, the path leads into a series of caves where rock walls and ancient timbers define cooking, sleeping and storage areas. Most of the rooms were built in the 1280s but people sheltered in these caves much earlier. Why the Mogollon left the area around 1300 is unknown. And for drivers, the only way out is the way in. Heading south on NM 15, Silver City is 1½ hours away, providing all the modern conveniences.
Keep in Mind
This national monument is one of the few sites that allows visitors to walk through cliff dwellings. So it’s important to not touch rocks or walls. And only take water. Pack rats are attracted to food scraps and drink spills!
Routes & Map
No matter which direction you drive the byway, it’s still pretty close to the big cities of El Paso (1½ hours), Albuquerque (2½ hours) and even Tucson, via Silver City (3 hours). From I-25, take exit 63 and NM 152 west to Hillsboro and San Lorenzo. A right onto NM 35 leads to Mimbres and eventually NM 15, the only route to Gila Cliff Dwellings.
142 miles which includes the 1½ hour drive from Gila Cliff Dwellings to Silver City.
Plan on a full day of driving and sightseeing. Gila Cliff Dwellings itself will take a couple of hours to explore.
Best Time to Visit
The area is pretty temperate so year-round is fine although winter brings icy conditions to roads and the Gila Cliff Dwellings trail. The path itself is a one-mile loop that’s fairly easy; however it does get steep in places.
Hillsboro has shops and a couple of restaurants and places to stay. Silver City is the major town in the area with all the amenities plus biking and gear rental and great local beer. Truth or Consequences is another option as it’s just 15 miles north of exit 63 off I-25.