State Route 15 is a remote drive with twisting switchbacks and piney mountaintop lookouts. After a full five hours, I made a right turn onto a dirt road about four miles south of the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument toward my destination, the hot springs camp.
This is not the RV park but a small, primitive campground with three hot spring pools. For $5 per person, you can camp overnight between the river and the springs. It's a laid-back, hippie affair with about 10 campsites. They each have a picnic table. There's a spigot for potable water back where you pay your fee—and that's about it. But really, who needs more?
Just pitch your tent in the soft, silty sand by the river and get down to serious relaxing. The pools have natural mud bottoms and the temps range from 98 degrees to about 102 degrees. Each holds four to six people.
After a night of unwinding in the pools, I ventured up the road to the monument. The fee is $3 per adult, payable in a drop box at the cliff dwelling site or by credit card at the museum up the road. It's a good idea to wear decent walking shoes and have something like a backpack for carrying your camera and your water, as the caves have several ladders to climb.
As you walk, it is impossible to not marvel at the engineering.
The 700-year-old cliff dwellings are accessed from a three-mile loop hike that goes up the canyon. The first part is well-shaded and crosses back and forth across a stream. Once you're on the cliff face where the dwellings are, the area is more exposed and much hotter. In each of the main caves there is a National Park Service guide who is happy to offer more background about the dwellings and what's inside, such as petroglyphs and bowls once used for cooking that were carved into the rock. Doors and windows give you an idea of the small stature of the people who inhabited this place.
The path away from the caves back to the start is all downhill with pretty views of the river and the mountains. As you walk, it is impossible to not marvel at the engineering. It must have been tough to carry water and supplies up that steep canyon. How did they do it?
Once back at the Visitor Center, you can head up the Gila River to more wild hot springs. Lightfeather is a 20-minute walk away and popular Jordan Hot Spring is a six or eight mile hike, depending on which trailhead you use.
There are a few primitive National Park Service campgrounds in this area, but the key word is primitive. Check the websites and don't expect running water at any of them.
Be prepared to treat the water or bring enough—at least a gallon per person per day—for your entire stay. And pack your garbage out with you. Double bag that trash!
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