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Hiking through the Gila Cliff Dwellings under the moon and stars

Exploring through the awe-inspiring Gila Cliff Dwellings during the day can magically transport a visitor back hundreds of years in time. It takes just a little imagination to hear the ancient footsteps and see the lives of the builders with the buildings they left behind.

To visit them at night, under a full moon, with flickering lanterns simulating fires in the dwellings, is almost an other-worldly encounter.

“It’s a very unique experience,” said Blake Metcalf, an interpretive ranger at the U.S. National Park set at the edge of the Gila Wilderness.

Several years ago the National Park Service started the evening walks in the summer, but this year the staff at Gila Cliff Dwellings (nps.gov/gicl/index.htm) began to promote it more and plan to expand the program in coming years, Metcalf said.

“On a daily basis, we’ve definitely generated a lot of interest in the special programs,” he said.

The next full moon hike comes Sept. 25. Reservations are required, with space for about 30 people.

“What the hike entails is we go up into the cliff dwellings at night during the full moon,” Metcalf said. “It’s a three-hour tour that starts at the trail head and leads folks into the dwellings and back. We try to give a narrative of what the Mogollon people might have experienced in their night travels over 700 years ago. We illuminate the dwelling to give the illusion of fires inside.”

Built in from 1260 to 1280, archaeologists have suggested that eight to 10 families lived in the dwellings until the early 1300s. About 42 rooms fill five naturally eroded alcoves. Wooden beams dating back to the original construction remain in place.

Metcalf, who also is in charge of the park’s astronomy program, said he incorporates discussions of the night skies into his hike.

“Some of the things I cover, I get into stars for navigation, and talk about a few constellations that can be seen from the cliff dwelling canyon,” he said.

The rangers also tell stories about how the Mogollon people lived there more than seven centuries ago.

“We have no idea of the stories they told, but the modern day puebloan stories have been passed down through the culture through the generations and so we can surmise that something similar probably transpired 700 years ago,” Metcalf said.

The park, which covers 533 acres, also has a fledgling night sky program, with its second event coming up Oct. 6.

“Basically, we’re in the middle of America’s first national wilderness,” he said. “It’s one of the darkest night skies in the continental United States.”

It is a part of the move to create new ways of bringing history alive, Metcalf said.

“It’s another way to connect to the cultures of the past,” he said. “We relate to the at night skies, because it’s one that’s been shared for generations in this area.”

The night sky program just started this year, with the desire to grow it significantly in the future, Metcalf said.

“Especially since a dark night sky is kind of a rare phenomenon,” he said. “It’s estimated that eight of 10 people in the country will never live in a place where they will ever see the Milky Way. We get more innocent questions. One visitor was surprised that meteors were made out of stone. In addition to showcasing our night sky, we will help visitors’ understanding of what’s really out there.”

The park has several telescopes and a local volunteer brings several of his personal telescopes as well as large binoculars.

“We’re working on getting an international dark sky designation,” Metcalf said. “We hope through the idea of the program to teach or share what’s in the night sky beyond the constellations. We want to show galactic views and nebulae and star clusters.”

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