Chimney Rock National Monument in southwest Colorado is a must-visit destination for those who enjoy exploring Ancestral Puebloan sites and interesting geological formations. But you don’t have to take my word for it: Chimney Rock National Monument has twice earned Trip Advisor’s Traveler’s Choice Award.
Chimney Rock was established as a national monument in 2012 to preserve the culturally significant Ancestral Puebloan structures and is one of the few monuments managed by the National Forest Service rather than the National Park Service.
The monument covers seven square miles in the San Juan National Forest that encompass 200 homes, kivas, and other buildings. It is the highest of the Chacoan outlier sites, locations related to the Chaco civilization that you can explore at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
My strongest memory of our 2021 visit is the feeling of accomplishment (and relief!) in reaching the highest point visitors can access: the Great House Pueblo, the closest spot to the dramatic sandstone spire for which the park is named, Chimney Rock, and nearby Companion Rock. My husband and I posed for a photo marking our successful ascent to 7,620 feet with a handy sign the monument provides.
It wasn’t only the elevation that made the hike challenging, but the narrow sandstone trail with steep drop-offs on either side . . . and no handrails! Sure, the trail is less than a mile round-trip, but I did wish I had brought my walking sticks instead of my camera with a long, heavy telephoto lens. Visitors should make sure they will be comfortable hiking at elevation under those conditions before heading up the trail. Fortunately, that’s not the only part of the monument where you can see ruins.
What to See at Chimney Rock National Monument
Chimney Rock was home to Ancestral Puebloan people from about AD 925 to 1125. The larger Chaco settlement is around 100 miles to the southwest and evidence shows a strong connection between the two sites. Both, in fact, were important astrological locations for the Ancestral Puebloan people. At Chimney Rock, they could observe the Major Lunar Standstill from the Great House, seeing the moon rise between the two pinnacles every 18.6 years (more about that later).
Here you can visit kivas, where important ceremonies and meetings once took place, as well as pueblos, pithouses, and other buildings constructed of rock. The Great Kiva at Chimney Rock is quite large — 44 feet in diameter (a kiva is called “great” as long as it is more than 35 feet in diameter).
My husband has long been fascinated by archaeological sites and found our self-guided tour of Chimney Rock to be a great precursor to our visit to the largest site, nearby Mesa Verde. For those in the know, it is interesting to look closely at the construction of the buildings, which provides clues about the people who made them. Here, the straight walls with square corners, pecked or hand-chipped rock faces, and the design of structure show that the Great House was built in the Chacoan style, helping researchers know that it was built by people from Chaco or under their direction.
Of course, you are only seeing the stone bases of the buildings. You have to imagine the rest, the upper walls and ceilings made from wooden poles. However, some researchers believe that the Great Kiva was either an open-air structure or was never completed, based on the lack of wood at the site.
Some of the buildings have been excavated and restored, while the Guardhouse was researched and then buried. The Guardhouse, like some of the other buildings here, has a Chacoan style which has a hybrid construction of a circular pithouse and a rectangular masonry room. It was located across the narrow trail leading to the Great House and may have in fact acted as a barrier to prevent the uninvited from accessing the kiva at the top of the trail.
While at Chimney Rock, you can also enjoy the flora and fauna of the monument, including wildflowers, butterflies, and birds such as the once-endangered peregrine falcons that nest on Companion Rock.
It is important to know that you are not allowed to climb on the structures nor take any artifacts you may find. We’ve visited many of these sites and there’s always at least one person who feels the rules don’t apply and wants a photo taken from atop a kiva wall or in an off-limits area. For your safety, access to Chimney Rock and Companion Rock is not allowed. Don’t eat on the trails or near the sites to prevent attracting rodents and don’t smoke while visiting.
Keep in mind, too, that these sites are considered to be spiritually significant to many Native American tribes as the homes of their ancestors. Be respectful and know that all the rules are in place to protect both the cultural sites as well as visitors.
Major Lunar Standstill at Chimney Rock
The Ancestral Puebloans understood and tracked the sun and moon cycles including solstices, equinoxes, and major and minor lunar standstills. Chaco Culture National Historical Park has excellent examples of this.
At Chimney Rock, geology and astronomy combine to provide two sandstone spires between which to observe the Major Lunar Standstill. What is it and does the moon really stand still? We asked an astronomer to explain it.
Dr. Charles Miller said, “Despite the name Major Lunar Standstill, the moon never stops moving or appears to stand still. Over the course of a month, the moon rises in a range of directions along the horizon from northeast to southeast. This total range of directions increases and decreases in an 18.6-year cycle. At the Major Lunar Standstill, the cycle is at its maximum, and once a month the moon rises at its northernmost direction. Only then, the moonrise appears between Chimney Rock and Companion Rock as seen from the Great House Pueblo.”
The next Major Lunar Standstill takes place from 2024 – 2026 and the monument may hold events, either virtually or in person, to allow visitors to observe it. Check their website for more information.
Thoughts to Ponder
If I thought the trail to the Great House was challenging carrying my camera, I couldn’t imagine making that climb with heavy stone blocks to construct the buildings. How did the Ancestral Puebloans manage to bring the materials they needed to build and live in this and other locations throughout the Four Corners region?
Below, there are rich lands that can support agriculture, but here everything to sustain life, including water, would need to be carried. Was the Great House only used at certain times, such as for observing the Major Lunar Standstill? Was it only for the elite? It’s interesting to note that wood beam samples from the Great House date to AD 1076 and AD 1093, both years of lunar standstills.
Many of today’s Pueblo tribes have connections to the Ancestral Puebloan people who once lived here. While the question often asked is why the early people moved on from a location such as this that had abundant resources available nearby, it is possible that they used this location simply as a stop along the way to their final destinations.
Visiting Chimney Rock
Chimney Rock National Monument is located between Pagosa Springs and Durango, Colorado. It is open from mid-May to mid-September. Visitors who come in the off-season can access the area, but have to park outside the gate and walk in.
There is a $10 per motorcycle and $20 per car fee for a five-day pass to visit Chimney Rock National Monument. Those with an America the Beautifu pass, plus registered tribal members, can enter the park at no charge. Dogs are not allowed on the trails.
When we explored Chimney Rock National Monument in 2021, the nonprofit Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, which works with the National Forest Service, had a gift shop in a small cabin near the parking area. In May 2022, a large new visitor center was opened with exhibits interpreting the cultural and natural history of the monument.
The Forest Service worked with many area tribes and pueblos for input on interpreting the cultural sites. The exhibits include quotes and audio recordings of tribal members. A metal sculpture at the monument that depicts three Native women and the Three Sisters, beans, squash, and corn, was created by Zuni artist Ronnie Cachini.
In addition to operating the gift shop, the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association offers tours and special activities at the monument, including full moon and night sky events, guided tours, summer solstice and autumn equinox programs, art programs, and more. Check their online schedule to learn more and register for an activity.
When you’re exploring the Four Corners, don’t neglect a visit to Chimney Rock National Monument . . . and don’t forget your walking sticks!