Chimney Rock National Monument is the lesser-known archeological gem between Durango and Pagosa Springs. It’s a sacred Puebloan site perched high on a mesa, with incredible panoramic views.
It may remind visitors of nearby Mesa Verde National Park. Although it represents a different period, they are both ancient communities carved in stone.
Part of what makes Chimney Rock National Monument so special is that it has not been substantially resettled, so a lot has been left intact for visitors to view and study.
Although it’s off the beaten path, the remains of this mysterious ancient town and breathtaking surrounding views make it well worth visiting.
Chimney Rock National Monument is an ancestral Puebloan site that housed a civilization about 1,000 years ago. It also functioned as an astrological observatory. It comprises 4,726 acres of the San Juan National Forest and includes an archeological site. In 2012 President Barack Obama proclaimed this area a national monument. The visitor center is open from May 15th to September 30th, and guided walking tours are offered daily.
Chimney Rock National Monument lies within the San Juan National Forest, between Durango and Pagosa Springs, Colorado. It is surrounded by the Southern Ute Indian Reservation. Chimney Rock and Companion Rock can be spotted from the highway.
Getting there: from Durango or Bayfield, head east on highway 160. After passing through the town of Piedra, head west of highway 151 for about 3 miles. Turn right onto Chimney Rock Road, then left onto Forest Road 617A.
From A.D. 925 to 1125, Chimney Rock National Monument was home to approximately 2,000 Pueblo Peoples. Today it represents one of the largest Pueblo II communities in Southwestern Colorado. The people that lived in the Chimney Rock settlement were hierarchical, with a priest class overseeing all inhabitants.
The site contains about 200 rooms, which were used for living, work, and ceremonies. The “Great House”, used mostly for ceremonies, consists of 36 rooms and 2 kivas. During ceremonies, it acted as a hotel for visitors coming from as far away as Chaco Canyon, 90 miles away. Five pithouses are presumed to have housed the workers who built the Great House. Materials used to build the Great House were hauled uphill by hand.
In 1125 the inhabitants of Chimney Rock abandoned the site, burning the buildings when they left. In 1970 the site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The first thing you’ll notice about this monument will likely be its namesake tower-like “chimney rock” and neighboring “companion rock”. These features stand 7,000 feet above sea level. Walk in the footsteps of the ancient Puebloans of Chaco Canyon. It’s relatively easy to imagine the landscape as it was a thousand years ago since the ancient pathways have remained unchanged.
Strolling along you can see 200 preserved ancient homes, some of which have been excavated for touring: a Great Kiva, a Pit House, a Multi-Family Dwelling, and a Chacoan-Style Great House Pueblo. Unexcavated structures are also scattered throughout and can be observed from the outside.
If you find yourself with extra time on your hands while visiting Chimney Rock National Monument, there are a handful of neighboring places worth visiting. Piedra Town, with its river and naturally-fed hot springs, is a popular attraction. Capote Lake in Pagosa Springs is a camping and fishing destination. And about 20 minutes driving south will bring you to Navajo Lake, New Mexico’s second-largest lake and a true haven for boaters.
Once you set foot in the Chimney Rock area, you’ll understand why this zone continues to hold such special significance for today’s Native American people. This culturally rich site gives insight into the Pueblan history, revealing a complex story about the people who lived here.
Since being designated a national monument fairly recently, it’s likely that the site will surpass its usual 12,000 yearly visitors. For the history buff, geology fan, aspiring astrologer, or any curious explorer — this is one monument not to be missed.