Rabbitbrush Rambler: Nearby Chimney Rock National Monument

Several years ago, some friends in Alamosa and I enjoyed a one-day outing over and back across Wolf Creek Pass to visit Chimney Rock. That day, our destination, a few miles from Pagosa Springs, took us to a turnoff down paved Highway 151and then to a good gravel road to reach Chimney Rock.

Probably many boaters and fishermen in past years have whizzed past this gravel road when they were on their way to Navajo Reservoir. But this turnoff now leads to a national monument that should be a goal for anyone who wants to learn about the early occupants of this region.

When my friends and I went there that day, we found a charming little building in the San Juan National Forest where a pair of friendly volunteer ladies greeted us with a brochure about what we would see, had us sign a register, and advised us to carry some water as the trail was uphill and sunny, which still is good advice. 

What we found at the top was a mesa with barren rock, some man-made rock features, and a fine view to distant peaks. A couple of interpretive signs and the brochure provided the basic information that caused us to want to learn more about this place and its occupants.

It is not hard to imagine other-worldly goings-on, unlike anything in the nearby region, and we wonder what in the world, or out of it, were those people doing up there? Who were they? What were they like? Why were they here? Archaeologists and anthropologists continue to seek answers.

At Chimney Rock the newcomers constructed a kiva, a Great House “apartment” building, a pit house and hundreds of other structures. They made pottery, they hunted, and down below they probably farmed. Perhaps, as is theorized, they calculated their growing season with astronomical observations through the twin pinnacles and conducted rites in the kiva, which had important significance for the people’s spiritual and physical survival.

Here, visitors can begin a mental journey that begins about 1,000 or more years ago. This outlier is the farthest northward location where Ancestral Puebloan people came from Chaco Canyon, itself an amazing place in Northern New Mexico that is called Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.

Now Chimney Rock is a national monument, established by an Act of Congress in 2012 and officially opened to the public this year during the summer season. The site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places as long ago as 1970, with well-deserved recognition,

During the years while USFS provided protection, the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association and its volunteers offered opportunities for the public to learn more about this unusual place, but it needed the kind of support that a national monument can provide, with amenities, protections, enforcements and publicity. The local folks and the Forest Service that understood its value for all those years in the meantime deserve our admiration and thanks.

Visitors are welcome at Chimney Rock National Monument during the summer season. School children are visiting it, and the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association sponsors guided tours and special activities such as a dance performance by children from New Mexico’s pueblos. 

Here in the San Luis Valley, we tend to overlook our connections — geographically, culturally, and historically — with the pueblos of New Mexico which are so nearby and which some of our own Valley’s residents share. Chimney Rock offers a unique opportunity to learn more about this heritage.

The White House has called for a review of the national monuments that have been designated in the past two decades. All of us voters in this southern Colorado area and other parts of the nation as well should tell U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and Congress that Chimney Rock is one of the newer national monuments that definitely should retain its status as a national monument.