In the Footsteps of Native Americans – A Trip Back in Time
Visiting Chimney Rock National Monument, with its numerous ancient dwellings and sacred sites, is a powerful and inspiring experience – not only will you see the architecture of the Puebloan tribe dating back a thousand years and still preserved, but you will walk in their footsteps. Well-maintained trails lead through the 4,726 acres of the park – the entire scenic expanse of the monument is contained within the boundary of the San Juan National Forest and gained protected status under President Obama in 2012 – and knowledgeable park rangers and volunteer-run tour guides provide historical context as you make your way along the paths leading around and up to towering Chimney Rock.
From our downtown Pagosa Springs hotel, you’ll be just a 30-minute drive from this cultural landmark – step back into time, where Native American heritage comes alive.
Puebloans – In Tune With the Sky and the Land
As you take the scenic drive out of Pagosa Springs on Highway 160 and then a short stretch south on Highway 151, you’ll see Chimney Rock from afar, acting as a beacon to the Puebloan people who called this area home from 900-1,150 AD. Their tribal network extended from the Chaco Canyon in New Mexico through the Four Corners region (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah) into the southern Colorado Plateau, including the vast forests surrounding Pagosa Springs. Legend has it that on a clear day, the Puebloans could see the furthest reaches of their tribal lands from the high-altitude peak of Chimney Rock.
In addition to being a geological touchstone, Native Americans built their homes and ceremonial structures at Chimney Rock due to its unique alignment with astronomy. Experts at “reading the sky” centuries before the existence of telescopes, the Puebloans studied the precise movements of the stars, moon, and sun. They could chart how they moved relative to the two main rock towers at the monument – Chimney Rock and Companion Rock – and how this predicted weather patterns and rare astronomical phenomena. The most remarkable example of this was their ability to build their Great House – a massive structure of rooms on the top of the mesa where they celebrated celestial events – at precisely the right spot on the plateau to witness the Major Lunar Standstill, which only occurs every 18 years!
Studying the patterns of the sky also helped the Puebloans to forecast weather, which is critical in an arid outpost that only receives 12-15 inches of rain annually. Their “Skyland farming” technique – terracing rows of plants and maximizing yields by planting mutually beneficial crops together (corn, beans, and squash) – shows yet another way they were completely in sync with the natural world.
Tips for Your Visit and What to Expect at Chimney Rock National Monument
The official 2023 visiting season at Chimney Rock – when the main gates are open, tours are available, and staff are at the visitor center – runs from May 15th through October 15th. The charge to enter the monument is $20 per vehicle, available to purchase online or on-site with cash, and you’ll get 5-day access. Hours are 9 am - 4:30 pm daily, but you must arrive by 3:15 pm to enter, as that is the minimum time to complete a tour.
You’ll have the option of either doing a self-guided tour using a pamphlet provided by park staff or going on a tour led by volunteers from the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association (CRIA), a long-running non-profit dedicated to cultural education and preservation of the area. In addition to their daily interpretive outings, they offer several “special” tours throughout the season, including ones dedicated to the autumnal equinox, birding (look out for hawks, warblers, sparrows, and hummingbirds among many other species), geology, and flora. Due to its unique astronomical placement, Chimney Rock is particularly awe-inspiring when the moon shines brightest, the focus of CRIA’s “full moon programs” – these include a Native American flute performance, a 30-minute lecture, viewing of the sunset and moonrise from the summit, and hiking down after dark. The last full moon outing tour of 2023 occurs on September 29th and costs $20, with reservations available on their website.
Whether you take a self-guided or guided tour, start at the lower ½-mile Overlook Trail, which is easy, paved, ADA-accessible, and a great way to get acclimated to the terrain. Next, head out on the ¼-mile Mesa Village Trail, where you’ll see excavated pithouses, which housed small families in below-ground rock-encompassed structures. You’ll also pass by a Great Kiva, also built from sandstone, circular, and 40-plus feet in diameter, where larger tribal gatherings took place many centuries ago. A bit more challenging but worth the effort, the hiking highlight is the 1.5-mile Great House Trail, traversing the 7,620 summit right below Chimney Rock (you can’t climb on or near Chimney Rock, so this is the closest access). Standing at the impressive 35-room Puebloan Great House at the top, you’ll get breathtaking views that stretch forever, where Colorado's untouched beauty and cultural history converge.
After your time on the Chimney Rock National Monument trails, stop by the recently renovated visitor center, where you can see rare artifacts like Puebloan pottery, musical instruments, and jewelry, all discovered by archeologists over decades of researching the region’s Native American roots.
If you visit outside the usual summer and early fall season, the main entrance gate from Highway 151 will be locked. However, you can hike 3 miles each way on the dirt road, but only with proper gear, fitness, and outdoor knowledge of the area. During the off-season, several Native American tribes devoted to Chimney Rock – including the Hopi and 25 other tribes – use the site for ceremonies and dances, so pay respect if you visit during one of their gatherings.
Stay at our Pagosa Springs Hotel, where the gorgeous landscapes and fascinating history of Chimney Rock National Monument are right down the road!