The scientific tourist #242 — Chimney Rock National Monument

Today you get a quick overview of the U.S.’ newest National MonumentChimney Rock, in southwestern Colorado. Up until a few weeks ago, it was simply known as the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area. But on September 21, 2012, President Obama used his authority under the American Antiquities Act of 1906 to proclaim it a National Monument (legislation to do the same had bipartisan support, but got mired down in Congressional politics).

Getting to Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock doesn’t look like much from a distance — just two buttes on a ridge (the skinny one on the right is Chimney Rock itself, while the one in the middle of the image is Companion Rock). But this ridge happens to have a very interesting alignment — every 18.6 years, during the northern lunar standstill, the moon rises between the two rocky spires as seen from further west along the ridge. This alignment was so important to ancient ancestral Puebloans about 1,000 years ago that they built more than 200 homes and ceremonial buildings at the site. As many as 2,000 people may have lived here between 925 and 1125 AD.

Chimney Rock was originally excavated in the early 1920’s, and designated an Archaeological Area and National Historical Site in 1970. Since then, the site has seen intensive investigation by archaeologists and paleoastronomers, as well as repair and restoration work on the site’s major structures. The latest designation assures that the 4,700 acres (19 square km) of the site will continue to be protected, while allowing for more visitors, and for traditional uses by Puebloan tribes.


Site map courtesy of U.S. National Park Service

Prior to the designation, about 12,000 people ventured out to the site in an average year; this number is now expected to rise significantly. Presumably the site will also at some point be open to visitors for more of the year as well (currently, it’s only open between May 15 and September 30). In any event, you can only visit most of the site as part of a guided tour — I doubt this will change, as the most interesting parts of the site are accessed via an unimproved trail on a natural causeway (only a meter or two wide in places, with no guard rails):

The causeway

As you can imagine, it’s not the sort of trail that’s well suited to people with mobility issues, or who have problems with heights. Once you get through the causeway, though, you’re in for a treat (several, actually). First, you can catch your breath while taking in the view at this spot — the Guard House Site. Moving along, you get to walk around this interesting construction — the Great Pueblo (with two kivas and 36 other ground-floor rooms):

The rooms

Built around 1076 AD, the Great Pueblo is a bit out of place here, as its architecture looks like that at Chaco Canyon, some 90 miles / 145 km to the south. Meanwhile, the rest of the architecture at Chimney Rock looks more like that at nearby Mesa Verde. This makes Chimney Rock the farthest northeast Chacoan “outlier” site yet found.

The rocks

Moving along the ridge, you reach the foundations of an old Forest Service fire watch tower — thankfully now removed. This is where you’ll want to be for the next lunar standstill in 2022 (so, plenty of time to make travel arrangements!).

For those short on time, short of breath (the site’s some 7,600 feet / 2,300 meters above sea level), or with mobility issues, you can skip the causeway and spires and tour some sites lower down on the ridge.

Room block

The 1/3 mile (540 meters) “Great Kiva Trail Loop” is barrier free, has a gentle 8% grade, and loops around an excavated pit house (above), as well as a number of unexcavated ruins. At the end of a short spur off the loop is the Great Kiva, 44 feet (13 meters) across. While laid out in a fairly typical style for a great kiva, in one way it was apparently built differently from all the kivas yet found at Chacoan or Mesa Verde style sites — it seems to have had no roof!

The Great Kiva

Even closer to the parking lot is Ridge House. It consists of two rectangular rooms, and three circular rooms — but these latter rooms were likely not kivas (round rooms used for ceremonies), as they don’t have many of the usual ceremonial features, but did contain household items.

Ridge House

So while Chimney Rock may not yet be a household name, if you’re planning a summer trip to / through the Four Corners region, I can heartily recommend it as an excellent stop. You’ll need to allocate a few hours for it (at least, if you take the guided tour), but it’s well worth the time — maybe along with a visit to Mesa Verde and the La Garita caldera?

This entry was posted in History, Humanity, Sci / Tech Tourism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.