Chimney Rock Archaeological Area

South Central Colorado

By Curt Van Fange

It seemed like a harsh environment. Scrub oak, pinon pine and juniper trees mixed with sagebrush dotted the landscape. Dust spiraled towards the sky. Dry red dirt made up most of the semi-arid land below us. I couldn't see any water in the riverbed. The weather was hot.

It was beyond me why anybody would want to live in such a hostile place. But high on a formation of dark gray shale, next to two huge sandstone spires – "chimney rocks" – stand the remnants of an ancient Anasazi village, the best known part of the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area, located in south central Colorado.



Anasazi: a Navajo word for "ancient ones." The name evokes haunting images of prehistoric people who roamed and occupied the deserts of the Four Corners area. At the turn of the first millennium, when Leif Eriksson was exploring Vineland, the Anasazi people were branching out in all directions and building farming and ceremonial villages in the region surrounding the point which New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado hold in common.

The Chacoan ruins of northwestern New Mexico. The cliff dwellings of southwestern Mesa Verde. The settlement at Chimney Rock. Thousands of other sites. All rooted in the mystery of the Anasazi.

Chimney Rock, a fantastic setting peaked by the two spires which protrude one thousand feet above the valley floor, is the most isolated of all the Chacoan "outliers," those communities related specifically to the Chaco Canyon branch of the Anasazi. Within the six square miles of the archaeological area are found the Great House, Ridge House, Great Kiva and some two hundred other undisturbed structures. Architecture, pottery and other artifacts link this outpost (one hundred miles from Chaco Canyon) with the other Chacoan sites, and they give archaeologists clues to settlement and daily life.

But mysteries abound. Why did an agricultural people from the desert floor colonize the high elevation (over seven thousand nine hundred feet) and endure the harsh conditions of an upper mesa? Why did they build such imposing structures on a high ridge so far from the nearest river and so far above the closest arable ground? Why did the towering spires, called "Piedra Parada" (Standing Rock) by the Spanish, entice the Anasazi to build such large structures in such an inaccessible location?

Ever since excavation of the site began in the early 1920s, archaeologists have worked to find the answers, which have not come easy. There is, of course, no written language to tell the story. Even rock art, common throughout much of the Anasazi world, is absent at this site. Painstaking excavation and persistent study at Chimney Rock have painted a picture of an agrarian society well versed in economic exchange with neighboring communities and the art of building and engineering. But still the question persists: Why build in such an extreme area?

With the advent of archaeo-astronomy – the study of early cultures’ relationship with celestial bodies – new theories have emerged as to why the Anasazi may have built here. Dr. J. McKim Malville of the University of Colorado thinks that the Chimney Rock structures may have been inspired by a "lunar standstill," a time when the moon reaches its northernmost extreme of its ascension over the earth’s horizon (somewhat like a summer solstice). Surveys have shown that the Great House falls into alignment with the moon when it rises between the two pinnacles during a thirty-month "northern moon standstill." Dates of construction determined by dendrochronology (tree ring dating) place the building’s construction between A.D. 1076 and A.D. 1094. Perhaps an unforgettable lunar standstill event during those years prompted the location of the settlement.


Regardless of why the site exists, it provides us with an insight into the mysterious past of a prehistoric desert people. And what an insight it is. The walking trail at the ridge top extends one thousand eight hundred lineal feet with a rise in elevation of almost two hundred feet. Both excavated and undisturbed ruins are scattered along the length of the trail. At the lower end of the ridge are ruins of the Great Kiva, a large, circular, semi-subterranean chamber used for ritualistic and secular activities. At the other end of the high ridge is the Great House Pueblo. More than seventy five great houses have been discovered across the Four Corners area. The Great House at Chimney Rock is on the northeast edge of the Anasazi culture, and it is an indisputable example of Chacoan-style architecture. Scattered in between are remnants of ridge houses, guard sites, stone basins and pit dwellings.

Responsibility for the care, protection, and preservation of the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area is shared by the Pagosa Ranger District, USDA Forest Service and the San Juan Mountains Association. The Chimney Rock Interpretive Program is operated by the staff and by volunteers of the Pagosa Chapter of the San Juan Mountains Association.

The site is located sixteen miles west of Pagosa Springs, Colorado and three miles south of U. S. 160, on Colorado 151. Open from May 15 through September 30, it offers informative two and a half hour guided tours that depart from the visitor center at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m., seven days a week. The fee for adults and children twelve and over is five dollars. The fee for younger children is discounted. Tickets, along with an assortment of books, literature and other items, can be purchased at the visitor center. It is recommended that visitors wear comfortable, sturdy walking shoes and a hat. You should also bring along drinking water. Dress for the outdoors and bring a camera or plan to use your phone's camera.

A good source for learning more about Chimney Rock is Florence C. Lister’s In the Shadow of the Rocks, published by the University Press of Colorado in 1993.

Chacoan Ruins
Mesa Verde



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