Chimney Rock: National Historic Site

chimney rockLook south as you drive across U.S. 160 in southern Colorado, between Pagosa Springs and Durango. What appears to be a spire of rock rises from the landscape like a sword thrust through the earth’s crust.

You might glimpse a sign that informs you that the turnoff for Chimney Rock is near. Take it.

chimney rock
Chimney Rock is near the San Juan National Forest.

The site, open each year from May 15 through Sept. 30, should not be missed.

Yes, there are several formations in the greater Southwest named Chimney Rock, but this one has been a National Historic Site since 1970.

As you wind your way from the highway to the base of the twin spires, you pass through part of the San Juan National Forest that surrounds it. It’s classic high desert terrain – lots of rocks, yucca, native grasses and sometimes wildflowers.

The forest preserve provides a bit of a buffer between civilization and the ruins of the Ancestral Puebloan (also called Anasazi) people who once lived here – possibly an outpost of the well-known Mesa Verde. These people thrived here 1,000 years ago, then moved away for reasons unknown.

The remnants of more than 200 of their homes and ceremonial buildings remain.

The site is overseen by the U.S. Forest Service, but an intrepid corps of volunteers, part of the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, runs the daily tours and operates the site each summer.

You have three options for the self-guided tour. First, you can follow along on a printed interpretive brochure. The brochure contains all the sights you’ll see as you make your way along the trails.

You can also pick up an audio device from the Visitors’ Center. The device has a pre-recorded interpretation of the magnificent trails.

Finally, you have the option to download an app and then buy the audio-guided tour when you arrive. Then you can use your device to listen to the tour.

No matter which tour you choose, you’ll hop back in your vehicle and drive 2.5 miles up the steep mesa to begin your journey. Keep your eyes peeled as you wind along the narrow road. You’ll see lots of sights, and soon, it will be time to tackle a trail.

If you’re not in hiking condition, take the easy (handicapped accessible) Great Kiva Trail. It’s paved, and takes you along excavated and stabilized kivas (ceremonial sites) and pit houses.

The Great Kiva Trail reveals excavated kiva buildings. It might be an easy trail, but it’s full of stunning sites.

The Great Kiva Trail reveals excavated kiva buildings.

More intrepid visitors will follow a guide along the mile-long Pueblo Trail, which is sometimes very narrow, up a relatively steep incline to the top, where the most impressive ruins remain and where you can view the rock spires up close.

If you’re up to the challenge, you’ll also be rewarded with 360-degree views of twin spires and mountains. Instead of rushing back down to the Visitors’ Center, take your time to enjoy the experience. The rush you get when you immerse yourself in nature is unparalleled.

No matter which trail you choose, apply a little bug repellent before you hike. Certain times of the year, no-see-ums – tiny insects that bite and leave an itchy spot for weeks – will attack without you being very aware of it (until a few hours later). On sunny or hot days, wear a hat and sunscreen for protection. And always carry water with you.

Best of all, carry a camera, because you’re going to get some spectacular shots of the Chimney Rock itself once you reach the top.

If You Go

Where: Chimney Rock Archaeological Area is 3 miles south of U.S. 160 on Colorado 151. 3179 Colorado 151, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147

When: Open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. May 15-Sept. 30. Tours are at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. daily and last about 2 ½ hours. Tours may be canceled because of severe weather.

Bring a camera: the top of Chimney Rock provides excellent views.

Fees: $10 for adults, $5 for children 5-11, free for children under 5.

Reservations: Not required, except for groups of 10 or more.

Amenities: A picnic area, restrooms and a visitors’ center are at the entrance. Restrooms also are available at the upper parking lot, where guided tours begin.

Special events: See the Web site (below) for a list of full-moon programs and other special events.

Cautions: Pets are not allowed on tours. Be sure to apply bug repellent before you tour. Wear hiking boots or good walking shoes, a hat and sunscreen. Don’t forget water and your camera.

Information: Contact volunteers at P.O. Box 1662, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147; or go to; or call (970) 883-5359 May-September (on site) or (970) 264-2287 (office, all year).

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer who lives in Colorado Springs.