Chimney Rock, located in the San Juan National Forest in Southwest Colorado and encompassing 4,726 acres, has long been viewed as a place of intrigue and wonder, where the Chacoan people lived 1,000 years ago.
Saturday marked the 10th anniversary of Chimney Rock as a national monument, officially declared as such in 2012 by then President Barack Obama, using the Antiquities Act established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect lands of cultural, historical or scientific importance. Chimney Rock is the 12th national monument managed by the U.S. Forest Service, according to its website, in collaboration with tribal, community, state and federal partners.
“There were so many advantages that came with Chimney Rock being made into a national monument,” said Scott Owen, public affairs officer for San Juan National Forest. “We got funding for our capital improvement plan. We got funding for our new visitors center and amphitheater. Before we built all this, we just had a little cabin up the hill where we did everything. That was it. Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, our partners, has been instrumental in all this.”
Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, a volunteer-based organization, works with a special-use permit through the National Forest Service. The group conducts guided tours, monitors and maintains sites and educates the public about the importance of protecting the sites, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation’s website.
“They helped make this all possible,” Owen said. “We now have the resources and the seasonal employees to better protect the area.”
About 400 visitors had shown up to Chimney Rock by noon Saturday, and Owen said he and his staff members had to scramble to find parking spaces for everyone.
“We were breaking down molehills in the fields, trying to clear them for parking spaces,” he said. “But everything has gone smoothly so far. The only thing that’s gone wrong is that our falcon handler didn’t show. She’s sick.”
Those who did show up were the musicians and dancers from various southwestern tribes, including members of the Acoma, Dine, Jemez and Southern Ute nations, who dazzled audiences with their music, elaborate and intricate costumes, and celebratory dancing.
Heritage Program Manager Michelle Stevens was excited about the high turnout for the celebration. She hoped visitors would learn many things about Chimney Rock’s rich history.
“You can’t help but be moved,” she said. “It’s a special place. The way they built those ruins, that ancient Puebloan architecture. The fact that they built those dwellings way up there, where there’s no water. Imagine having to hike up and down all the time just to get water from the river.”
Visitors to the Chimney Rock can follow that same path the Chacoans took to get to their various destinations at an altitude of 7,000 feet: the Great Kiva, four partially restored pithouses, a Great-House Chacoan pueblo and a multifamily dwelling. Chimney Rock covers 7 square miles and preserves 200 ancient homes and ceremonial buildings.
The Chacoan people’s abandonment of Chimney Rock is believed to have occurred around 1130 A.D., though the reasons as to why have long been debated.
“Maybe they just moved on,” Stevens said. “Maybe there were environmental or societal changes. Maybe they depleted the resources around here. Who knows? The tribes around here have their own stories. They don’t think of the site in terms of abandonment. The spirit of their people is still here. Part of their culture is still here. It’s considered a Chacoan outlier that fits into a bigger network. They see Chimney Rock as being part of a much larger landscape.”
On Friday, the day before the anniversary celebration, the people of the Puebloan tribes came to Chimney Rock to celebrate their cultural affiliation and connection to the site away from the attention of outsiders. Even Southern Ute royalty were in attendance.
“That’s what I love about this place,” Stevens said. “The land and everything it means to them. It’s multilayered connection to today’s Puebloans. And also, it’s ecology. It’s just so beautiful, and it will be enjoyed by future generations to come.”
Owen agrees with Stevens’ sentiment.
“I love seeing the joy on people’s faces when they first see Chimney Rock,” he said with a smile. “That sense of awe. That sense of wonder.”
An earlier version of this story misstated the Chaco people as having lived at Chimney Rock for 1,000 years, instead of 1,000 years ago. It also misstated certain Arizonan and New Mexican tribes as being from Colorado.