As it marks a decade of national monument status, Chimney Rock National Monument has received a new façade.
San Juan National Forest’s Chimney Rock National Monument opened a new visitor center May 15 marking a major development for the protected site. With the upgraded visitor center, the Forest Service aimed to create facilities that reflected the cultural value of the monument and were comparable to other national monuments as visitation swells.
“We’re really excited. It’s been a long time coming,” said Cody Cammack, Chimney Rock National Monument’s lead ranger and visitor information assistant.
Chimney Rock National Monument’s previous visitor center was a small cabin out of which the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, which leads the educational programming for the site, conducted its operations.
In the monument’s 2015 management plan and environmental impact statement, the U.S. Forest Service proposed the construction of new interpretive trails and visitor facilities. Cammack said the visitor center has been under construction for two or three years.
The visitor center has interpretive multimedia and interactive exhibits, as well as a gift shop run by CRIA. New displays take visitors through the people, history and environment of the site, which was one of the largest communities in Southwest Colorado during the Pueblo II period from 900 to 1150 A.D.
The Forest Service consulted Puebloan tribes during the development of the center, and it features quotes and audio from tribal members and artwork from Ronnie Cachini, a Zuni artist.
“We tried to do good work to recognize the modern Puebloan people and their connection to the site and represent them as best we could,” Cammack said.
Along with the facility, CRIA has expanded its interpretive activities and events, offering lectures, art classes and night programs, she said.
With the construction of the visitor center, the Forest Service intends to highlight the cultural resources of Chimney Rock National Monument and its significance for Indigenous communities in the Southwest.
Located off Colorado Highway 151 between Pagosa Springs and Bayfield, the 4,726-acre monument established by former President Barack Obama in 2012 protects about 200 homes and ceremonial buildings created by the ancestral Puebloan people linked to the Chacoan society and Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico.
The monument features, great kivas, pit houses and great houses, some of which have been excavated and reconstructed. It remains an important place for Puebloan tribes who maintain their connection to the site.
“We’re proud of this place and it’s an important part of our shared heritage in the area,” Cammack said. “We want to do our best to tell a story that is respectful and thoughtful and leaves space for people to have their own experience here.”
The upgraded visitor center is also meant to mirror the national monument facilities that many visitors are accustomed to from the National Park Service.
The National Park Service lists about 150 national monuments, the majority of which the Park Service operates. Chimney Rock National Monument is one of 13 run by the Forest Service, Cammack said.
“We are trying to look and feel like other national monuments as far as how we’re managed and what people expect,” she said.
San Juan National Forest’s improvements to the visitor center come as more visitors stop at the national monument as they make their way between Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes national parks.
In the last three years, visitation to Chimney Rock National Monument has almost doubled, Cammack said. An estimated 15,500 people visited the park in 2020.
“A lot of times people come in here just out of curiosity and find themselves really surprised by the amount of interpretive offerings we have, the incredible story we have to tell (and) the extraordinary structures on the upper mesa that are really lending life to the people that were here before,” she said.
In addition to the visitor center, San Juan National Forest also implemented a new fee system that started May 15 to help with operations, visitor services and maintenance costs as visitation grows.
Cars will be charged $20 and motorcycles $10 for a five-day activity pass to access the national monument. Entry for tribal members is free and interagency passes are valid.
Chimney Rock National Monument and CRIA are preparing for more visitors ahead of the major lunar standstill in the next couple of years. During the lunar standstill, which happens every 18.6 years, the moon aligns with the Chimney Rock pillars and Great House Pueblo at the site, according to the Chimney Rock National Monument website.
With its new visitor center, Chimney Rock National Monument will be ready to welcome those visitors and others who seek to learn more about the cultural resources of Southwest Colorado.
“There’s been a strong appreciation for many years, and I’m confident with these new changes we’ll be able to continue protecting it and sharing it moving forward,” Cammack said.