While there is a ton to do in Pagosa Springs itself, its location in south-central Colorado lends itself to exploring a lot of nearby amazing places… and this is one great day trip from Pagosa Springs!
Pagosa Springs is a few hours from Great Sand Dunes National Park to the east, Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico to the south, and Durango and Mesa Verde National Park to the west.
One of our favorite day trips from Pagosa Springs takes you to two beautiful Ancestral Puebloan sites: Chimney Rock and Aztec Ruins national monuments. You can even loop back through the town of Durango before heading back to Pagosa Springs.
It’s easily a full day’s drive but that gives you plenty of time to hike and explore both sites before heading into town for a refreshing beverage or two!
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Chimney Rock National Monument
Let’s start our loop heading west on US 160 to Chimney Rock National Monument. Located 30 minutes west of Pagosa Springs, Chimney Rock NM is an easy visit just for the morning if you want to do it on its own.
Chimney Rock NM is a unique mesa with two rock “chimneys” that mark it as a distinctive landmark for miles around. At first glance, you might feel like you have already seen all there is to see from the road. That is not the case at all.
Aside from the spectacular views of both the unique rock formations and surrounding valleys, the mesa is also home to Ancestral Puebloan ruins.
Touring Chimney Rock
In order to explore the ruins and the top of the mesa, you must take a tour, which costs $12/person. The tour takes you through two trails: the Mesa Village Loop and the Great House Pueblo Trail.
The Mesa Village Loop is a 1/4-mile paved loop through ruins of several pit houses, which are houses dug partially into the earth with masonry walls. Among the pit houses, there are middens, where trash was discarded, and a few small reservoirs used to catch rainwater.
One of the great mysteries of Chimney Rock is why the Ancient Puebloans built homes here. There is no ready water supply other than the Piedra River, several miles away. That meant during dry months, the residents here had to haul water up from the river to fill the reservoirs.
You will also find the Great Kiva, a large circular building designed to house large groups of people. It is likely the Great Kiva was used for social gatherings and religious ceremonies but archeologists don’t know for sure.
In all, the Mesa Village Loop is a brief, easy trail with some nice views and a lot of important history.
Ascending the Great House Pueblo Trail
The other trail at Chimney Rock NM, the Great House Pueblo Trail, is about a mile round-trip and has a 200-foot elevation gain. It is also far rockier and more difficult to handle than the Mesa Village Loop. Still, the hike is not that bad if you can handle a few steep, rocky sections.
The view, however, is more than worth the extra sweat to get to the top. The mesa narrows a bit and it drops off on both sides. It is plenty wide enough for the trail but it makes for great views.
The first stop on the way up is the Ridge House, a pit house that seems to have been enlarged by its owners beyond the normal pit house construction. Following the trail, you will come across several other unrestored pit homes before getting to the Guard House.
The Guard House was situated at the narrowest point of the trail and was likely used to control access to the Great House.
The Great House has several indications that it is Chacoan in origin, tying the settlement at Chimney Rock to the greater Chacoan culture, including Aztec Ruins NM, our next stop on this day trip.
Based upon the orientation of the Great House and several of the other structures atop the mesa, it appears the builders were sky-watchers and that might be one of the main reasons this area was settled despite its distance from a ready water source or agricultural fields.
The Great House is oriented to line up with the moon when it rises between the two spires of Chimney Rock. Another kiva is aligned when the sun passes through the two spires.
Beyond the Great House is a fantastic view of the two spires themselves and is more than worth the hike up.
Plan on spending about two hours touring Chimney Rock NM.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Your next stop on this day trip from Pagosa Springs is Aztec Ruins National Monument.
From Chimney Rock NM, turn right on Colorado 151 and take that to Ignacio and then turn south. I recommend driving all the way down to Navajo Lake State Park in New Mexico and then turning west towards Aztec but you can turn west on County Road 110.
This will loop you down to Aztec, New Mexico. You will find restaurants and gas stations in Aztec, so there are plenty of places to grab lunch.
Once you get to Aztec Ruins NM, you will find an extensive Ancestral Puebloan settlement along the Animas River. Like Chimney Rock NM, Aztec Ruins is part of the larger Chacoan culture. UNESCO recognized it as a World Heritage Site in 1987.
The river supplied many of the materials used in construction. The Park Service had a great exhibit on how the Ancient Puebloans made use of the materials found in this lush area.
The first stop on the self-guided tour of the ruins is the reconstructed Great Kiva. This large structure allows you to see what archeologists guess the inside of the building looked like. In a word, it’s impressive.
From there, the tour takes you into the ruins themselves. It allows you to walk through some of the rooms which still have the original ceiling over them. You might even find some bats roosting in some of the rooms!
In all, we spent about an hour at Aztec Ruins NM. We would have likely spent longer here but COVID-19 closed the visitor center.
Heading north out of town on US 550 will take you to Durango, the last stop on this day trip.
Finding Refreshment on a Day Trip from Pagosa Springs
Durango is a really cool college town in southwestern Colorado with a ton of history as a railroad depot for local mining operations.
The town is famous for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which runs north to the mines and is regarded as one of the prettiest trips on earth. Unfortunately, COVID-19 shut it down during our trip. No worries, there’s a lot to do in Durango and we have plenty of reason to return.
We decided to find a refreshing beer at one of the local breweries and chose Carver’s Brewing Company, the first brewpub in Durango. It started as bakery but transformed into a brewery in the 1980s.
Bonnie and her sister, Molly, tried a flight of various beers while I enjoyed one of their Jack Rabbit Pale Ales, along with a tasty pretzel.
We loved that they had plenty of outdoor seating during the pandemic plus we got to enjoy downtown Durango. Bonnie and Molly decided to do a little shopping and I got have another beer! Perfect!
We also headed over to Durango Craft Spirits to taste some of their Cinder Dick Colorado Straight Bourbon Whiskey. So tasty!
From there we hopped on US 160 and headed east back to Pagosa Springs.
Final Thoughts on this Day Trip from Pagosa Springs
We really enjoyed our day trip from Pagosa Springs. We made the best of the restrictions imposed by COVID-19 and got to see some really cool sites.
In particular, I really enjoyed Chimney Rock NM. Even if you don’t do the other stops on this trip, I recommend taking a few hours and heading out to visit this unique site.
We also really wanted to spend more time in Durango. That can be a destination unto itself and with its proximity to Mesa Verde National Park, I imagine we will be spending more time in Durango soon.
This trip was just part of the fun we had while visiting Pagosa Springs. Be sure to read Bonnie’s article on spending time in this wonderful town along with my upcoming article on visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park.