I have a “Loving Colorado” goal each year: To explore a new-to-me place, and to visit an old favorite. As I’ve stated elsewhere in this column, my overall life plan includes being a “Professional Coloradan” — an amusing fantasy that involves printing business cards that state this — so I’m pretty serious about this endeavor. It’s a little like a birder’s “Big Year,” except it involves spotting all the wonders of our state.

This year’s trip was one of the best ever. Indeed, it may be time to get a vacay on your calendar, because something magical is afoot in Colorado. Here are some clues: It’s something we have in common with Stonehenge, and it’s something you can see for the next two years (otherwise you’ll have to wait 18 years more). 

In between Durango and Pagosa Springs lies Chimney Rock National Monument, and within it are the ancient ruins of an Ancient Puebloan community, built below the two pillars of rock that rise into the sky. Like the better-known ruins at nearby Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, these sturdy pit houses and kivas made of pale stones are stunning in their tight masonry and sheer range — an estimated six million stones moved by hand, likely serving a regional population larger than what exists in the area today. 

Pretty magical, to be sure. But there’s something else going on here — a relatively recent discovery, and one which took many trained eyes to see. The Great House, consisting of two kivas and living and storage spaces, was built purposefully in this place so as to capture a rare celestial event, one that is seen only every 18 years, and which involves our moon. 

When I first started reading about a Major Lunar Standstill, I was a bit skeptical. How had I not heard of such a thing, sky lover that I am? Certainly, we all know the sun has a standstill: Solstice, Sol meaning “sun” and stit meaning “stop,” and solstice is the day when the sun “pauses” in the sky and begins its return. But the moon, too, has a pause, called Lunistice. Surely all of us have tracked the moon as it moves from full to gibbous to crescent, but the moon is also moving very slowly and subtly across the horizon, a cycle that takes 18.6 years to complete. When it reaches its apogee, it appears to rise in the same area for about three years, a period known as the Major Lunar Standstill. 

Here’s what really blows my mind: There is only one known place on the planet where a geological feature happens to frame this lunar standstill, and that is here. These two rocks, known as Chimney and Companion Rock, happen to embrace the moonrise for 2.6 years during the Northern Lunar Standstill. 

What’s more stunning is that the ancestral Puebloans saw that, too, and built their Great House in such a way so as to capture this rare alignment every 18 years. 

Happenstance? It seems not. In the 1970s, a group of archeologists used dendrochronology — tree ring dating — on some of the timbers from these ruins. They discovered that construction of the kiva had taken place in 1076 and 1094. This was an “ah-ha!” moment: It seems no accident that they were built exactly 18 years apart, and each during a Northern Major Lunar Standstill. The moon was the organizational force here, not the sun, as is common elsewhere. Not only were the kivas built during this time, they were positioned such that the moonrise is best seen from the Great House. As far as I can tell, there’s only one other place known to us where humans built something to capture the lunar standstill — Stonehenge.

As soon as I heard about this wonderful mix of sky wisdom and archeology and celestial wonder, I knew I had to see it. A road trip dotted with stays at hot springs got me there, and soon I was on a guided tour led by passionate volunteers from the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association. As I hiked alongside the ruins, I knew my impulse had been a good one. A peregrine falcon floated alongside me, as if guiding my way. Cliff Rose bushes bloomed white-pink flowers, and a few blue-collared lizards calmly watched our group hike by. Awe is the word for what I was feeling — not only because of the expansive landscape, but because of the incredible sky wisdom we were witnessing.

I treated myself to a stay at the Springs Resort, soaking in Pagosa’s pools, which were new to me, and then, on the way home, a stop at the Great Sand Dunes National Park completed my goal. The dunes top the list of old favorites, worth revisiting, as they morph and change with the seasons. To make it even more perfect, I listened to “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life,” a book about just this – the awe one finds with travel, exploration, nature, and feeling connected across time and space – basically, moments of transcendence when we recognize something vast and powerful. 

If you go, know the best time to see the moonrise between the pillars is August through November, when the moonrise between Chimney Rock and Companion Rock ranges from crescent to nearly full. Two dates to consider are the lunar eclipse on October 14 and the full moon closest to the winter solstice in December. That said, be aware that the park won’t let you in at night — that would be dangerous, given the cliffs — but will offer scheduled events. Contact them for details. It’s something to put on your calendar, as the next occurrence won’t happen until 2040.

It was a week of loving Colorado more deeply than ever, with reverence and respect for peoples of the past, for our natural beauty, and for the gift of the moon, standing steady in the sky for this moment in time. 

Laura Pritchett writes a monthly column about loving Colorado and issues in the West. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. Her novels, including two forthcoming ones, are all set in contemporary Colorado. More at www.laurapritchett.com.

A headshot of Laura Pritchett

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