Getting Grounded in Chama

By Michael J. Dax

Late-afternoon view of the Chama River north of Abiquiu. Photo by Dean Fikar.

Having grown up in the hardwood forests of upstate New York, I often tell people the only time I miss it is during the fall, when those deciduous trees turn every shade of yellow, orange, and red, and the forests come alive in a kaleidoscope of colors. Last autumn, driving back into New Mexico over Cumbres Pass, the aspens had turned gold, lending these usually monochrome forests a sense of texture and nuance. The contrast of the quaking yellow leaves against the stoic conifer green made it hard for me to keep my eyes on the road. When the small town of Chama suddenly appeared, I was almost surprised—yes, I was in New Mexico.

For many people unfamiliar with the Land of Enchantment, the name of our state itself may conjure images of barren, windswept desert or maybe even the stately saguaro cactuses that make their home in our neighboring state to the west. Despite these misconceptions, New Mexico is one of the most biodiverse states in the country, thanks in part to our array of diverse landscapes, from the Great Plains of eastern New Mexico to the Chihuahuan Desert of the borderlands to the alpine spruce-fir forests of the Sangre de Cristo and the sprawling parklands that stretch across the northern tier.

Exploring the divergent corners of the fifth-largest state in the country can take days of driving and countless wrong turns. From Santa Fe, a weekend trip to Chama—just a stone’s throw from the Colorado border—is the perfect cure for any resident or visitor’s geographic ignorance. The drive through Abiquiu, past Ghost Ranch, and through Tierra Amarilla highlights New Mexico’s distinct natural and human histories before landing visitors in Chama’s small downtown strip that combines the feel of a hardscrabble New Mexico village with a gem-in-the-rough Colorado mountain town.

On a weekend in early May, I steered my truck north through Española and continued to follow US 84 northwest toward Abiquiu and eventually to my weekend destination, Chama. Even with Chama as my goal, the two-hour road trip was just as much a part of the adventure. There’s plenty of hiking to do in Chama, but some of the best spots can be found on the drive, the first being the Poshuouinge Ruins just east of Abiquiu. Located on the south side of the road at a signed Forest Service picnic area, the ruins can be accessed via a short half-mile hike to the top of a small point that provides views of a townsite dating back to the 1400s. This easy hike makes for a pleasant break from the car, and, the history aside, the views of the lower Chama Valley’s pinyon-juniper-covered hills are exquisite.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and the accompanying Welcome Center are located just a few miles west of this point, but from the top of the hill, with red rock features beginning to emerge and arroyo-carved mesas stretching out in all directions, there’s little question that you have entered O’Keeffe Country.

Less than a mile past the Georgia O’Keeffe Welcome Center, you will pass the most unassuming stop along your journey, but a personal favorite. Bode’s General Store has occupied its location on the banks of the Chama River for more than a hundred years, and remains a true general store at its core. Whether you’re in need of groceries, livestock feed, a burrito, textiles, handmade note cards, a Yeti cooler, cast-iron cookware, fishing supplies, proprietary spice mix, or some locally themed books, Bode’s is sure to have it. It’s the sort of place where a quick stop can easily become an hour or more, and I rarely miss an opportunity to visit.

Back in the truck and heading north again, the road parallels the Chama River before climbing steeply to the mesa above. After a few turns, the road crests a ridge, and one of New Mexico’s most picturesque red rock deserts reveals itself. Due to the anemic winter preceding my visit, Abiquiu Lake appeared as a puddle, but there was no time to dwell on that, as neapolitan-streaked monoliths once again had me struggling to keep my eyes on the road. Flying past these stately cliffs and the entrance to Ghost Ranch, I made my next stop at Echo Amphitheater.

From the small parking area, it’s a short walk along a paved trail to the natural amphitheater. Growing up in New York and being a Yankees fan, I couldn’t help myself: the concave sandstone wall perfectly amplified my best attempt at announcing Derek Jeter as the next batter coming to the plate. I returned to my truck, content with my nostalgic distraction, and was back on the road again.

With low canyon walls rising skyward, forest and sage quickly reabsorb the red rock sandstone. By the time the road reaches the next ridge, rolling forested hills and expansive parklands dominate the views. For the third time in thirty miles, the landscape has changed completely.

Continuing north, the road enters the small village of Tierra Amarilla, where keen observers will notice a banner reading “Tierra o Muerte”—Land or Death—hanging from the back of a billboard. In 1967, the Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants) led a takeover of the Tierra Amarilla courthouse, protesting the annexation of lands by the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from the local land grant community. As the sign indicates, not all histories are in the past.

From here, Chama lies just ten miles to the north. The impressive Brazos Cliffs loom to the east, and to the west, the road passes signs for El Vado Lake and Heron Lake State Parks. After numerous stops and a short hike, I was ready for lunch by the time I reached town.

The Chama Grill first captured a small piece of my heart on the way back from a fishing trip on the San Juan River. The small, inconspicuous building, standing like an island surrounded by concrete, doesn’t appear to hold much promise on its own, but independent fast-food restaurants are a rarity, and that fact alone should be enough to pique anyone’s interest.

Because of COVID-19, only the drive-through was open, making this the first time I had experienced the restaurant without a rush of customers. Just the same, the no-frills green chile cheeseburger hit the spot. The chile was hot—not a given in late spring—and with a side of perfectly fried tater tots and a chocolate milkshake to wash it all down, I left plenty satisfied.

Driving the final two miles into Chama, the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad stands out as the town’s most distinctive feature. Starting in Chama, climbing over Cumbres Pass, and dropping into Antonito, Colorado, nineteenth-century locomotives and train cars take visitors on a sixty-four-mile journey, weaving back and forth across the Colorado–New Mexico border through some of the prettiest terrain New Mexico has to offer.

Unfortunately, the train was not yet running at the beginning of May, so instead, I headed to the Edward Sargent Wildlife Management Area. Located on the north side of town, the twenty-thousand-acre preserve stretches all the way to the Colorado border and is known for its plentiful wildlife. Although primarily used by hunters, the area is open to hiking, wildlife watching, cross-country skiing, and biking, with the purchase of a habitat stamp from the NM Department of Game and Fish.

Within ten minutes of starting my hike along the Rio Chamita, a group of cow elk appeared in the distance, and I took in the views of the wide, grassy valley with the stunning twelve-thousand-foot Chama Peak looming just across the state line. The route was nearly flat, making for an easy stroll as I lost myself, with the unmistakable call of a meadowlark to keep my company.

While most of Chama’s charm is derived from its unpretentious, rough-around-the-edges aesthetic, Local, a restaurant that opened in 2019 and serves “New Western” cuisine, offers a more upscale dining experience. With plenty of outdoor seating and an open-kitchen design on the interior, Local combines a chic modern setting with the refinements of a rustic western cookout.

The restaurant’s Patatas Brazos—a take on the classic bravas—made with heirloom potatoes and served in a cast-iron skillet, exemplifies this carefully curated ambience. Wood-fired pizzas make up much of the rest of the menu, but their speciality is the arepa, a thick cornmeal cake topped with shaved local beef, smoked Anasazi beans, cotija, and a chimichurri sauce.

The lodges on the south side of town offer a bit more room, but the handful of hotels along the main stretch make it easy to finish the night at the historic Foster’s Saloon. I have a soft spot for traditional wooden bars, so after dinner, I wandered a couple blocks to the bar that has stood at the center of town since 1881. With dollar bills hanging from the ceiling and domestic beer signs scattered across the walls, the bar, with its deep mahogany color and backsplash mirror framed by wooden columns, is undoubtedly the centerpiece. With few other nostalgic frills playing up its history, the bar is the sole reminder of its enduring past and the fact that this place existed for a generation before New Mexico’s statehood. But it was a quiet Saturday night, and I slowly sipped a few beers before stumbling back to my hotel.

Another benefit of staying in town was the easy walk to Rio Chama Espresso the following morning. Specializing in single-origin and single-harvest pour-overs, Rio Chama Espresso provides a delightfully diverse selection of coffee and beans. Great care is taken in producing each drink, and the well-designed patio made for a relaxing space to enjoy a blueberry scone and watch the Sunday traffic drift by as the town slowly came to life.

Awake and ready to greet the day, my next stop was Tierra Wools. Located on the south side of town, the workshop, store, and school, which opened in 1983, works with local ranchers to offer premium wool from coveted Navajo-Churro sheep. The store features the work of nearly forty different artists and sells dozens of commercially and naturally dyed yarns used for weaving rugs, blankets, and everything in between. Traditional looms fill multiple rooms throughout the space, and they offer training in basic and advanced techniques of weaving, spinning, and dyeing.

It was time to return home, but before I did, I made a detour to see Heron Lake and El Vado Lake State Parks. The drive along NM 95 to Heron Lake encapsulates the beauty of this region. The road twists and turns through rolling pinyon-juniper hills interspersed with meadows as it approaches Heron Lake. With numerous camping and hiking opportunities, the first views of the lake don’t come until passing over the dam that separates Heron from the Chama River just upstream of El Vado.

Despite the fact that early May should mean peak spring melt, after one of the driest years on record, the low water level exposed the lake’s barren, striated banks. Continuing southwest to the adjacent El Vado Reservoir did little to assure me of a secure water future for New Mexico. The entire northwest arm of the lake had become a meadow, and although the bumpy drive along the shore was still plenty scenic, by the time I crossed the dam, I was scared for what a persistent drought might mean for New Mexico.

Completing the loop along NM 112 back to the highway and turning south toward home, I couldn’t help but dwell on the region’s intertwined human and natural histories. Inhabited long before European settlement, it has experienced conflict over land and control of resources, and today, many of the same resources that draw visitors and support livelihoods face an uncertain future. But tucked away, upstream of where the land can no longer hide the marks of persistent drought, with an enduring connection between land and people, Chama quietly stands the test of time.

Around chama

Restaurants:

Chama Grill
2414 Hwy 84, 575-756-2276,
chamagrill.business.site

Foster’s hotel, Restaurant, and saloon
393 Terrace Ave, 575-756-2296,
fostershotel1881.com

Local
587 Terrace Ave, 575-756-7661, chamalocal.com

Rio Chama Espresso
614 S Terrace Ave, 505-500-7558,
riochamaespresso.com

Wilder Bakeshop and Espresso
2248 NM 17, 575-999-5134, wilderbakeshop.com

Shopping:

Tierra Wools
2540 Hwy 64/84, 575-756-1650,
handweavers.com

Activities:

Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad
500 Terrace Ave, 575-756-2151,
cumbrestoltec.com

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