A small town with a rich past, Chama is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs alike in northern New Mexico
The buildings of Chama’s historic downtown glow in the morning sunlight, as the sound of a train whistle echoes across the Chama Valley. Highway 17 separates several businesses on one side from the trainyard of the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. The Southern Rockies tower above to the north, and the Rio Chama meanders through the valley to the east.
Located only 120 miles north of Santa Fe, Chama was originally inhabited by several Indigenous peoples including the Jicarilla Apache, and was then settled by Spanish colonizers in the late 1500s. In the 1880s, an extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad brought life to the region.
Today, Chama serves as a fascinating getaway for visitors interested in the Wild West history who want to step back in time. Those looking to enjoy the headwaters of the Rio Chama or explore the hiking trails in the mountains to the north will also enjoy the unique vibe of downtown Chama, making it an excellent basecamp for a weekend getaway.
CUMBRES & TOLTEC SCENIC RAILROAD
If you’re going to Chama, then a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad is top priority.
Originally known as the San Juan extension of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, these railroad tracks once ran from Alamosa, Colorado, through Chama and Durango, Colorado, before stopping in Silverton, Colorado. The construction of the railroad between 1880 and 1881 brought a booming economy and prosperity to Chama, until operations ceased in 1960.
In 1971, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad opened for business and in 2012, the railroad was awarded the National Historic Landmark Designation. The railroad provides a stunning 64-mile ride between Chama and Antonito, Colorado, and is an excellent way to experience Cumbres Pass: elevation 10,015 feet. Enjoy areas accessible only by train as wildflowers and aspens line the tracks and rugged hillsides on this breathtaking and relaxing ride.
2021 marks the 50th anniversary of the railroad’s co-ownership by the states of Colorado and New Mexico.
SARGENT WILDLIFE AREA
Located north of Chama, the Sargent Wildlife Area spans over 20,000 acres of forest at the base of 12,021-foot Chama Peak, and offers a multitude of outdoor activities including hiking, biking and horseback riding.
The Sargent is great for wildlife viewing as well. Grab a pair of binoculars and wake up early for a chance to see elk, deer, coyote, porcupine and countless birds in this area. Take the Elk Viewing Trail for a chance to see one of the state’s largest elk herds.
Camping is also available from July 1 through Nov. 15 in the Designated Camping Area.
Fly fishers and rafters alike will appreciate the beauty of the Rio Chama Wild and Scenic River, a major tributary of the Rio Grande.
Anglers rejoice at the opportunity to hook brown trout in a river that holds the New Mexico record for this fish. Brown trout in this area average 12 to 18 inches, with some exceeding 20 pounds. The Rio Chama offers excellent pocket water, long runs, pools and riffles for a great day of fly fishing.
A 31-mile stretch offers spectacular rafting through sandstone canyons and Class II-III whitewater, providing a thrilling yet fun challenge for boaters. Established as a Federal Wild and Scenic River in 1988, the Rio Chama is a bucket list section for many boaters. Three days are recommended for this raft trip, with water levels dependent on dam released flows.
A permit through recreation.gov is required for private trips to raft the Rio Chama, or a trip can be booked through a local raft company.
A trip to any New Mexico town calls for a healthy dose of Mexican food and green chile.
Start the day at Fina’s Diner and an order of huevos rancheros. For lunch, we recommend heading to Box Car Café and getting the Big Ben’s smothered burger or smothered bean and cheese burrito — or anything on the menu that is smothered with green chile.
When a day of sightseeing or exploring has come to an end, head to Local for pizza. For the spice aficionado, we recommend the Wildfire, a blend of jalapeno, pepperoncini and green chile topped with housemade volcano sauce. On the lighter side, check out the Verde: arugula, basil pesto and mozzarella cheese topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano.