Chama is a small, scenic town in northern New Mexico, about 7 miles south of the Colorado border. Named after the Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande, Chama was originally founded as a Spanish settlement in the 1860s, established within the boundaries of the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant. Chama and the community of Tierra Amarilla are the only remaining villages within the grant boundaries, with populations of approximately 1000 people in Chama and 300 in Tierra Amarilla. The former town of El Vado, which supported a population comparable to Chama in 1910, was flooded to create El Vado Lake.

Rio Chama in Chama New MexicoThe Chama Valley was home to numerous indigenous tribes before the Spanish arrived, including the Tewa (Puebloans), Ute and Apache. The Tewa migrated into the valley approximately 1,000 years ago, building extensive networks of communal irrigation canals to feed their crops. Several of those ancient canals are still used for agriculture today.

By the time the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Ute and Apache lived in the valley. Though they were forced out when Spanish and American settlers moved into the area in the 1860s, the Jicarilla Apache invested gas and oil royalties into land purchases, reclaiming about 150,000 acres of the Tierra Amarilla grant lands. The Jicarilla Apache reservation borders Chama on the east and west, with the Southern Ute reservation north of Chama, in southern Colorado.

Spanish Land Grants

The Spanish territorial government wanted to establish buffer zones between the capital in Santa Fe and the Apache and Ute raiding parties further north. The provincial government awarded parcels of land on the edges of the province to entice individuals through private grants, and groups of settlers through community grants, to colonize the Spanish frontier. Many of the communities on the High Road to Taos and Highway 84 were established via land grants, like Abiquiu, Truchas, Trampas, and Chama.

After the Mexican-American War in 1846, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo acknowledged the property rights of citizens in the territory; however, communal rights have been an ongoing source of litigation ever since, particularly water rights and access to shared resources.

Tierra AmarillaTierra Amarilla Land Grant

The government of New Mexico awarded Manuel Martinez and his family the Tierra Amarilla land grant in 1832. The parcel encompassed 594,000 acres of mountains, forests, and streams. In total, it is about 40 miles long and 25 miles wide, extending from the base of the San Juan Mountains in Colorado to the junction of Rio Chama and Rio Nutrias in New Mexico. The elevation ranges from 6,653 feet to 12,778 feet.

Small plots were allocated to 130 individual families when the grant was initially settled in the 1860s, with most of the grant designated as common land to provide settlers and their descendants with pastures and ample water to support crops and livestock. However, the U.S. courts didn’t recognize or protect the communal aspects of the grant. The U.S. court system perceived Tierra Amarilla as a private grant to the Martinez family, rather than a community grant to the settlers inhabiting the land. That ruling created a fiefdom for Martinez and his family, with his seven brothers and sisters claiming their 1/8 stake. It also laid the groundwork for over a century of legal battles.

Thomas Catron was a land speculator, attorney, member of the Santa Fe Ring. He became  one of New Mexico’s first Senators in 1912. By 1883, Catron had acquired most of the grant. He filed a lawsuit to establish ownership and tried to evict the 2,000 people living on the land. Whereas he didn’t succeed in ousting all of the settlers, they were gradually choked out, denied access to common land and resources as ranchers and land developers moved in.

Tierra o muerte sign outside of Tierra AmarillaRio Arriba County Courthouse Raid

The Alianza Federal de Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Land Grants) was founded in 1963, led by Reies Tijerina. Alianza attempted to regain access to the land allotted to Hispanic settlers by the original Spanish and Mexican land grants, often clashing with ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service.

Tijerina and 20 men occupied the Rio Arriba County courthouse in the town of Tierra Amarilla on June 5, 1967. The men wanted to arrest the district attorney, but he wasn’t at the courthouse that day. An armed standoff ensued between Alianza and the National Guard, FBI, and state police, with a prison guard and a sheriff’s deputy wounded. Tijerina was later arrested, declared innocent on December 13, 1968. However, he was later tried again and briefly imprisoned. The FBI continued to monitor the activists in Alianza into the 1970s, labeling them domestic terrorists.

Mining, Ranching & Railroad

Foster's Saloon
Foster’s Hotel & Bar, established 1881, has been a saloon, dance hall, and brothel. The building has been renovated over the years, with a second wing added in the 1920s. The second floor of the original building is closed to the public, but the wallpaper and several pieces of furniture date back to the original property.

The mining boom in the mountains of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado at the end of the 19th century attracted entrepreneurs and opportunists to the territory, with mining camps and tent cities popping up with each new discovery of gold, silver, and copper.

After the main railroad line arrived in New Mexico in 1878, spurs were built to communities like Chama to funnel the precious ores from mining camps to the main terminals. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad began construction of the San Juan Extension from Antonito, Colorado to the mining district in the northern San Juan Basin in 1880.

The railroad needed an engine terminal for equipment, stockyards, and supplies near the steep ascent to Cumbres Pass. They chose a location on the banks of the Rio Chama for the townsite, with a tent city quickly established around the railyards. Trains started running on February 1, 1881. The post office and Foster’s Hotel were established the same year, officially putting Chama on the map.

The Early Days

Through the turn of the century, Chama was a prosperous, albeit rowdy, community, with ample work available and a full slate of old west entertainment in the form of saloons, gambling, moonshine, and brothels. An article in the Santa Fe New Mexican on March 9, 1881, described Chama as “fast-growing a reputation for lawlessness.” Carrying a gun was a necessity, with drunk cowboys, gamblers and prospectors regularly filling the night air with random bullets. Crime, including murder, was so commonplace that citizens tuned it out. The economy was primarily based on mining, logging, ranching, and the railroad. Herds of cows and sheep grazed the valleys. Timber harvesting and saw-milling increased as the influx of settlers and entrepreneurs boosted demand for building materials.

The vast open valleys between Chama and the Colorado border were dense coniferous forests in the 1880s. Prior to the logging industry clear cutting, the trees were so thick that it was difficult to get through the forest on a horse. Logging remained a major industry until the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Ranching also took a hit during the winter of 1931-1932. Intense storms and unusually low temperatures decimated the sheep herds, wiping out many of the ranchers in the area.

Cumbres Toltec autumn 2021Cumbres Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Denver & Rio Grande Western provided transportation and freight service between Denver and the mining camps around Silverton, Colorado from 1881 into the early 1900s. The rugged terrain in the San Juan Mountains required a 3-foot gauge track, because the narrower rails allowed the train to navigate tighter curves. It also reduced the cost of the track. However, rail cars couldn’t be interchanged better narrow-gauge and standard-gauge lines. As a result, the railroad began phasing out narrow-gauge tracks by the 1890s, using the Chama line on a limited basis to transport livestock, timber, passengers and produce.

The last passenger train ran in February, 1951; however, the freight line remained in service, propped up after World War II by the oil and gas boom in the Four Corners area. Eventually that waned as well. In 1968, the Rio Grande eliminated freight service. They petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the remaining narrow gauge tracks. Fortunately, Colorado recognized the tourism potential and quickly mobilized resources and volunteers to save the Durango-Silverton section.

Colorado partnered with New Mexico to purchase the 64-mile scenic stretch between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. The deal included all line-side structures and equipment. In total, they got 9 steam locomotives, over 130 freight and work cars, as well as the Chama yard and maintenance facility. The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, along with its sister operation, the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge (D&SNG), were operational and toting tourists by 1971.

Chama muralOutdoor Recreation

Surrounded by majestic peaks, with thick forests of pine and aspen, and cold, trout laden streams, Chama is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. There are trail riding stables, lots of fly-fishing options, big game hunting guides/resorts (mostly elk), off-roading, horseback riding, and an abundance of biking and hiking trails, with three National Forests bordering the community: Carson, Rio Grande, and Santa Fe.

The Rio Chama and Rio Brazos offer whitewater for rafters and kayakers in the early spring. Cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are popular activities during the winter months.

Autumn is spectacular in the Chama with swaths of golden aspens highlighting the pine forests. Highway 17 from Chama to Colorado is gorgeous, as well as Highway 64 from Tierra Amarilla to Taos.

Continental Divide Trail

New Mexico’s stretch of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) traverses the Big Hatchet Mountains Wilderness, the Gila Wilderness, the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, El Malpais, the Rio Puerco, the Chama River Wilderness, and San Pedro Parks before entering the Colorado Rockies 12-miles north of Chama at Cumbres Pass. It isn’t unusual to see backpackers trekking through town, often taking a break for a day or two to enjoy a hot shower and a comfortable bed before heading into the Colorado high country. Of the three long distance trails in the United States, the CDT is the most arduous.

Brazos Cliffs Autumn
Overlooking the Brazos Cliffs from Highway 64 in late September
Brazos Cliffs & Falls

Brazos cliffs form the western edge of the Tusas Mountains, rising majestically over Tierra Amarilla. The vertical distance between the base and the summit is over 2000-feet. The spectacular escarpment is some of the oldest exposed rock known in New Mexico. The Precambrian quartzite is about 1.8 billion years old.

Between mid-April and mid-May, the snow runoff creates New Mexico’s highest waterfall, with El Chorro Falls cascading down the cliffs for 2-3 weeks. The Brazos Falls are a horsetail chute fall, meaning the descending water maintains contact with the bedrock, and then a large quantity of water is forced through a narrow vertical passage. There are no hiking or jeep trails to the foot of the falls. The grounds at Corkins Lodge are reserved for guests only and are not open to the public.

Fly Fishing

From the Río Chama, which flows from its sparkling headwaters in the San Juan Mountains to its confluence with the Río Grande near Espanola, to the Conejos and Brazos river, the Chama region is ripe with fishing opportunities.

Rio Chama

The Rio Chama is probably one of the Southwest’s most diverse trout rivers. Starting in the mountains on the Colorado border, it flows as a stream through high mountain forests and meadows. Below El Vado reservoir, there’s a 30-mile stretch through remote, rugged, multi-colored sandstone canyons. Six miles of this section passes through the 50,000 acre Chama River Canyon Wilderness area. A more accessible stretch flows from below Abiquiu dam, merging with the Rio Grande near Espanola. There is a good population of large wild brown trout and rainbow trout.

Brazos River

Most of the Brazos passes through public land, but there is a 4-5 mile stretch open to public fishing, with a good population of wild browns and stocked rainbows and fantastic views of Brazos Cliffs.

Edward Sargent Wildlife Area/Trailhead

The 20,209-acre Edward Sargent Wildlife Area features high aspen meadows, oak groves, and tree-lined streams. It is one of the largest properties managed by New Mexico Department of Game and Fish extending from Chama to the Colorado border. The park allows fishing, hunting, hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There are numerous trails in the area. The main trail ends in Chromo, Colorado.

El Vado Lake State Park

Located just south of Heron Lake, El Vado Lake provides opportunities for hiking, fishing, boating, camping, as well as cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. However, the lake levels are down, much like neighboring Heron Lake. Additionally, they have been working on El Vado dam for years, with numerous closures that impact access to the campgrounds and boat launches. Check their website ahead of time to make sure there are no relevant closures.

Heron Lake State Park

Heron Lake is known for sailing, cross- country skiing, mountain biking, and hiking. As a child, this was my favorite lake in the state, with eagle nests in almost every dead pine tree lining the banks. Unfortunately, lake levels have steadily declined in recent years, impacting boating and fishing. It is still a popular place for trout and kokanee salmon fishing, including ice fishing during the winter.

There are several campgrounds lining the shore, offering primitive campsites and developed RV sites. The East Meadow Trail starts at the visitor center. The trail is 2.4 miles across open meadows to an overlook. The Salmon Run Trail is 5 miles, running through the forests above the shoreline. It is slightly more challenging than the East Meadow Trail due to hills. The Rio Chama Trail is 10.5 miles out-and-back, connecting Heron Lake to El Vado Lake. It is considered the most challenging of the three trails. The highlight of this hike is the suspension footbridge over the Chama River.

Park Map

W.A. Humphries Wildlife Area/Trailhead

The 10,950-acre park is located about 10 miles west of Chama, offering mountain biking, hiking, hunting, and opportunities for wildlife photography. There are no facilities or campgrounds at W. A. Humphries Wildlife Area, though primitive camping is allowed. The park is open from Memorial Day through mid-November.

Village of Chama

1512 State Road 17
P.O. Box 794
Chama, NM 87520
(575) 756-2184

Road north of Chama in the fallDrive Time | US-84 is usually clear, but State Road 17 across Cumbres Pass can become impassable during winter storms.

  • 3 hours from Albuquerque
  • 2 hours from Santa Fe
  • 1.25 hours from Taos
  • 1 hour from Pagosa Springs
  • 2 hours from Durango

Chama aerial viewChama Filmography

For a town with a population of less than 1000, Chama has an impressive filmography, including The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969) The Cowboys (1972), Bite the Bullett (1975), The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (1982), Butch and Sundance: The Early Days (1989), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Wyatt Earp (1994), Wild Wild West (1999), All the Pretty Horses, (2000), Appaloosa (2008), A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014), Godless (2016), and Hostiles (2017).


Cumbres SuitesCumbres Suites
2042 NM-17
Chama, NM 87520
(877) 756-9139

Foster’s Hotel & Bar
393 Terrace Ave
Chama, NM 87520
(575) 756-2296

Lodge & Ranch at Chama
16253 S Chama Highway 84
Chama, NM 87520

(575) 756-2133

Parlor Car Bed & Breakfast
311 Terrace Ave
Chama, NM 87520
(575) 756-1946

The Timbers at Chama
139 NM-512
Chama, NM 87520
(575) 588-7950

The Victorian Chama
299 Maple Ave
Chama, NM 87520

(575) 756-2675

RV Parks

Rio Chama RV Park
182 NM-17
Chama, NM 87520
(575) 756-2303

Sky Mountain Resort RV Park
2743 S US 64/84 HC 75, Box 48
Chama, NM 87520
(575) 756-1100


Fina’s Diner
2298 NM-17
Chama, NM 87520

(575) 756-9195

Santy’s Taco Shop
2414 US-84
Chama, NM 87520

(575) 756-2487

Outlaw BBQ Company
1018 NM-17
Chama, NM 87520

TWIST Good Food
675 Terrace Ave
Chama, NM 87520

(505) 209-0122

Rio Chama Espresso Kitchen & Wine Bar
614 Terrace Ave
Chama, NM 87520

(575) 315-0001

Wilder Bakeshop & Espresso
2248 NM-17
Chama, NM 87520

(575) 999-5134


Tierra Amarilla woolTierra Wools
2540 US-64 #84
Chama, NM 87520
(575) 756-1650

Annual Events

January | Chile Ski Classic, MLK Jr. weekend | The Annual Chama Chile Ski Classic features freestyle and classic cross country ski races, snowshoe races, and rookie races! Enjoy a variety of winter sports for all ages and abilities. 

February | Chama SnoBall Rally | The SnoBall Balloon Rally is held annually in February in Chama, NM. Some of New Mexico’s elite hot air balloon pilots fly each morning of the festival, soaring over the Chama Valley’s picturesque snow-covered mountain backdrops.MayOpening Weekend for Cumbres Toltec Scenic Railroad, usually around Memorial Day

JuneChama Western Heritage Days, 2nd weekend

AugustChama Days, 2nd weekend in August, an event that has been part of Chama for over 100 years!

SeptemberChama Valley Art Festival, Labor Day weekend

DecemberChama Christmas in the Mountains, 1st weekend, and the Cumbres & Toltec Christmas Trains. Check dates and book early. They fill up fast.

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