Highway 84 | Rio Chama Corridor
Many first time visitors to the “Land of Enchantment” focus on New Mexico highlights and inadvertently overlook amazing places that are in close proximity. It isn’t their fault. There are a lot of travel gems that receive little to no publicity outside of the state.
Highway 84 between Espanola and Chama is a perfect example. Most visitors from outside the area know about it based on Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe. Both are noteworthy. Georgia O’Keeffe brought the landscapes around Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch to the world through her paintings. The landscapes in this region nourished her as an artist and as an individual. It is interesting that she continues to have a significant economic impact on her community long after her death. However, the beauty of this area has inspired many artists other than Georgia O’Keeffe. That is ongoing, because Abiquiu is still a haven for artists.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s first trip to New Mexico was in 1929. She traveled to Santa Fe with a friend for the summer. Their paths crossed with Mabel Dodge Lujan. Mabel invited them to her house in Taos and set them up with studio space.
New Mexico made an indelible impression. O’Keeffe spent part of almost every year working in New Mexico between 1929 and 1949. She collected rocks and bones as she wandered isolated areas, utilizing the desert treasures, and the distinctive architectural and landscape forms, as subjects in her work. O’Keeffe visited Ghost Ranch for the first time in August, 1934. She was smitten by the colorful, diverse landscapes and decided to settle in the area, moving into a house on the ranch property in 1940. She is responsible for painting their iconic logo.
O’Keeffe was a loner, an introvert who found creative inspiration and solace in New Mexico’s stark, rugged terrain. She eloquently explained her love for the area in 1943: “Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’. It is a place I have painted before … even now I must do it again.”
When Georgia O’Keeffe passed away in 1986 her friends scattered her ashes on top of Pedernal Mountain, overlooking her beloved “faraway”. Today artists visit from all over the world walk in the footsteps of Georgia O’Keeffe; visiting her studio in Abiquiu, her cabin at Ghost Ranch, and drawing inspiration from the glorious vistas made famous in her paintings.
The 80 mile stretch of road between Espanola and Chama offers more than artistic inspiration. The area is rich in culture, history and natural resources, making it a haven for the curious. Highway 84 provides so many possibilities for outdoor enthusiasts, geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and historians. That is why this article is so long.
Humans have inhabited this region for thousands of years. Nearby pueblos trace their ancestry to the ancient inhabitants of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. This region was home to a variety of dinosaurs millions of years prior to humans arriving.
The geology of the region has sculpted a beautiful, dramatic, colorful stone masterpiece on highway 84. The Abiquiu–Tierra Amarilla area lies on the boundary of the Rio Grande rift (to the east) and the Colorado Plateau (to the west). The Colorado Plateau, which stretches into Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, has been a relatively stable block in the Earth’s crust for at least 600 million years.
Some of the oldest rock in New Mexico, dating back 1.8 billion years, formed the Brazos Cliffs. Created largely by volcanoes, the Precambrian quartzite cliffs rise from their base over two thousand feet. This barrier ridge is so tall, at 11,000 feet, that it diverts winds and storms from the eastern Great Plains. The streams nearby provide some of the best fly fishing in the state. Additionally, the entire area between Tierra Amarilla and Chama is a popular hunting destination, with numerous lodges in the area catering to deer and elk hunters.
As you head south on highway 84 from Tierra Amarilla to Abiquiu, the landscape becomes stark, with less vegetation, revealing colorful, textured, striking rock formations. The pinnacles, cliffs, mesas, buttes and canyons around Ghost Ranch represent a rich geologic record, with portions of river systems, deserts, saline lakes, mudflats and ocean shorelines preserved. The oldest rocks exposed at Ghost Ranch are part of the Late Triassic Chinle Group. It is a thick layer of brick-red siltstone and mudstone combined with white to tan sandstone. Ancient rivers deposited the sediment between 205-228 million years ago. Ghost Ranch was about 10° north of the equator at the time.
This was dinosaur country during the Triassic Period, 200-230 million years ago. One of the best known paleontological digs in the northern hemisphere is at Ghost Ranch. The fossil beds in the area have yielded numerous specimens over the last century, including a new species discovered in 2002. The discovery of dinosaurs and less-advanced dinosauromorphs from the same time period upended the long held belief among paleontologists that dinosaurs existed with their immediate ancestors for a relatively short period of time before dominating the planet in the Triassic period. Paleontologists now believe they co-existed for 15-20 million years before an unknown event, or sequence of events, allowed dinosaurs to flourish as their predecessors went extinct.
Anyone interested in dinosaurs should stop by the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology at Ghost Ranch. There are numerous exhibits, replicas as well as information about current excavation efforts. Two small species of dinosaur, discovered at Ghost Ranch decades apart, form the centerpiece of the exhibit. Paleontologists unearthed the bones of the Coelophysis in 1947. They roamed the ranch 220 million years ago. Hikers found a new species, the Tawa Hallae, in 2002.
Archaeologists believe the inhabitants of New Mexico’s Rio Grande pueblos are descended from the people who hunted the southwest for thousands of years. They have found Clovis and Folsom points at various sites, which confirms at least 14,000 years of human presence. The pueblos around Espanola trace their ancestry to the inhabitants of Mesa Verde and the thousands of petroglyphs adorning the basalt boulders at the Wells Petroglyph Preserve are a testament to long term habitation.
When the inhabitants of Mesa Verde and Chaco abandoned their villages in the late 12th century, they migrated throughout the region, establishing numerous settlements, including several around present day Espanola and Abiquiu. The Puye Cliff Dwellings (south of Espanola) were home to 1,500 Pueblo Indians who lived, farmed and hunted game in the canyons of the Pajarito Plateau from the 900-1580 AD. The inhabitants of Puye migrated closer to the Rio Grande where their descendants live today in Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos.
The Poshuouinge Ruins just south of Abiquiu is one of the largest Rio Grande Pueblos unearthed. Tewa people established the village between 1375-1475 AD. The remnants of more than seven hundred ground-floor rooms encircling two huge plazas and a large central kiva have survived relatively undisturbed for more than six centuries. Villagers abandoned the site around 1500, a century before Don Juan de Oñate’s expedition arrived.
Poshuouinge is three miles upstream and due west of another Tewa Pueblo ancestral site, Tsama. Ancestors of Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblos inhabited the village. Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (“Place of the Strong People”) is a Tewa-speaking village west of Espanola. When Don Juan de Oñate’s expedition arrived in 1598, the community graciously provided lodging for the Spaniards, because they initially perceived them as potential allies. The Apache, Comanche and Ute raiding parties frequently targeted the Tewa pueblos. Consequently, the Tewa saw the Spaniards, with horses and gunpowder, as a powerful ally. Oñate renamed the Pueblo San Juan de los Caballeros to reflect the hospitality received, establishing the first capitol of the new territory, San Gabriel, nearby in an abandoned pueblo known as Yungé Owingeh (“Mockingbird Place”).
Several members of Oñate’s expedition had personal reasons for accompanying him. The isolation of the northern territory provided refuge for individuals fleeing the religious persecution occurring in Spain. The Spanish crown expelled Jews and Muslims in 1492, establishing the Office of the Holy Inquisition to rout religious impropriety among conversos. The Inquisition tortured their captives for confessions, often executing those who confessed. A false accusation of heresy was often as fatal as guilt.
Conversion was one of the primary objectives of the Onate expedition. He dispatched quickly throughout the province, instructing them to build missions and force the locals to convert. Peaceful coexistence didn’t last long.
The Spanish exploited the indigenous inhabitants for labor. They seized food, land and resources, with competition between the church and state regarding who would get a larger cut. They crushed resistance with extreme brutality to induce fear and to deter organized revolts, with Acoma Pueblo suffering the most brutal treatment. Spanish authorities summoned Oñate to Mexico City in 1606 after he finished plans for the founding of Santa Fe. He was tried and convicted by the Spanish courts for cruelty to natives and colonists. Ultimately, he was banished from New Mexico, though he later appealed the verdict and received an acquittal.
Onate’s successor moved the capital to Santa Fe. The Spanish established outpost settlements in Abiquiú, Truchas and Ojo Caliente. These communities were settled by a combination of Mexican Indians, mixed-blood Spaniards, and genizaros. They were established to provide a buffer zone for the Spanish settlements in Santa Fe and Santa Cruz.
In addition to communal land grants, some conquistadores made grants of encomiendas, or forced Indian labor. An encomienda beneficiary could levy a tribute upon the native population. Some Spaniards interpreted the encomienda to mean that they could seize land and use the existing population as slaves. As a result, ambivalence and resentment mounted over the decades, culminating in the unprecedented unification of New Mexico’s pueblos in 1680. More on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Mexico developed a thirst for self-governance by the 1820s, successfully declaring their independence from Spain. However, the Comanche moved east, leaving Rio Arriba open to attack by the Navajo, Apache, Ute, and tribes from the plains. Raids on the pueblos increased in frequency and intensity. Unfortunately, Mexican support via arms, troops and other resources ceased.
New Mexico was divided into two territories defined by the Rio Grande when Mexico achieved Independence in 1821. Rio Abajo, the “Lower River,” referred to everything south of Santa Fe. Most of New Mexico’s landed gentry trace their ancestry directly from Spain and lived in Rio Abajo. Rio Arriba had evolved into a diverse, isolated, self-reliant and quirky cultural mix of genizaros, mestizos and Tewa. The socio-economic schism resulted in the ruling class of Rio Abajo oppressing citizens of Rio Arriba.
The newly established Mexican administration decreed that militiamen had to relinquish war booty to their commanding officers in 1821. Officers were usually from Rio Abajo. Prior to the edict, trade based on war booty sustained the local economy. A new Governor, Albino Pérez, arrived in Santa Fe in 1835. He disbanded his regular troops to avoid paying them and enlisted a militia from Rio Arriba to fight the Navajo. The militiamen were ill equipped. They endured frostbite and hunger while their villages and families struggled to survive. Furthermore, the officers from Rio Abajo mistreated them.
Residents of Santa Cruz, Chimayo and Truchas staged a revolt in 1837. They killed Governor Pérez and his advisors and temporarily overthrew the government. Padre António José Martinez, an enigmatic priest who was believed by many to be the instigator of the revolt, held a mass in Santa Cruz on the eve of the rebellion. Jose Gonzales, a genizaro from Taos involved in the revolt, became the interim Governor. Members of the ruling class from Santa Fe and Rio Abajo retaliated, crushing the revolutionary government. They executed Gonzales and the remaining leaders of the revolt in a battle near present-day Pojoaque.
General Stephen W. Kearny marched U.S. troops into New Mexico in 1846 and Governor Armijo fled. The United States claimed possession of the territory. The majority of the Mexican militia were unarmed farmers. They couldn’t defend themselves against well-equipped American forces. U.S. soldiers herded townspeople into a church and burned it to the ground in Embudo. The United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago in 1848, ending the war. The U.S. promised to honor Spanish and Mexican land grants. Of course, that didn’t happen.
At least 1.6 million acres of mostly communal grants existed in Rio Arriba county when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago was signed; however, a network of lawyers, judges, politicians and businessmen organized with the specific purpose of divesting Hispanic villagers of their land. For example, they would exchange services for interests in a grant claiming to represent impoverished heirs who could not pay cash. They would then use their interest to force the sale of communal lands, acquiring the grant for themselves. A number of villages such as Ojo Caliente and Petaca were awarded land for the village proper but stripped of all common lands. In many cases, villagers who did not understand the new laws did not realize they had lost their land until it was restricted in later generations. The speculators were nicknamed “the Santa Fe Ring” and bolstered by the press.
The railroad arrived in the late 19th century, followed by an influx of Anglo settlers and increased prosperity. Mining and logging were profitable industries. The railroad was christened “The Chili Line” in deference to the exceptional local chile. Even then there appears to be disagreement about how to spell chile.
Communities on the Rio Chama
Meanwhile, villagers abandoned the original settlement of San Joaquin. Most of the beneficiaries of the grant lived in Abiquiu, Santa Cruz, or Tierra Amarilla. Land speculators began purchasing outstanding interests under the Chama Grant, provoking a battle between the locals and the investors who were determined to divest them of their property rights. The grant was upheld, but limited to individual farm tracts in the Chama River Canyon on September 24, 1894.
Abiquiu Lake is a 4000-acre lake on the Chama River, located 61 miles north of Santa Fe on Hwy 84/285 at the intersection of Hwy 96 that offers some of the best fishing in northern New Mexico. The view of Cerro Pedernal from the dam, campground and boat ramp is fantastic. Reptile fossils 200 million years old have been found in the area. There are trails for mountain bikers, equestrians and hikers. Riana campground is located on a 150 ft. bluff overlooking the lake. There are sites for RV or tent camping, a dump station and shower facilities. Water Sports: boating, swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, river running, windsurfing, kayaking and fishing. Fish Species: catfish, crappie, largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleye and rainbow trout. Contact Information: (505) 685-4433 and Ranger: (505) 685-4371
The Brazos Cliffs, between Chama and Tierra Amarilla, are made up of some of the oldest rock found in New Mexico, dating back 1.8 billion years. Created primarily by volcanic activity, the Precambrian quartzite cliffs rise over 2000 feet. The barrier ridge is so tall, reaching 11,000 feet elevation, it diverts winds and storms from the eastern Great Plains. With all this tantalizing bare rock, the cliffs have long enticed rock climbers. The first technical climb was made by George Bell back in 1952. For two decades George and his wife, Ginny, explored the area and the Los Alamos Mountaineer members established 45 routes up the cliffs. Today the Brazos are on private property; however, climbers can get permission to attempt the climb from Corkins Lodge or Brazos Lodge (at their own risk). Corkins Lodge: (575) 588-7261 or Brazos Lodge: (575) 588-7707
The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad built the Cumbres Toltec track in 1880 as part of the San Juan Extension. The track runs between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico, traversing steep passes and deep gorges. The railroad’s vital role in the community ended in the 1890s when the silver market collapsed. The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad filed for abandonment in 1969. However, the most scenic part of the route, the equipment, and the buildings were preserved by Colorado and New Mexico. Today, the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad allows visitors to step back in time, experiencing an adventure out of the old west. Guests are surrounded by the majestic landscapes of the Rocky Mountains. I recommend reservations, particularly if you are planning to go in the autumn when the aspens light up the mountains with gold. (575) 756-2151
The Echo Amphitheater is a natural amphitheatre located about 17 miles west of Abiquiú and about 4 miles northwest of Ghost Ranch. It is a great place to camp with a creepy backstory fitting for Halloween. Legend has it that in the spring of 1861 a group of settlers from Iowa were farming iwhen they were attacked by a band of Navajo. The settlers were taken to the top of the amphitheater and executed. Their blood stained the walls. Three years later, when the Navajo were being forced on the “Long Walk” to Bosque Redondo by the U.S. Army, ten Navajo men were killed at the top of the amphitheater in retribution for the earlier deaths. Again blood spilled down the walls of the amphitheater, seeping into the pores of the rock. Supposedly it is still visible today.
El Vado Lake State Park offers fishing, boating, camping, hiking, winter cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Located near Tierra Amarilla, El Vado Lake is one of three reservoirs on highway 84. A 5.5-mile scenic hiking trail runs to the north, crossing the Rio Chama Gorge via a pedestrian suspension bridge, connecting to the Heron Lake State Park to the north. Quiet coves around the lake are great places to catch trout and kokanee salmon. The lake and surrounding area are a major wintering ground for bald eagles and other birds. The eastern shore of the lake is the State Park, featuring over 100 camping and picnic sites, and two improved boat ramps. Unlike nearby Heron Lake, boat speeds are not restricted. The Stone House Lodge offers a general store, propane, gasoline and lodging. The closest community is Tierra Amarilla and Los Ojos.
A small group of weavers founded EVFAC in 1995. They discovered that there were numerous families who had inherited looms, but they didn’t know how to use them. With donated looms and space in a local church, the group began to teach weaving. As interest increased they started offering classes. They rented a space in Española, hired a manager, and formally opened its doors for business in October 1996. The Center soon became a source of supplies and tools for local weavers. The group incorporated and became a nonprofit Membership organization in 1997. Their mission is to preserve and promote the rich textile heritage of Northern New Mexico by providing learning and teaching experiences for all ages and backgrounds. (505) 753-0937
Dinosaurs once roamed the wetlands that became the arid high desert of Ghost Ranch. Millions of years later Navajos and other tribes roamed the valley. The Spaniards settled nearby. Later the cattle rustlers, wranglers and dudes moved in. Cattle rustlers hid their stolen goods in the box canyon near Kitchen Mesa. Furthermore, the bandits spread rumors about evil spirits haunting the land. Locals referred to area as “Rancho de los Brujos” or “Ranch of the Witches.” That mythose evolved into Ghost Ranch when Arthur Pack, one of the country’s first environmentalists, bought the ranch in 1936. When Georgia O’Keeffe visited, Arthur told her to watch for a skull on a fence post. As a result, she made a drawing of an ox skull and gave it to Mr. Pack. He adopted the artwork as the logo for Ghost Ranch. (505) 685-1000
When Katherine Wells moved to her mesa-side property north of Española in 1992, she was aware if petroglyphs on the property. She thought there were hundreds at the time. However, as she hiked the property, she discovered far more images than anticipated…literally thousands. She, and a band of friends and supporters, dedicated themselves to preserving and protecting the images. They spearheaded the Mesa Prieta Petroglyph Project to document the petroglyphs. In addition to championing preservation, Katherine donated her property to the Archaeological Conservancy. They sponsor programs that educate the community about the history and culture represented by the images. Additionally, they offer public and private tours to help fund the project. (505) 852-1351
The northern area of New Mexico encompassed by the Rio Grande National Heritage Area has a unique history with a course of occupation that is distinct from that of the rest of the country and the rest of the Southwest. This history predates the formation of the United States and includes an indigenous revolution against the Spanish during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. In terms of people, customs, languages and forms of law, the territories and settlements in northern New Mexico are distinct and unique. Multiple waves of military conquest incorporated the history and heritage of northern New Mexico with the United States. (505) 753-0937
The hot springs at Ojo Caliente have been a gathering place and source of healing for thousands of years. Archaeologists have traced use of the waters to the earliest human migrations in the region. The ancestors of today’s Tewa tribes built large pueblos and terraced gardens overlooking the springs. Posi or Poseouinge, “village at the place of the green bubbling hot springs”, was the largest of 4 Pueblos surrounding the springs and home to thousands of people. In the 1500’s the Spaniards, in their quest for gold and the Fountain of Youth, also discovered the springs. Ojo Caliente is the only hot springs in the world with four different types of mineral water including lithia, iron, soda and arsenic. Over 100,000 gallons come to the surface daily, revitalizing those who soak in these legendary, healing waters. (505) 583-2233
Poshuoinge is one of the largest Rio Grande Pueblo villages unearthed. The ancestors of Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo established Poshuouinge around 1400 AD. They built the pueblo on a mesa, 150 feet above the Chama River. The pueblo had more than 700 ground-floor rooms encircling two huge plazas and a large central kiva. There are two springs located about five hundred feet south of the ruins. Archaeologists believe they provided the main water sources for the community. The inhabitants abandoned the pueblo around 1500 AD, decades before Coronado and the first Europeans arrived.
Archaeologists and Puebloans agree that the inhabitants migrated down stream to the Rio Grande, where their descendants live today. The pueblos have not allowed excavation. There is another Tewa ancestral site located three miles upstream and due west, Tsama. It is accessible by a USDA Forest Service trail.
The owners of the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm established the farm in 2004 to grow and provide efficient, expert solutions for growing lavender. Their primary services include lavender plant sales, educational programs and information on growing lavender. They provide consultation and an extensive lavender bath and body product line. Also, they harvest, sell, and steam distill the lavender flowers used in their line of bath and body products. (505) 685-0082
The largest settlement on the Pajarito Plateau was located at Puye Cliffs. Puye means “pueblo ruin where the rabbits assemble or meet” in the Tewa language. Villagers built two levels of dwellings against the cliffs, as well as a large pueblo on top of the mesa. The first level of cliff dwellings runs the length of the mesa’s base. The second level is about 2,100 feet long. Villagers cut paths and stairways in the face of the rock to connect the two levels, which facilitated traffic to the top of the mesa.
While the total number of rooms is unknown, the south part of the mesa top complex had 173 on the ground floor with multiple stories in various places. Archaeologists estimate that Puye was home to approximately 1,500 people. They lived, farmed and hunted game in this canyon from the 900-1580 AD. In the 1500s, they migrated to the Rio Grande River valley where their descendants live today. (888) 320-5008
The Rio Chama flows through a multi-colored sandstone canyon. Canyon walls rise up to fifteen hundred feet above the river as you travel downstream. Congress designated 24.6 miles of the river as a Wild and Scenic River. The river flows through the Rio Chama Wilderness Study Area. Forest Service. The lower Rio Chama rafting outing has a few moderate Class II and III rapids. The water on the Rio Chama is refreshing on a hot summer day and the rapids are perfect for the adventurous to enjoy in inflatable kayaks. Paddle and oar boating is also available. Los Rios River Runners: (575) 776-8854
Tierra Wools really began as the “wool committee” of Ganados del Valle, a grassroots non-profit organization whose mission was “empowering rural people to create sustainable economies by building on cultural and agricultural resources.” Many of the weavers of Tierra Wools were descendants of Spanish settlers in the Rio Grande Valley, with ancestors dating back as early as the 16th century. Early settlers raised sheep. It was the economic bedrock of the region. Weavers produced textiles called “Rio Grande Blankets.” The distinctive weaving style is a mix of Spanish, Mexican and Native American influences. They weave on a “walking loom,” which is a loom that the weaver stands in front of, using his or her feet to manipulate the warp. (575) 588-7231.
- Cardin’s Crossing (Chama)
- Casita de Chuparosa (Abiquiu)
- Gandy Dancer Inn B & B (Chama)
- Las Parras de Abiquiu (Abiquiu)
- Old Abiquiu B & B (Abiquiu)
- Parlor Car B & B (Chama)
- Ojo Caliente (Ojo Caliente)
- Abiquiu Inn (Abiquiu)
- Branding Iron Motel (Chama)
- Foster’s (Chama)
- Inn at the Delta (Española)
- Ghost Ranch Education & Retreat Center
- Ojo Caliente Spa (Ojo Caliente)
- Origin (Ojo Caliente)
- Santa Claran Hotel (Española)
- Star Dance Lodge (Gallina)
- Vista del Rio Lodge (Chama)
- Brazos Lodge (Chama)
- Chama River Bend Lodge (Chama)
- Corkin’s Lodge (Chama)
- Elkhorn Lodge & Café (Chama)
- Lodge & Ranch at Chama (Chama)
- The Timbers (Chama)
- Riana Campground (Abiquiu Lake)
- Camp Chama (Chama)
- Canjilon Lakes Camping (Canjilon Lakes) | This area has been closed off and on due to tree hazards associated with bark beetle damage.
- El Vado Camping (El Vado Lake)
- Heron Camping (Heron Lake)
- Ghost Ranch (Ghost Ranch)