FROM WHERE WE STAND in a grassy basin, brush conceals the herd of cattle, but when the Trout Stalker Ranch manager calls them with a trilling prrr, cows moo back. The herd plods down the slope and through the gap in an electric fence used to corral them in a corner of the pasture. The craggy pine-and-aspen-cloaked Cumbres Pass fills the northern skyline. The village of Chama, where businesses cluster near the train depot just minutes down the road, has vanished behind green hillsides.
Each day, these cows are nudged to a new stretch of grass, with a goal of limiting them to a “first bite,” rather than a second or third that could cut so deeply into each blade there’s little left for regrowth, so the field will regain any nibbled inches over a few weeks. The rapid rebound girds a long-term effort to head off the problems with soil, water, and unwelcome, non-native grass species that follow decades of overgrazing.
“To me, all this stuff comes down to that it’s either going to be here for the next generation, or it’s going to be gone,” says Stewart Lavender, the newly arrived chef at Local, a Chama restaurant, as he watches the cattle drop their heads into the bluish western wheatgrass. The two Highland steers among them are destined for plates at the restaurant.
Lavender is still settling into this tiny northern New Mexico community and “finding that sweet spot between what you want to do and what’s feasible” in a kitchen so committed to cooking with a wood-fired oven that a stove was never installed. “You meet people here, and it’s like they’re all dedicated to something,” he says, as we load into his car to leave the ranch after an hour of watching the cows.
That something can mean the bustling local food scene, a revived drive-in movie theater, or art programs for people of all abilities. Bucking the odds, Chama has seen a growth curve in businesses, with new places for shopping, eating, weaving, and getting hitched. The results bring new possibilities to the town’s steadfast draws, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad and mile after mile of Rocky Mountain terrain for hiking, cross-country skiing, hunting, and fishing.
For the second season, the historic narrow-gauge railroad is running shorter trips (three hours instead of six to eight), and it’s premiering food-focused rides this summer, along with the option to ride a “double-header,” with two engines tugging cars uphill, in July, weather and wildfire conditions permitting.
At 142 years old, even the CTSR is “all aboard” with what’s new in Chama.
ASHLYN AND DAN PERRY, who own the fly-fisher’s dream destination of Trout Stalker Ranch, opened Local in 2019. It lives up to its name by sourcing from local beef and pork ranchers, farmers with heirloom tomatoes, and foragers, who scour nearby aspen groves and stream banks for porcini, chanterelles, and wild asparagus. Those seasonal items rotate through a menu tweaked constantly so residents don’t eat their way through all the offerings and get bored, while visitors find high-quality food in an unfussy setting.
“To me, the beauty of Local is that it’s much more than a place to eat,” Lavender says. “It’s the people, the interaction with the land, all these things that come together around food.”
That’s visible, too, with Jazzmyn Cramer, who runs Wilder Bakeshop, where Lavender and I met to snag coffee and pastries before heading out to the ranch. (Doing so required waiting in a line that stretched from the door to the bakery case of sticky buns, cherry tarts, croque madames, and chocolate croissants, with every table filled in between.) That’s what her bakery is here for, Cramer tells me later, sitting with a coffee after the morning rush: “Giving people a place to relax and feel comfortable, heard, and nourished.”
She’d wanted to open a bakeshop since she was a teenager, but she originally left the West Coast for the Chama area to build an off-the-grid home with her fiancé. Sadly, he died just a couple of weeks after they arrived. Reluctant to continue that project alone, she opened Wilder instead. She still makes every dough, filling, and caramel herself—and sources every meat and cheese, which she slices herself, from mostly local growers—to produce 200 pastries daily.
“It’s been a wild four years—learn how to run a business, try not to cry too much, teach yourself how to bake while keeping the doors open and paying all the bills,” she says. “It’s been insane. I think at this point, nothing can take me down except for myself.”
Now she’s got an eye toward how Chama’s restaurants can help one another—at Local, for example, she could debut a Blue Corn Frangipane with Honey Goat Cheese Orange Whip. Together, the new eateries nudge the village forward as a destination for foodies.
The Cumbres & Toltec picks up that thread with new brunch and dinner trains (from Cumbres Pass or Antonito) this year. Passengers riding newly restored locomotive No. 168 and rebuilt historic cars might sip a locally brewed beer named for that historic engine, which returned to the tracks last year. Need to burn off a bit? Mountain bikers can haul the bike along to the top of Cumbres Pass, then ride downhill. Continental Divide Trail through-hikers also ride the train to the top and hike from there.
“The whole community of Chama is coming together and building a good destination here for everybody to come and enjoy,” says Abigail Martinez, marketing coordinator for the railroad.
Becki and Loyd McClanahan certainly see that. When the couple sold their restaurant in Texas, they moved to Pagosa Springs, just north of the nearby state line with Colorado, but found themselves more comfortable in Chama. They bought and began renovating the former VFW hall for their Outlaw BBQ Company. They brought a food truck down for a test run, posting on Facebook late on a Thursday night that they’d be serving the next day. By 11 a.m., a line of people and cars spilled out of their parking lot, Becki says. Just over two hours later, they were sold out of 250 pounds of meat.
“It’s been a lot of fun coming here,” she says. “There’s just a really good energy.”
At the Chama Valley Arts Coalition, a white building with black-trimmed windows, Anita Massari, director of Chama Valley Arts, and a crew of volunteers have scoured almost every shop within a half-hour drive for materials to frame artwork by about 100 local students.
“I think this will be the most important thing I’ve done,” Massari says, as she looks over splashy watercolors and finely detailed drawings. The heart of her work lies in teaching kids to notice and express what they’re feeling, support one another, deal with conflict, and think critically. The goal isn’t to create artists, but to help young people learn to express their feelings.
Massari started the arts center, housed in a former parish center and elementary school owned by the Perrys, with a series of community meetings that asked people to write down dreams for themselves, their families, and the community. Those wishes fed a mission statement that focuses on cultivating creativity, learning, and community through arts and culture.
That vast umbrella has allowed her to host classes on Native flute playing, watercolor painting, and tie-dyeing. She slips the arts cooperative into local events, adding face painting, T-shirt dyeing stations, and scavenger hunts to the annual Chama Days festival (August 11–14 this year).
The cooperative also inherited the task of running the 15-year-old Chama Valley Art Festival, a Labor Day weekend event that started as a studio tour and has blossomed, with musicians, food trucks, dance and arts demos from the neighboring Jicarilla Apache tribe, henna painting, tarot reading, and yoga classes, all hewing to an inclusive
philosophy: May there be no bystanders.
As the sun sets, Amy Staggs stands at the entrance to Elevate Chama, where cars and trucks roll in for a preview night at the newly reopened drive-in movie theater. She’s within sniffing distance of Southern Comfort BBQ’s food truck (yes, Chama now has two options for barbecue), one of several local vendors that have also become movie concessionaires.
Staggs leans against car doors chatting with folks she recognizes from the shop she and her family run, Cornerstone (in the MountainView Mall—don’t miss the hand-made fudge), or the nonprofit Anchored Hope International, which aims to add youth programming and support services for first responders and veterans. The nonprofit bought the drive-in with plans to host movies and concerts on summer weekends and build other programs that will fill gaps too often found in small towns.
As the sky darkens, about 120 cars and trucks have lined up, windshields or open tailgates aimed at the white corrugated metal sheets that make the screen. Music for the opening credits wafts from car radios. A village employee rolls up, buys tickets for two, and says to Staggs, “We’re very excited to have you.”
IF THERE WAS A GIFT from 2020, it was that travel restrictions prompted New Mexicans to reconnect with Chama, often a place they’d visited as kids to hunt or fish, says Austin Phippen. He and his wife, Karlee, moved here in 2019 to open a wedding venue, Log River Ranch, at Karlee’s family’s cabin. They also run the Chama Trails Motel, a turquoise-trimmed stucco building that’s popular for CDT through-hikers to rest before charging into Colorado’s San Juan Mountains.
At Log River Ranch, ceremonies are held against a backdrop of towering cottonwood trees or along the banks of the Río Chama. Receptions move into a wood-beamed barn with cathedral ceilings, massive doors that the breeze runs through, and twinkling strings of lights. Most couples come from Albuquerque and Santa Fe, just a few hours’ drive away, but that’s enough distance to make it a destination wedding for guests.
“We bring in people who never would have come here,” Karlee says. “They fall in love with it and then they come back.”
When Covid canceled group events, the Phippens refunded everyone who had an event booked. About half later rescheduled.
“That year hurt,” Austin says of 2020. “There were a lot of new businesses that opened in 2019 that shut their doors in 2020. It was pretty rough on the town. It felt like a lot of momentum built in 2019 kind of fell apart in 2020. But this year feels a lot like 2019 again.”
The Log River Ranch rebounded. It’s booked almost every weekend from late May through October, with some events bringing 200 attendees to town. You can witness the uptick in traffic and business.
“We love this community and want to help it thrive sustainably,” Karlee says. “We have a two-year-old, and I want a community she’s proud to come back to.”
Eat. Kick-start your morning at Rio Chama Espresso, where the sprawling menu includes coffee drinks, flatbreads, and bagel sandwiches stacked with eggs, cheese, and bacon. Pizza may be a mainstay at Local, but rib eyes and seafood pass through the wood-fired oven, too, all ordered at the counter and delivered to tables inside or on a massive patio outside with a firepit. With a new stage and a full liquor license, Outlaw BBQ Company is a place built for having a good time—and a belly-filling meal of smoked-on-site brisket and ribs, as well as steaks, sausages, and burgers, plus an afternoon show when the train turns around out front. BoxCar Café’s menu of casual classics sates big appetites with burgers, huevos rancheros, and salads, as well as house-made pies. Pastries at Wilder Bakeshop and Espresso run from savory to sweet, with croissant sandwiches and fruit-forward tarts; richly roasted Iconik coffee polishes it off.
Shop. Railyard Rebel opened in May with basics like hats and sunglasses; New Mexico–made soaps, bottle-cap jewelry, and silk-screened tea towels; and an eclectic array of lacy dresses and deeply fringed jackets. At Tierra Wools, walls are rainbowed with yarn from sheep raised in the Chama River Valley, and weavings—including rugs, hats, blankets, and tunics—from the likes of shop owner Molly Manzanares.
Sleep. Fish just out the back door at the riverside Vista del Rio Lodge before snuggling into rooms richly colored in Southwestern style. Expect understated elegance at the Chama Trails Motel, with white linens and pops of color in ristras and paintings. Retreat from town to lakeside campsites at nearby Heron Lake State Park.
Ride. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad has an expanded range of rides through October 23, including shorter out-and-back jaunts that leave time to explore Chama.