Need To Know
Bode’s General Store 21196 U.S. 84, Abiquiú; (505) 685-4422;

Boxcar Café 425 S. Terrace Ave., Chama; (575) 756-2706

Chama Station Inn 423 S. Terrace Ave., Chama; (575) 756-2315;

Chama Valley Chamber of Commerce (800) 477-0149, (575) 756-2306;

Corkins Lodge 750 N.M. 512, Chama; (575) 588-7261;

Cumbres & Toltec Railroad 500 S. Terrace Ave., Chama; (575) 756-2151;

El Vado Lake State Park N.M. 112, Tierra Amarilla; (575) 588-7247;

Fina’s Diner 2298 N.M. 17, Chama; (575) 756-9195

Ghost Ranch Retreat Center 1708 U.S. 84, Abiquiú; (505) 685-4333;

Heron Lake State Park 640 N.M. 95, Los Ojos; (575) 588-7470;

High Country Restaurant & Saloon 2289 N.M. 17, Chama; (575) 756-2384;

Parlor Car B&B 311 S. Terrace Ave., Chama; (575) 756-1946;

San Jose Church 101 Main St., Los Ojos; (575) 588-7473

Tierra Wools 91 Main St., Los Ojos; (575) 588-7231;

IF YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF EXPLAINING New Mexico’s tremendous geographical diversity to a skeptical outsider who imagines the state as one vast, cactus-studded desert landscape straight out of a Road Runner cartoon, recommend a trip to Chama. This friendly little railroad hub lies at an elevation of 7,800 feet, in a high valley surrounded by wildflower meadows and craggy mountains forested with aspen and ponderosa-pine groves. Less than 10 miles from the Colorado state line, Chama offers visitors a cool taste of Rocky Mountain ruggedness.

The town is home to the nation’s highest scenic narrow-gauge steam railroad, the Cumbres & Toltec. From late May through mid-October, the railroad offers daily excursions north through the Chama Valley, and up over the 10,022-foot Cumbres Pass. It’s the region’s most well-known attraction, a hit with kids and adults. But even if a scenic rail excursion isn’t the path to your heart, picturesque Chama has a pleasing mix of relaxing diversions, including the opportunity to read a book beside—or cast a line into—the roaring mountain river for which the town is named.

Chama has a handful of lodging options; a couple of the best are in the village heart, steps from the Cumbres & Toltec railroad depot. The Parlor Car B&B occupies a striking Victorian with a steep hipped roof, period antiques, and three guest rooms named for railroad luminaries of the Old West—William J. Palmer, Fred Harvey, and George Pullman. Just up the street is Chama Station Inn, a 1926 adobe that contains nine cheerfully furnished, reasonably priced rooms that open to a sunny, fragrant garden.

A little off the beaten path, Corkins Lodge can rightly claim one of the most dramatic and enticing settings of any accommodation in the state. It’s surrounded by acres of lush wilderness at the end of N.M. 512 (a 30-minute drive from Chama proper), beneath a wall of 2,500-foot cliffs in the densely forested Brazos Mountains. Guests can choose from among 11 rustic but warmly outfitted cabins, some dating to the 1930s and others built more recently. Most sleep four to six guests, making them ideal for families and friends traveling together. On-site activities include trout fishing, hiking, and swimming in a heated pool.

You can reach Chama most easily via U.S. 285/84. From Albuquerque, take I-25 to Santa Fe, and pick up U.S. 285/84 at exit 282. The route jogs north-northwest, passing through the cottonwood-laced Española Valley, and up through the brilliant red-rock canyons of Abiquiú and Ghost Ranch. From Santa Fe, it’s a two-hour drive without stops. However, you could easily break up the trip with a light lunch at Bode’s General Store in Abiquiú (try the red-chile cheese fries) or a hike at Ghost Ranch Retreat Center, amid the very buttes and mesas that Georgia O’Keeffe captured on canvas. Try to arrive in Chama no later than 7 p.m., as restaurants in these parts close early. A good bet for a tasty dinner your first evening is the bustling Boxcar Café, set in a historic building known for its green-chile enchiladas and green-chile cheeseburgers.

It may sound a little counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to “see” Chama is to leave Chama. The town’s most famous tourist draw is the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad, whose formidable steam locomotives chug for some 64 miles along a serpentine track through the San Juan Mountains. If you have kids in tow, opt for
the playful Cinder Bear Experience, a two-hour ride led by a costumed, ursine conductor that includes storytelling, sing-alongs, and games. The classic all-ages rides last as much as a full day and include lunch. Fun theme trains are scheduled
throughout the summer, including weekly sunset dinner rides and a Moonlight & Wine Tasting train on July 12.

Before or after riding the rails, spend some time exploring the short but animated stretch of Terrace Avenue lined with souvenir shops and galleries, many of them installed inside erstwhile brothels and saloons that date to the town’s late-19th-century commercial railroad heyday. The town and surrounding valley is also a mecca for outdoor recreation. The Chama Valley Chamber of Commerce can direct you to several local outfitters that offer hunting- and fishing-guide services. If you have your own gear, consider casting a rod in the Río Chama or in the reservoirs at nearby Heron Lake State Park (20 miles southwest) and El Vado Lake State Park (a few miles southwest of Heron Lake), both of which are rife with trout and kokanee salmon.

Arguably Chama’s most celebrated eatery, the timber-faced High Country Restaurant and Saloon is an atmospheric dinner option. The menu focuses on stick-to-your-ribs Southwestern and Western classics like 20-ounce porterhouse steaks, pan-fried cornmeal-crusted trout, and carne adovada. The walls of the dining room are hung with works by Chama artists.

For a quick breakfast, try Fina’s Diner, an endearingly modest family-operated spot festooned with vintage Coca-Cola signs and photos of local high-school sports teams. It’s a good bet for biscuits and gravy, and eggs with chicken-fried steak. Also keep in mind that High Country Restaurant serves a popular breakfast buffet on Sunday mornings, featuring made-to-order omelets and waffles.

Some of the Chama Valley’s most interesting sites lie south of town, including the tiny village of Los Ojos, reached by taking N.M. 514, just off U.S. 84 about 10 miles south of Chama. Around the corner from the village’s handsomely restored San Jose Church, which boasts a corrugated metal roof and adobe belfry, you’ll find the renowned weaving collective Tierra Wools, whose talented artisans produce stunningly handcrafted rugs, blankets, felted hats, and other textiles. In a room off the gallery showroom, you can sometimes watch weavers skirting and scouring the wool from Churro sheep raised at nearby Shepherd’s Lamb ranch. Or you might catch a peek of them dyeing the yarn in huge pots, and warping and weaving the colorful materials on intricate looms.

From Los Ojos, it’s easy to make your way home, returning on U.S. 84. If you have some time to spare, you can cut east from Tierra Amarilla (just south of Los Ojos) on U.S. 64, which climbs dramatically over the Brazos Mountains for 50 miles to Tres Piedras, where you can pick up U.S. 285 south to Santa Fe (1½ hours). Or you can continue east from Tres Piedras on U.S. 64 another 32 miles to Taos. The drive from Chama to Santa Fe via Taos takes about 3½ to 4 hours without stops. ✜

Andrew Collins has written about New Mexico for more than a dozen publications.