Some of my best outdoor adventuring has taken place in the area surrounding this pioneer village of 1,250 people at the base of the 10,000-foot Cumbres Pass. With backpacks on, we cross-country skied high into the mountains and stayed the night in a yurt (Russian hut), the next day waking to hundreds of acres of snowy fields to explore. Another time, we headed down Rio Chama, an official wild and scenic river, on rafts and in kayaks following the course that Navajos, Utes, and Comanches once traveled to raid the Pueblo Indians down river. The campsites along the way were pristine, with mule deer threading through the trees beyond our tents. In a more recent visit to the village, it was summertime, and I'd just come from Durango, which was packed with tourists, to hike, raft, and ride the train. Chama was still quiet, and I realized Chama is New Mexico's undiscovered Durango, without the masses. And now, with some new additions, the town is really looking up. A park, clock-tower, and, drum-roll please . . . sidewalks! give it a more friendly tone.
Bordered by three wilderness areas, the Carson, Rio Grande, and Santa Fe national forests, the area is indeed prime for hunting, fishing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and hiking.
Another highlight here is America's longest and highest narrow-gauge coal-fired steam line, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which winds through valleys and mountain meadows 64 miles between Chama and Antonito, Colorado. The village of Chama boomed when the railroad arrived in 1881. A rough-and-ready frontier town, the place still maintains that flavor, with lumber and ranching making up a big part of the economy.
Landmarks to watch for are the Brazos Cliffs and waterfall and Heron and El Vado lakes. Tierra Amarilla, the Rio Arriba County seat, is 14 miles south, and is at the center -- along with Los Ojos and Los Brazos -- of a wool-raising and weaving tradition where local craftspeople still weave masterpieces. Dulce, governmental seat of the Jicarilla Apache Indian Reservation, is 27 miles west.