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Chama Basin provides a great escape

The local forest closures leave us with two options: staying home to grumble or exploring new areas for fishing, hiking, hunting and the riding of bikes, horses and ATVs. If you choose the latter, let me recommend the Chama Basin just north of Chama as a beautiful spot for all these activities.

Sure, it’s a 2-hour drive, but you can sleep for free at the riverside campground or stay in a motel or cabin in Chama, just minutes away.

Only six miles down a dirt road off N.M. 17, the Chama River Camp Area and its two trailheads sit in a lush, green valley along the clear, frigid Rio Chama. Dense forests of aspen and spruce-fir trees color the sedimentary and volcanic ridges on either side of the expansive valley — no beetle problems here — and cattle graze in thick grass spotted with yellow, orange and purple wildflowers.

The campground is located almost on the border of a wilderness area — where only foot travel is allowed — and a national forest area that allows ATVs, mountain bikes and horses on certain trails. Leashed dogs are welcome in both areas.

Because of its beauty and diverse recreation options, a wide variety of people descend on the area, which is open May through September. My wife, 2-year-old son and I camped there during Father’s Day weekend along with about 10 other groups. The campground has approximately 20 loosely defined camp spaces. Some folks had ATVs for retrieving game or just riding around, many had horses and a few brought mountain bikes.

Some people just hang out around the primitive campground and enjoy being outside, drinking beer around a campfire or playing in the Rio. Some hunt. Some fish. Others filtered water from the Rio before backpacking into the high country for a few days.

My family has visited the area since I was my son’s age, and people have invariably been friendly. Last year an older man who comes out every year from Oklahoma gave my son an ATV ride around the campground. This year other campers pointed out an elk herd descending from the trees and passed around their binoculars so we all could see.

Three ranchers keep cattle on the land. A gray-haired couple from Alabama who are living in an RV tend the cows and keep an eye on the place. When we arrived a couple of weekends ago, two cowboys were bringing the cattle back from the meadows into a corral to reunite a lost and hungry calf with its engorged mother. My son, who having lived in Southern California and Santa Fe has seen more cars than large animals, thoroughly enjoyed watching the cowboys work.

For trail activities there are a few options, including an 8-mile hike to waterfalls. Trail 738 provides an easy stroll up the valley and is only open to pedestrians and horses. It begins on the north end of the campground, just across the river, which you have to wade across. The Forest Service pegs this hike as 2.5 miles one way to some beaver dams and good fishing spots, with 550 feet of elevation gain.

Trail 740, which is open to ATV and mountain bike traffic , heads west up and out of the valley. The 8-mile trail is steep and a little loose in some areas, but generally mild. It gains 2,000 feet in elevation and leads to a panoramic view of the basin and of the falls to the north. It begins just across the river on the south end of the campground, through a gate beside the corral.

I might be biased about the place — my wife and I wed there a few years ago just after an afternoon shower washed the pungent valley. Our little wedding party traipsed across the Rio — pants rolled up and dresses held high — to a knoll with a great vantage point and a mossy rock for an altar. After the ceremony the rains started again, so our celebratory dinner was held in the campground under poles and tarps. We roped a horseman in a long duster into photographing our group.

Sure, I’m sentimental about the place. But there’s good reason we chose the Chama Basin for our wedding: It is gorgeous. Its 8,000-foot elevation provides a pleasant temperature and recreational opportunities abound. Go see for yourself.

To get there, take U.S. 285 north to Española , then U.S. 84 toward Chama. From Chama, take N.M. 17 to National Forest Road 121. From the 599 overpass in Santa Fe it is 111 miles to the Forest Road turnoff. But an easier way to measure might be 5.3 miles from the railroad station in downtown Chama.

Marked by a large wooden entrance, National Forest Road 121 will be on the left side just past a few cabins. Take this dirt road 6.3 miles through private property and across the Colorado state line to the Rio Grande National Forest.

As you enter the National Forest you can see waterfalls miles ahead up the valley and the campground below to your left. There is a good map posted at the information sign along the road.

For information contact the Conejos Peak Ranger Station at (719) 274-8971 or visit

Composed: 07/01/2004 | Modified: 07/01/2004

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