The Charms of Chama

Ride and camp year­round among ma­jes­tic elk herds in New Mex­ico’s Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Man­age­ment Area near the his­toric vil­lage of Chama.


Ride and camp year-round among ma­jes­tic elk herds in New Mex­ico’s Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Man­age­ment Area near the his­toric vil­lage of Chama. Sit­u­ated at 7,860 feet above sea level, the area fea­tures high mead­ows, grassy val­leys, and tow­er­ing hills for end­less rid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

CChama, New Mex­ico, eight miles south of the Colorado bor­der, is a nat­u­ral mag­net for avid trail rid­ers. Tucked be­tween the south­ern foothills of the San Juan Moun­tains and west­ern reaches of the Bra­zos Moun­tains, rid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties here are end­less. We be­gan our rid­ing ad­ven­tures here in the 20,400-acre Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Man­age­ment Area lo­cated about a mile from the his­toric vil­lage of Chama.

Wildlife man­age­ment ar­eas are large tracts of land man­aged for con­ser­va­tion and re­cre­ation. They’re gen­er­ally more rugged than parks and offer fewer ameni­ties.

The Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Man­age­ment Area was es­tab­lished in 1976 by Ed­ward Sargent, a lo­cal rancher, sports­man, and con­ser­va­tion­ist. One of the largest prop­er­ties man­aged by the New Mex­ico Depart­ment of Game & Fish, this WMA ex­tends all the way to the Colorado bor­der. The fo­cus is on wildlife pro­tec­tion, es­pe­cially elk, and habi­tat con­ser­va­tion.

Here, you’ll en­joy mag­nif­i­cent views of high mead­ows, grassy val­leys, and tow­er­ing hills blan­keted with pine trees, cot­ton­woods, and golden aspen.

Liven­ing up the scene are coy­ote, wild turkey, mule deer, black bear, and abun­dant birdlife, plus the ma­jes­tic elk.

The Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Man­age­ment Area is open to eques­tri­ans year­round, but rid­ing is re­stricted to des­ig­nated ar­eas from May 15 to June 30 and dur­ing es­tab­lished elk hunts. This WMA is a fa­vored cor­ri­dor for the 3,000 to 5,000 elk that mi­grate from Colorado to Rio Chama each fall and re­turn in the spring. Sev­eral hun­dred elk re­main here year-round be­cause their wa­ter, food, and shel­ter needs are met.

Prim­i­tive camp­ing is free, with four large, heavy-duty cor­rals, but no wa­ter. When we needed to re­fill our wa­ter tanks, we bought wa­ter from a nearby recre­ational-ve­hi­cle camp­ground.

Ridge Ride

Hid­den val­leys came into view as we rode up and down the gen­tly flow­ing ridge­line. Bur­nished fo­liage con­trasted with golden bracket ferns as they swirled to­gether on the for­est floor. Tan­ta­liz­ing trails ma­te­ri­al­ized and beck­oned to us, only to fade away as we tried to un­cover their se­cret des­ti­na­tions.

This ridge is ideal for a “de­sign-a-ride.” Ride as far as you’d like. Take what­ever trail ap­peals to your fancy. There’s an en­tire net­work of rid­ing trails. It would be fairly dif­fi­cult to get lost, be­cause you have the ridge, val­ley, and river to guide you. Just re­mem­ber to take a warm jacket; at these high el­e­va­tions, the weather can be un­pre­dictable.

Na­bor Lake Ride

On our se­cond ride, we headed to Na­bor Lake, a man­made reser­voir lo­cated a lit­tle over 6 miles from our camp. Af­ter read­ing about the lake, we thought it

would be a fun spot for a pic­nic and maybe a lit­tle fish­ing for Gila trout.

From the main road, go through the gate be­fore the camp exit. This is a non­mo­tor­ized dirt road that crosses Rio Chamita, a small trout stream. Here, our 10-year-old Mis­souri Fox Trot­ter geld­ings, Nate and Cow­boy, got a se­ri­ous “turkey test.” The scrub oaks bor­der­ing the creek sud­denly came alive with squawk­ing, flap­ping wild tur­keys, star­tling all of us!

The turnoff for Na­bor Lake is 4 miles up this road. If you were to ride an ad­di­tional 6 miles, you’d ar­rive in Colorado. We left the road but par­al­leled it while rid­ing cross-coun­try in the lush basin.

Hav­ing never been here be­fore, we didn’t want to miss the faint tracks on the right that sig­naled our turnoff to Na­bor Lake. We no­ticed as­pens close to the road on the left and a T-post on the right along­side the tracks. Other than that, it would be easy to miss this turn; a GPS is help­ful. From this trail junc­tion, it’s 2.2 miles to Na­bor Lake.

As we headed north, we could see Chama Peak in the dis­tance. Three deer bounded ef­fort­lessly across the swelling hill­side. An old cor­ral ap­peared on our right, sprawled on the ground, like an old, home­less drunk.

Un­ex­pect­edly, our trail mor­phed into “aspen av­enue,” a wide grassy lane with straight rows of aspen on both sides, a for­got­ten en­trance to an old man­sion. When the lane turns right, con­tinue straight on a faint path. This takes you to a pic­turesque meadow and Na­bor Lake.

We rode across an earthen dam to an overlooking hill­side and found some downed trees to use as pic- nic benches. Nate and Cow­boy waited pa­tiently to get hob­bled so they could en­joy their lunch of green grass. We had one of our fa­vorite trail treats — peanut but­ter-and-ba­nana sand­wiches and ap­ples.

Ac­cord­ing to the lo­cals, the lake is good for fish­ing. How­ever, when we ar­rived, the lake wa­ter was cloudy, and we didn’t get any bites. Per­haps the heavy, re­cent rain­fall cre­ated the sus­pended sed­i­men­ta­tion, but it didn’t do any­thing to mar the lake’s beauty.

On our re­turn trip, we did a cross-coun­try ad­ven­ture ride. We headed east, trav­el­ing through small basins, along­side hills, and in and out of grassy parks where we no­ticed lots of “beds,” ar­eas of mat­ted grasses where elk or deer had bed­ded for the night. Rio Chamita Creek was our gen­eral guide­post for this ex­ploratory re­turn ride.

More Top Rides

We highly rec­om­mend do­ing cross­coun­try rid­ing here. The ter­rain is open, and both the creek and ridgetop are help­ful in di­rec­tional nav­i­ga­tion.

A cou­ple of rid­ing ideas: Af­ter cross­ing Rio Chamita Creek near the stone mon­u­ment, go right. Go through two fences, and ex­plore the val­leys to the north. Past the mon­u­ment, where the road turns to the right, take a left, and ex­plore the two val­leys on the left side of the road.

Keep your eyes open for wildlife. One high­light for us was watch­ing a black bear dig for grubs. We had stopped for a break and no­ticed a “black rock” that ap­peared to be mov­ing. Sure enough, the binoc­u­lars con­firmed it was a black bear. We sat in the sun­shine, took turns with the binoc­u­lars, and en­joyed our own pri­vate wildlife show.

The best time for elk view­ing is July to mid-Septem­ber. Al­though we were here in Septem­ber, we didn’t see any elk. Oc­to­ber to De­cem­ber isn’t rec­om­mended for wildlife view­ing.

If you’re in the area with­out your horse and need a horse fix, visit the Fish­tail Ranch lo­cated 9 miles south­east of Chama, a beau­ti­ful ranch lo­cated in the shad­ows of the Bra­zos Cliffs.

These folks will take care of you with fine stock and scenic rid­ing. They offer a two-hour “ranch hand ride” and a one-hour “bucka­roo ride.” The lat­ter in­cludes in­struc­tion. They are flex­i­ble and can ac­com­mo­date a range of rid­ing skills and in­ter­ests.

Hopewell Lake Camp­ground

Hopewell Lake Camp­ground, lo­cated at 9,700 feet el­e­va­tion 45 miles south­east of Chama in Car­son Na­tional For­est, is a good rid­ing area for those hot, hu­mid sum­mer days.

You could make this horse camp work for a short stay, but it isn’t well-de­signed for horses. The small sin­gle cor­ral would be crowded with two horses, and the other cor­ral be­longs to an­other unit. In be­tween the two cor­rals are a wa­ter spigot and a stock tank — nice ameni­ties, but a long haul if you want your horse to have a wa­ter bucket hang­ing in his pen.

Aside from Hopewell Lake, an­other at­trac­tion here is the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide Trail, which runs along the south edge of camp. The Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide Trail runs from Mex­ico to Canada, a grand to­tal of 3,100 miles. It’s not a tidy main­tained trail, be­ing only 70 per­cent com­plete. A great deal of the CDT con­sists of dirt roads and trails cob­bled to­gether.

Of all of our na­tional scenic trails, the CDT is the most re­mote and most dif­fi­cult. Only 150 peo­ple com­plete this trek an­nu­ally.

His­toric Rail­road

No mat­ter how gor­geous the rid­ing or how awe­some the horses, a lit­tle va­ri­ety adds spice to life, and the lit­tle town of Cha- ma has it in the Cum­bres & Toltec Scenic Rail­road Na­tional His­toric Land­mark. From our idyl­lic Ed­ward Sargent camp­ground we could hear trains chug­ging and whistling, so we de­cided to check it out.

Des­ig­nated a Na­tional His­toric Land­mark in 2012, the Cum­bres & Toltec Scenic Rail­road is the long­est, high­est, and most com­plete ex­am­ple of late 19th and early 20th cen­tury nar­row gauge rail­road­ing in the na­tion. It was fea­tured in the 1994 film Wy­att Earp, star­ring Kevin Cost­ner.

The 130-year old rail­road op­er­ates daily, run­ning old-time coal-op­er­ated lo­co­mo­tives up and over moun­tains 10,000 feet high. We signed up for an evening ride that would take us up to Cum­bres Pass where din­ner was served in a pro­tec­tive en­clo­sure.

We traded in our sad­dles for a seat on an an­tique train car and pro­ceeded to watch na­ture un­fold in all her fall fin­ery. We had some ad­di­tional “fin­ery” on our train — the car ahead of ours con­tained a wed­ding party. The min­is­ter mar­ried the happy cou­ple on the ride up to Cum­bres Pass.

On the train ride back, we all joined in the fes­tiv­i­ties. That evening, a small group of us stub­bornly stayed in the ex­posed car, brav­ing an icy wind sweep­ing down the moun­tain­side and plum­met­ing tem­per­a­tures.

There was a method to our mad­ness: See­ing the full moon rise while aboard the his­toric train. A no­ble goal, but cer­tainly a chilly one!

Fi­nally, a glow­ing, lu­mi­nes­cent orb be­gan crawl­ing up and over the moun­tain, grow­ing larger and larger. We for­got the cold and just felt like we were the luck­i­est peo­ple in the world. A full moon, an an­tique train, be­ing to­gether on an ad­ven­ture with our horses — life is good! TTR

The rid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties around Chama are end­less. Here, Char­lene Krone rides Nate out of camp at the Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Area.

At the Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Man­age­ment Area, “Prim­i­tive camp­ing is free, with four large, heavy-duty cor­rals, but no wa­ter,” note the Krones. In­set: Cow­boy pauses for a drink from the Rio Chamita on the way to Na­bor Lake.

Chama, New Mex­ico, is a nat­u­ral mag­net for avid trail rid­ers. Here, Char­lene Krone rides Nate through an aspen grove on a ride out of the camp­ground at the Ed­ward Sargent Wildlife Man­age­ment Area. Be­low: Kent Krone rides Cow­boy cross-coun­try back to...

The 130-year-old Cum­bres & Toltec Scenic Rail­road op­er­ates daily, run­ning old-time coal-op­er­ated lo­co­mo­tives up and over moun­tains 10,000 feet high. It was des­ig­nated a Na­tional His­toric Land­mark in 2012.

Hopewell Lake Camp­ground is lo­cated at 9,700 feet el­e­va­tion 45 miles south­east of Chama in Car­son Na­tional For­est. Here, Cow­boy and Nate set­tle in at the camp­ground cor­rals.

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