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.
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.
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.