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Susan V Smith

Chama River Wilderness Article
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Published in TrailBlazer Magazine, Issue 1, 2003, pgs. 42-43


The state of New Mexico boasts five national forests and three national wilderness areas, and also has numerous state parks and land under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). All this land is potential horse country for trail riders.


The natural environment of New Mexico is incredibly diverse. Volcanoes have formed a large part of the geology, leaving unusual rock formations in several parts of the state.


The Chama River Canyon Wilderness is one of the more spectacular examples of volcanic activity, located within an hour and a half to two hours distance of Santa Fe. It is approximately 15 miles north of the town of Abiqui, just beyond Ghost Ranch, where the late artist Georgia OKeefe made her home.


The 50,300-acre Chama River Canyon Wilderness resides within the Santa Fe National Forest and the Carson National Forest. This region is astonishingly beautiful and set up for overnight camping, hiking, biking and equestrian use.


Along the Chama River, there are numerous places to park rigs, and to park overnight with horses. Facilities include cookstoves, bathrooms and in some areas, running water. Check with the Forest Service maintaining that area before your visit to make sure there is room for rigs and conditions are good.


From the Chama River Wilderness you can ride onto the Continental Divide Trail, which will take you through pine forest onto a mesa with breathtaking views of the geologic formations that this area is famous for.


             Driving Directions: From Santa Fe, take NM 285 north. Just as you get to the town of Española, continue to follow NM 285, which takes you left, over the Rio Grande, then at the next stop light, turn right. Stay on NM 84/285. There is another stop light and you veer to the left (two lanes). Continue on NM 84 north toward Abiqui.


            From the town of Abiqui, drive approximately 15 miles. There will be a large imposing rock formation on the right hand side of the road, somewhat different from all the other gorgeous rock formations youve seen so far along this road. Look on your left for the Forest Road markers Chama River blue sign and Forest Road #151. Youll see a sign also at the beginning of the road that says Entering private road. This road becomes the forest road.


            At this point in exploration, there are several options.


Option 1--Drive approximately 8 miles in to a big turnout on the river which is one mile before Skull Bridge. Ride up to the bridge and walk the horses across the bridge. Youll need to open two range gates on the left, then take the road straight up. Follow the road as it veers to the right, and you can ride the 7 miles along the road or follow the curve of the river (for the most part youll have to come inland in places because it gets steep and impassable) to the Christ of the Desert Monastery land. This is as far as you can go along the river. In the distance, youll see the actual Monastery on the opposite side of the river, nestled in cottonwoods.


            Option 2-- Continental Divide Trail -- Once you cross the bridge and go through the range gates. Once you cross the bridge, you are in Ojitos Canyon, and the trail is referred to as the Ojitos Trail #298. Go straight up the road and youll see a somewhat unobtrusive wooden post trail marker marked CD  in the midst of some sagebrush. This is the Continental Divide Trail. This trail is still part of the Wilderness but crosses into Santa Fe National Forest land at some point.


            This trail will lead you through a range gate (there is a turnstile at the fence for hikers too) on a dirt track through more sagebrush. Ride for a couple of miles and youll come to another range gate to your left with turnstile. Go through this gate and be sure to take the trail to your right. This trail winds through the woods and takes you down some steep washes, through several creek crossings, lots of low hanging branches. Be sure to watch the trail and CD markers carefully, its easy to get off trail in here.  At a critical point (the creek crossings are numerous) youll cross the creek, and will see a typical pile of logs and branches to denote dont go there across the trail you are on. Look up to your left for a trail headed up the mountain. There is no CD marker visible at this point but take this trail up and youll see the markers soon enough. Follow it all the way to the top. You will come up onto the mesa, covering about 1,100 feet in 1.2 miles, with switchbacks. You will top out on Mesa del Camino. At this point the CD trail is the two track to the right,  which will link up with FR #468 to Fuertes Spring which is to your left, making a loop ride all the way around the mesa. The views of the Abiqui rock formations are spectacular from here. There are also gorgeous meadows bordered by ponderosa pine.


            Option 3-- Ride the road. You can park your rig at any of the numerous turnouts along the first three miles and as the road turns toward the Chama River and ride from there along the road. The road  becomes narrower as it gets closer to the Chama River. Dont be alarmed by how narrow the road is there are so many turnouts and there are many places along the river to park that are easy turnarounds. The road is beautifully maintained.


            On the weekends there is quite a bit of traffic. People are generally courteous and drive slowly.




1) Parking close to the bridge to ride to the Monastery (preferable):

Driving time from Santa Fe: 2 hours

Riding distance round trip: 16 miles

Riding time: 3-4 hours

Rating of trail: gravel road, plus easy footing on two-track dirt roads or cow paths.

Pace: Walking, trotting-galloping

Elevation: 8,110 feet

Season: Spring & fall. During rainy weather the road is impassable.

Maps: Echo Amphitheater, Laguna Peak, Santa Fe National Forest



2) Continental Divide Trail

Driving time from Santa Fe: 2 hours

Riding distance round trip: 16+ miles

Riding time: 3-4 hours

Rating of trail: easy to strenuous: gravel road, plus easy footing on two-track dirt roads, trails, some climbing

Pace: Walking, trotting

Elevation: 8,110-8,500 feet

Season: Spring & fall. During rainy weather the road is impassable.

Maps: Echo Amphitheater, Laguna Peak, Santa Fe National Forest


3) Riding FS #151 to the Monastery (not preferable, but doable):

Driving Time from Santa Fe: 1 ½ hours

Riding distance round trip: depending upon where you start your ride (total mileage of FR #151 is 13 miles round trip 26)

Time: This will depend on distance traveled

Rating of trail: Gravel road. In some places you can get off the road and find trail near the river.

Pace: Walking, trotting, cantering

Elevation: 8,110-8,500  feet

Season: Spring and fall. During rainy weather the road is impassable.

Maps: Echo Amphitheater, Laguna Peak, Santa Fe National Forest


Temperatures range from 40-60 degrees in Spring, 50-70 degrees in Fall.


During hunting seasons, its a good idea to check with the local Department of Game & Fish to find out what hunters are out there. They issue a booklet that details the different areas and hunting allowed. Usually  October and November are the prime hunting seasons. Personally I dont worry too much about bow hunters and muzzle loaders, because they have to think and plan to make a single shot, so hopefully in that process they will deduce that my horse and I are not a future meal or trophy and set their sights on something else. Orange is a great color to add to your wardrobe if you are planning to ride out in the woods during hunting season.




            If you are a New Mexico resident, be sure you have had a brand inspection before hauling your horse anywhere within the state. If you are from out of state, youll need a recent proof of Coggins test, and a health certificate issued within the last ten days. You must carry these papers with you whenever hauling.



New Mexico Department of Game & Fish

P.O. Box 25112

Santa Fe, NM 87504



Carson National Forest

Canjilon Ranger District

P. O. Box 488

Canjilon, NM 87515



Santa Fe National Forest

Coyote Ranger District

P. O. Box 160

Coyote, NM 87012



Other Resources:


Ghost Ranch Living Museum

Highway 84

Abiqui, NM 87510



Bodes General Store

Highway 84

Abiqui, NM 87510



Horses First

Elite Equine Services

P. O. Box 745

Abiqui, NM 87510-0745



Feed & Hay:


Country Farm Supply

230 Riverside Drive

Española, NM 87532



Pojoaque Valley Equipment

Highway 84/285

Pojoaque, NM 87506





Valley Veterinary

Highway 84/285

Pojoaque, NM 87506



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