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Chama, New Mexico: A Brief History

The village of Chama is located in northern New Mexico, less than 10 miles south of the Colorado border. Nestled in a high valley at an elevation of 7,871 ft. and surrounded by the San Juan Rockies and Brazos cliffs with the Rio Chama running through it, Chama is a uniquely beautiful area with a rich history.

The Chama valley was home to indigenous tribes long before the town was founded. The Jicarilla Apache reservation still covers much of the land surrounding Chama to the east and west. Dulce, a village 34 miles west of Chama, is the tribal capital of the Jicarilla Apache and visitors can enjoy the Arts and Crafts Museum, the largest elk-enclosure in the country, and fishing on various mountain lakes.

Spanish colonizers arrived in northern New Mexico in the 1500s and were responsible for  originally establishing the town itself. It was in the 1880s, however, that Chama really began to boom. The Denver & Rio Grande Railroad began working on the route through Chama in 1881. At its peak, the DRGW operated the largest narrow gauge railroad in North America with a motto of “Through the Rockies, not Around Them.” The railroad brought industry and excitement to the area. Not only did railway workers need to be there, and need to be housed and entertained, but access to the area brought increased interest from the mining and timber industries as well as ranchers and outlaws.

Today, the Cumbres and Toltec Railroad is one of Chama’s biggest tourist attractions. This scenic portion of the previously industrious railway line was saved from destruction by activists in 1970 and has been carrying tourists through the amazing New Mexico/Colorado scenery ever since. It is a designated National Historic Landmark that shouldn’t be missed when you’re in the area.

Chama’s booming economy of the late 19th century was hard hit throughout the 20th century. The Great Depression and extreme winters combined to almost wipe out the sheep ranching industry and brief periods of silver and natural gas mining proved unsustainable for long term Chama. Today, Chama’s main business is tourism, for good reason. The natural beauty of the area combined with the rich history make it a perfect vacation destination. Fishing, hiking, water sports, winter sports, the railroad, historical landmarks, and wildlife are just a few of the reasons tourists flock to Chama in winter and summer. The blend of cultures that make up Chama’s history are still present and provide an experience hard to match.

The Elkhorn Lodge has been hosting visitors for nearly 70 years and is located just on the edge of town, providing easy access to the many routes tourists can take to explore the area. Stay tuned to the Elkhorn Lodge blog for upcoming information on things to do when you’re visiting the beautiful Chama valley.

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