Chama Basin is one of the most scenic areas on the Conejos Peak Ranger District, and is quite distinct in character from the rest of the district. While the glacial valleys of the Conejos Plateau Area are steep and narrow, the Chama River Valley is wide and spacious. Steep cliffs of colorful volcanic and sedimentary rock surround the valley. Erosion has intricately dissected these cliffs, leaving various shaped outcrops of rock. Waterfalls cascade over the cliffs from the plateau above. The fall is an especially good time to visit Chama Basin, when the slopes of aspen are in full splendor.
The gentle slopes which descend from the foot of the cliffs to the river below are covered by expansive forests of aspen, interspersed with spruce and fir. Fingers of forest creep up the ravines dissecting the cliffs. Willows and cottonwoods follow the river as it meanders through the grasslands of the lower valley. At the trailhead of the West Chama Trail, the valley narrows and narrowleaf alder and willow dominate the streamside vegetation.
The West Chama Trail climbs steeply away from the Chama River along a small tributary stream within an aspen forest. As the trail leaves this tributary and follows the Chama River to the confluence of the East and West Forks, it stays high above the river and passes through dry subalpine meadows and scattered aspen stands. A spectacular view of the entire valley is afforded from the trail above the confluence. Dark virgin spruce fir forests fill the valley of the West Fork providing a dramatic change as one approaches the steep cliffs bordering the valley.
Banded Peak, a local landmark rises massively on the left as one climbs up the trail. The strenuous climb up the cliff to the Forest boundary rewards the hikers with a view of Chama Basin and south into New Mexico that is unsurpassable.
The difficulty of the route varies, both because of terrain and the stability of the slopes. The trail follows the West Fork over gentle terrain for most of its distance. Steeper sections of the trail occur where it climbs from the Chama River Valley one mile from the trailhead and where it climbs the steep cliffs at the head of the West Fork.
The trail ends at the Forest Boundary and therefore does not join any of the trails on the plateau above. These trails can be reached by hiking cross country, but the rugged terrain makes this a difficult venture. The old jeep trail (#124) junctions with the West Fork Trail about two miles north of the trailhead. The Archuleta Trail #741 junctions on the north with this road, making a possible loop trip.
Water and camping sites are abundant along the entire length of the trail. Drinking water should be treated before consumption. Access may be difficult in the spring when the river is running high, as the river must be forded soon after the trailhead. Visitors should use extreme caution when attempting to cross the river under these conditions. Parking is available at the camping area before the road crosses the Chama River.
Directions from Chama, New Mexico: Approximately 7.0 miles north on Highway 17, take the Chama River Road to the north. This road passes through private property for 6.0 miles before reaching the Rio Grande National Forest Boundary. At the forest boundary, take the left fork of the road down to the campground beside the river and follow the trail upstream. This road crosses the Chama River at the primitive campground. The West Chama Trail begins at the road closure.
May through September .