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Chama River Canyon Wilderness, New Mexico

Chama River Canyon Wilderness, New MexicoLocation
Established in 1978, the 50,000-acre Chama River Canyon Wilderness is located north of Santa Fe, N.M. The terrain is typical of the high-country desert Southwest, with red sandstone cliffs and a variety of vegetation due to the mix of desert and canyon river terrain. The areas along the riverbed, at about 6,500 feet above sea level, are piñon-juniper and cedar woodland. The higher elevations on the cliffs, up to 8,100 feet, consist mostly of ponderosa pine and fir.

The canyon’s lower section is accessible year-round by automobile. Forest Road 151 is an eight-mile-long dirt and gravel road that can be driven in a passenger car, unless roads are very wet or snow-covered. The upper section is primarily grassland, accessible only by river or on foot. The area identified as wilderness is located mainly in Santa Fe National Forest (2,900 acres are in Carson National Forest).

The January high temperature average is 37° F while the average low is 21° F. The average high in July is 81° F and the low is 46° F. During late spring, a frequent weather pattern transitions between dark, wet clouds and warm sun. There’s also the daily possibility of summer thunderstorms. Snowfall can be frequent in a normal, non-drought winter. However, the snow doesn’t last long, and conditions are best right after the snowfall.

Photo Experience
There’s a variety of photo opportunities because of the differences in weather and terrain—from red sandstone cliffs to piñon-juniper woodlands to lush green riverbeds. Large mammals include mule deer, elk, black bear and mountain lion, with smaller mammals such as beaver, badger, coyote, rabbit, raccoon and fox. Bald and golden eagles, falcons and turkey vultures can be observed, while ducks and geese pass through during spring and fall migrations.

Spectacular geologic formations are found on Highway 84 nearing the entrance to Forest Road 151. At the north end of the Forest Road is the Christ in the Desert Monastery, open to the public. It’s adjacent to the riverbed and can be included in scenic shots, especially in golden, late-afternoon light. Just north of the wilderness area is the village of Chama, a terminal point on the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

Another way to photograph the area is on a float trip. Although there are several Class II and III rapids in the peak flow of spring, the vast majority of the river is a tranquil float. A raft trip can provide unique perspectives and subjects, but be prepared for high-contrast lighting due to the steep terrain. Bring a polarizer and graduated neutral-density filters.

Best Times
Because of the mild temperatures, spring and fall are the best times to photograph Bisti. In spring, you’ll find wildflowers along the edges of some washes. Winters are an option, but summer visits aren’t recommended due to high temperatures and lack of water and shade. For a unique photo opportunity, time your visit with the appearance of the moon.

Contact: National Public Lands information Center, (877) 276-9404,