View of the Chama River Canyon and a closeup of the canyon rim.
View of Chama Canyon Rim and upriver on the Chama River


This high-desert trail eases you off of the soggy banks of the Chama River, ascends past much of recent geological history and then casually saunters a gorgeous rim. Easily accessed, moderately demanding and wonderfully rewarding: check, check, check! Cliffside perils do present themselves – parents of young daydreamers need to be advised. Find a sunny winter’s day and put your boots to work!

Driving Directions:

  • From Interstate-25 (near Santa Fe) take Exit 276 signed for NM-599 N
  • At the end of the ramp turn north on NM-599 (to your left if you came from the south)
  • After 13.2 miles on NM-599, at  a fork, bear left for US-84 West/US-285 North (signed)
  • After 0.5 miles on the ramp, merge onto US-84, signed for US-84/US-285. 
  • After 60.8 miles on US-84 turn left onto Forest Road 151 (signed, FR-151, turns to gravel in about 100 feet) 
  • After 8.1 miles on FR-151 park in the trailhead on the left side of the road.

Travel notes:

Forest Road 151 sign on US-84
Turn off of US-84 onto FR-151

US-84 makes a direct connection to I-25, only a few miles north of NM-599.  If you live in Santa Fe or are coming from the north then don’t bother with NM-599. Consult your favorite navigation aid. US-84 in Santa Fe can be a busy road.

North of Santa Fe, in the city of Espanola, US-84/US-285 takes a few twists. Watch for a traffic light where the road straight ahead is US-68. Turn to your left to stay on US-84/US-285. After 0.8 miles, at another light, the US-84 turns abruptly right. Even further north, just past the town of Chamita, US-285 splits off  to the right while US-84 goes straight. All of these change-ups are well signed.

Currently in good shape, Forest Road 151 seems to get lots of traffic. However, if a year or more has passed then you might want to check with more up-to-date sources (see the Forest Service link, below). It has the look of a hard-to-maintain road. Hacked into cliffy terrain and bedded in clay, 151 presents a daunting aspect. Icey or wet conditions would not be ideal.


Gallina Canyon Ranch sign adjacent to the trailhead
Gallina Canyon sign next to trailhead.

Just a wide spot on the Chama River side of the road, this trailhead has an information kiosk concerning the Chama River and wildlife. There are no vault toilet or trash removal services. As you near you should see Skull Bridge going over the river and, opposite the trailhead, a sign for “Gallina Canyon Ranch”. A much smaller set of engraved wooden signs let you know you are near the “Rio Chama” and that the “CDT” crosses here.


  • lowest elevation: 6350 feet
  • highest elevation: 8110 feet
  • net elevation: 1760 feet
  • distance: 5.6 miles (one way, although the turn-back point is arbitrary)

Hike Description:

A whitish rock protrusion, resembling a nose, adjacent to the lower trail.
“Nose Rock” early in ascent

From the information kiosk go back (east) along the road for 20 to 30 feet to find the trail. On this date the entrance had a small, blue-and-white insignia for the Continental Divide Trail (the insignia uses “CTD”). The trail immediately pulls out from under the riverside trees and crosses a narrow bottom land frequented by cactus and yucca. The trail heads into a waterway and begins a long course of short switchbacks. Junipers shade the path, cool on a warm summer’s morning but frosty on a winter’s dawn. The demands of ascent maintains some warmth, but cameras become loudly insistent in view of such scenery. A prominent, pale, nose-like spire pushes above the terrain immediately ahead. Massive cliff faces defend the valley rim high above. Behind you lies the river, running past a riot of canyons, terrain folds and forested plateau tops. Enough! Ascend! Above the spire the juniper give way to small, dark firs (looking stressed). A monument to the trail builder’s art, the trail barrels straight ahead where the terrain benches and switchbacks mightily on the aggressive rises. As you near the altitude of those cliff faces the terrain gets steeper yet.

An unsigned fork in trail, the main tread goes to the left. (The right fork goes to a canyon overlook)
Unsigned fork as trail reaches the rim

At the last moment a break arises in the valley’s rim. Two steep-sided hillocks form the entrance, so the trail must thread the narrow and mysterious depths between. Initially the tread levels out, a blatantly fraudulent attempt to make you think you’ve reached the rim. A sudden swerve takes you east into a previously hidden waterway where a half mile of serious switchbacking ensues. Eventually the terrain eases and blue sky pokes through the ponderosa and Douglas firs that dominate here. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, the trail eventually deigns to deposit hikers on the plateau top. Here you must solve the puzzle of the unsigned fork. It isn’t a very daunting puzzle since the right branch ends almost immediately on an overlook of the Rio Chama. Take the left branch for the rim trail and miles of shifting vistas.

Mesa de las Viejas sign at turn-about. Cerro Pedernal to left of the sign.

Thin patches of snow shrouded the trail in late November. The plateau top is forested in widely spaced trees. As a consequence, all directions (save over the rim) look trail-like. Go slowly and watch for sawed-off tree stumps, the occasional CDT sign and the usual depression-in-the-soil that marks out the tread. At 4.4 miles from the trailhead (about one mile past the fork) you come to a road. Go right. The road reaches the rim and stops there while the trail continues. At mile 5.5 from the trailhead come to a second road and, again, turn right. In a few dozen feet the road loops back on itself. Here you find a sign for the Mesa de las Viejas trail. My maps say that this new trail could take you off the rim and back down to FR 151. It could be a great loop with your rim traverse complimented by a river walk. But, too, it would be a long walk on a busy and narrow road. Lunch always helps, especially while studying the heights of Cerro Pedernal and beyond to the Jemez Mountains. Then, if you choose, return the way you came. 


View to the east from the Chama Canyon Rim. Cerro Pedernal on the right, Lake Abiquiu on the left.
  • It was cold at 8100 feet in late November. Take warm clothes and watch the weather. 
  • There was no evidence of water once you leave the Chama River. On this hike I drank about 0.7 liters and was happy to lug along another two liters. You want four liters on a warm summer’s day. An “alternative” CDT tread branches from the main rim trail at the Mesa de las Viejas junction, heading north. Some maps show a stock pond just a few hundred yards down that alternative. All the social media comments that I found suggest that the tank has been dry for a long time. 
  • There are 680 CDT miles from the turn-back point to the Mexican border. This may not be the best option either in mid winter or in mid summer. Otherwise give it some thought!
  • Seasonal reminder: November and December are part of hunting season. Wear bright orange, whatever trails you may hike.


A terrific report on this hike can be found at New Mexico Wild. (Sign-in required).

The Forest Service has a page describing this hike. It has a link to an excellent map and contact information. Of note, they do not recommend this hike during monsoon season due to often-poor road conditions.