Summer 2021 Tour Chama, New Mexico Episode 3: Echo Amphitheater and Heron Lake and Dam

In this post we wrap up our time in Chama, New Mexico, with a quick visit to Echo Amphitheater and Heron Lake State Park.

Echo Amphitheater

As we headed west on US 84 from Ghost Ranch toward Chama, we noticed Echo Amphitheater and had to stop. The rainbow of sandstone cliffs were created during the Triassic and Jurassic periods between 251 and 154 million years ago.

A cave in the making to the left and amphitheater to the right

We followed the concrete trail and ramps until we reached the dead end, where concave cliffs towered above and wrapped around us. Water cascading over the sandstone cliffs created the amphitheater over millions of years.

Information panels tell the amphitheater’s geological story
Flower growing in the parking lot

Picture the land mass of New Mexico as a grassy plain in a tropical or subtropical region located only 10 degrees north of the equator. Deposits from flood plains, lakes, and the rivers that once flowed across the grasslands created the Chinle Formation, which we recognize as the red siltstone and fine sandstone in the lower layers of the cliffs.

Jon stands on the observation deck

Then along came the Jurassic period, when a large lake formed across the Chama Basin region depositing additional layers of basal limestone and shale. As the lake evaporated, a layer of gypsum formed to create the gray caps on top of the cliffs.

Myths of murder posit the cause of the stains. I’ll believe the scientific hypothesis.
From bottom to top: red siltstone and fine sandstone, then basal limestone and shale, gypsum forms the gray caps on the top.

Native Indians and Hispanos harvested the limestone to prepare maiz concho (a hard-shell white corn) into pozole (a dish similar to hominy) and corn tortillas.

The rounded edge of this cliff, with its protective beret on top, seems to evoke a sense of power and movement

At the observation platform, we tried a few shy yells, and then we followed with full throated hoots and hollers. We couldn’t help but smile when the sounds echoed off the walls. It’s too bad carrying a tune is not in my repertoire of skills. I could only imagine what it would feel like to belt out a song in that space.

Dead or alive?

Besides the amphitheater, visitors can find tent camping spots, a hiking trail, and covered picnic tables at Echo Amphitheater.

Heron Lake State Park

One day while in Chama, New Mexico, we drove south on US 64 and transitioned to NM 95, where we stumbled upon the Heron Lake State Park. At the visitor center, we looked at the small exhibits, paid our $5.00 day-use fee, and picked up a map.

Don’t forget to pay the $5.00 fee

We pulled into one of the day-use sites at the west end of Heron Dam. The colorful rock mesa and lake landscape caught my attention and became my subjects for several photographs.

Heron Dam

The earth-filled Heron dam is part of the Colorado River Storage Project and operated by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. It measures 1,221 feet (372 m) long and 276 feet (84 m) high. Constructed in 1971 near the confluence of Willow Creek with Rio Chama, the dam creates Lake Heron. At its fullest, the reservoir covers 5,905 acres (23.90 km2) and contains 401,000 acre-feet (495,000,000 m3) of water.

View of lake from dam

Developed and primitive RV and tent camping are available, some of which are along the shoreline. Only a few of the sites have full hookups, many have electricity and water, some have no electricity and/or water, and about half require a reservation. Campers will enjoy having fresh water, the dump station, and restrooms with showers.

View from day-use site

Visitors will find plenty of recreational activities to engage in year round. Fancy a bit of winter ice fishing or cross-country skiing? Lake Heron has it. In the summer, anglers can try their luck catching trout, or kokanee salmon.

Shoreline camping

Motorboats are allowed at trolling speed only, so no summer water skiing is allowed. Kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, and sailboats are welcome.

Colorful rock mesa

For adventurers who prefer to keep their feet, or wheels, on the ground, the 7 miles of hiking and biking trails should suit them just fine. While hiking and biking, keep a watchful eye open for black bear, elk, deer, marmot, bald eagles, and osprey. They all call the park home.

Where’d that onion come from?

Then we went to the other end of the dam to see the water flow out and down river to El Vado Lake, another storage and release lake of the Colorado River Storage Project.

Backside of dam
Outlet from Heron Dam
Ponderosa pine forest in the canyon

Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit El Vado Lake where there’s a day use area, mostly tent camping, a few RV reservation sites, and a launch ramp.

Next up: We stay a couple nights in Green River, Utah, and visit the JW Powell River History Museum.

Safe Travels

Summer 2021 Tour Chama, New Mexico Episode 2: Ghost Ranch

Our second activity while in Chama, New Mexico, was a trip to Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu about 46 miles from Chama.

Ghost Ranch

I learned of Ghost Ranch about 15 years ago when I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Taos. Ever since then, I have wanted to see the place where O’Keeffe found creative inspiration and spent much of her life.

Ghost Ranch Welcome Center

Ghost Ranch History

  • During the Triassic time period, we would have seen dinosaurs roaming through jungles and swamps along a seacoast. Contrast that terrain with the multicolored canyons and cliffs, plains and grasslands, and streams we see today.
  • The ranch’s archaeological record predates adobe walls and kivas. Hearths and other sites found on the property are dated 6,000 BCE, or 8,000 years ago.
  • More modern times saw cattle rustlers hide their stolen property on the land.
  • A working ranch became a Dude Ranch in the 1920s.
  • Georgia O’Keeffe came to the ranch in 1934 and bought 12 acres at the edge of the ranch in 1940.
  • Arthur and Phoebe Pack bought the 21,000-acre ranch in 1936.
  • New Mexico’s state fossil Coelophysis was found at the ranch in 1947.
  • The Packs donated Ghost Ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955.
  • The National Ghost Ranch Foundation was established in 1972.
  • Several movies used the ranch for their setting, including Indiana Jones, Cowboys and Aliens, City Slickers, and Silverado, to name a few.
  • In 2018, the Presbyterian Church transferred operations of Ghost Ranch to the Foundation.
  • The year 2020 marked the 65th Anniversary of Ghost Ranch.

What to do and see

The ranch offers several tours: some on a shuttle bus, some on horseback, and others traversing one or more of the nine trails on foot.

We chose the Georgia O’Keeffe Landscape Tour. Our mask-wearing group climbed aboard the bus. The tour guide’s skill in telling stories about O’Keeffe and the history of the ranch while driving down a dirt road amazed me. Maybe navigating dirt roads with no traffic made it look easy.

Our tour guide holds up a photo of O’Keeffe’s painting of the dead tree

She pointed out subjects of O’Keeffe’s paintings and passed around laminated photos of them for us to compare to what we saw.

Without the tour guide, we can see what O’Keeffe might have seen

I could almost see O’Keeffe standing in the middle of the desert with her easel and paints and brushes as she captured an image on canvas.

Standing in front of another painting subject of O’Keeffe’s.
What do you see in the shape of the mounds?
O’Keeffe’s summer home is not open to the public
Colors shift from muted to bright, depending on the sun’s light

After our tour, we visited the Florence Hawley Ellis Museum of Anthropology and Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology to see the ancient artifacts from Paleo-Indian culture through contemporary pottery and weaving from local Pueblos. Although small, the museums had informative displays, which kept us busy for about an hour.

Museum building
Example of Indian Rug sold in federally licensed trading posts established after the American Frontier Wars ended in 1890
Indigenous farmers placed Corn Mother effigies—representing nourishing qualities of mother earth—in their fields
Black and White pottery found around Piedra Lumbre Valley
Paleo-Indian display of bison head, a modern atlatl and spear, and various spear points.
Museum’s Courtyard

Besides tours and museums, Ghost Ranch is a place for relaxation, reflection, and spiritual rejuvenation through its many retreats and workshops offered during the year. Visitors can hop on a horse for a guided trail ride on the property and, in the summer, jump in the pool to cool off.

Not sure if the Georgia O’Keeffe Cottage was a meeting place or overnight rental

Various “simple and rustic” accommodations are available, ranging from private rooms with baths to communal living spaces and shared baths, to tent and RV camping facilities.

Meals are served cafeteria style in the Dining Hall. Since we didn’t see any other places nearby to grab a bite to eat, we bought meal tickets for lunch at the Trading Post.

Eat inside our outside at the Dining Hall

Wrap up

I hope to return to Ghost Ranch, spend a few days, and perhaps sign up for a retreat or workshop. I’d also like to wander around on the trails and explore more, ride a horse, or go to the nearby lake and paddle board. It was too hot the day of our visit to do much more than ride around in an air-conditioned bus and walk through the museums. I’d also like to take the tour of the O’Keeffe House and Studio in Abiquiu. It’s open with limited reservations available.

Next up: Our last Chama, New Mexico, episode will feature a quick peek at Heron Lake State Park and Echo Amphitheater.

Safe Travels

Summer 2021 Tour Chama, New Mexico Episode 1: Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

On Friday, July 16, 2021, we moved our base camp to Chama, New Mexico. The short two-hour drive on US Highway 64 through lush canyons and meadows was a delight. About halfway, we stopped at an overlook and picnic area where wildflowers were in full bloom.

Yellow-orange daisies
Green, lavender, white, and yellow among the thistle

I imagined where we live in the Bay Area, the drought would have already forced the wildflowers to shrivel up and die. So, it was a treat to see their smiley faces at their peak in New Mexico’s higher elevations.

Little Creel RV Park in Chama squished us into a small space that crowded the trailer next to us. The park owner said not to worry. The men next to us would leave over the weekend and might not return on Monday, and they didn’t all week.

Although the room slide encroached on the neighbor, the awning and picnic table area had plenty of room, especially since no one pulled in next to us until two days before we left.

All set up

First on our agenda while in Chama, was to ride the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad. At Coffee & Espresso Bar, we started our day with a breakfast sandwich, Danish, and a cup of coffee, and then we watched the volunteers prepare the engines and hook up the cars.

Listen to live music while sipping coffee
Cozy up to the fire pit and stay nice and toasty
Chama depot, store, visitor center, and restrooms
Rail yard
Fire ‘er up
Coupling the cars
All aboard

We ended up in the first seat in the first car behind the engine. One would think a steam engine would be preferable to diesel because of the smell. In order for the steam engine to work, it needs fire to heat the water to create the steam. And what fuel did they use for the fire?

Our car behind the engine

Coal. I could barely stand two minutes outside on the platform. Soot and red-hot embers of coal swirled around me and flew in the door whenever it was open. And forget about resting your arm on the windowsill unless you wanted a holy shirt sleeve.

View from the train

It was comical to see one passenger—a man in his fifties—so excited about riding the train. He stood on the platform for the entire trip while soot and embers rained down on him. His grandson brought him snacks and drinks, but the man never budged.

The train, the train.
Whoa! Where are we going?

Pulling the mountain was not much faster than walking due to the incline. We were thinking it would be faster on the way back, but we were wrong. The Engineer/Conductor told us the old-fashioned brakes required they keep the downhill speed to a minimum to avoid becoming a runaway.

Say cheese
Hmm . . . settings, settings.
New Mexico State Road 17
Quick stop in Cumbres for water
Filling the tank
Homes and cabins in the meadow
Join the party in the open car
Los Pinos water tank and rail crew

At the Osier train stop in Colorado, we all disembarked for a buffet lunch in the dining hall. On one side of the building, they served a turkey dinner, and on the other side, they served meatloaf. Salads were also available downstairs.

Dining Hall

I opted for the turkey dinner. The turkey and gravy were tasty. All I can say about the canned green beans is that they weren’t fresh, and a couple of bites of dressing were more than enough. The best part of the meal was the not-too-sweet pumpkin pie with whip cream and flaky crust. I should have had two slices.

Livestock loading pen

After lunch, everyone gathered outside, wandered around the other buildings, and waited for the train to return.

Osier was once a small community with a store, rooming house, and depot. The volunteers built the water tower in 2000 using materials and specifications as the original.
Section House built in 1881 for the section foreman and family. Restored and renovated from 1993 to 2003.
Original or replicas?
Cascade Creek
Tiny blue daisy-like flowers dotted the grass
Trains use the double tracks and loop to turn around

All the passengers climbed aboard for the trip back to Chama, taking the same seats as before. The atmosphere in the car was a stark contrast. Those of us in the front were mostly quiet, enjoying the scenery outside the windows, or nodding off into a tryptophan coma. In the rear, a group of women may have had more than their share of the alcohol served during lunch.

Covered bridge waiting repairs
Picture the aspen dressed in their fall colors?

The women giggled, they laughed, they squealed, and they teased one another. When we stopped to refill the water tank, one lady came up to the open seat across from us and alternated hanging out the window to yell at someone to get the water guy’s attention, and ducking back into the car to yell at her sister, “Alma, come here.”

Approaching Lobato Trestle, the second highest bridge on the line at 100 feet (30.5 meters) above Wolf Creek

Apparently, the water guy was good-looking and Alma was single. And then there was the man who showed up at each road crossing. The women would hang out the windows, and wave and squeal like teenage girls.

Wolf Creek below the trestle
Bringing up the rear

It was a kick to watch a group of middle-aged women acting like teenagers and the grandpa acting like an excited boy. Their antics were just as engaging as the scenery outside the window. It was also cool to see all the people who parked and got out of their cars to take photos and wave at us.

Bustle racks above the seats. It’s in the details.
Time to go

What could be better than riding on a historic train, gazing out at the scenery passing by, listening to the docent tell stories about the people and history of the railroad, and snuggling in the seat with a best friend and spouse? Not much in my book.

A few facts about the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (CTSRR)

  • The Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (DRGWR) operated from 1880 to 1968, transporting ore, livestock, freight, and passengers.
  • Cumbres Pass, Colorado, is at 10,015 feet.
  • The 1920s ushered in automobiles and graded roads, reducing the need for passenger rail service.
  • DRGWR discontinued passenger service in 1951 and freight shipments in the late 1960s.
  • The States of Colorado and New Mexico jointly purchased 64 miles of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1970 and renamed it the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.
  • CTSRR was designated as a National Historic Landmark on October 12, 2012.
  • Since 1981, Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec’s vibrant volunteer program has and continues to preserve and restore the buildings, property, track right-of-ways, signs, and rolling stock. Through its assets and scenic tours, they also interpret the history of the railroad.
  • Each summer, the Friends hold volunteer work sessions in Antonito, Colorado, and Chama, New Mexico. Volunteers can choose from “mechanics, woodworking and painting to landscaping, food service, photography, and record-keeping.”
  • Catch a train ride at either Chama, New Mexico, or Antonito, Colorado.

Interested in learning more about Cumbres & Toltec Railroad? Visit their website at

Coming up in future episodes: Ghost Ranch and Heron Lake State Park

Safe Travels

Summer 2021 Tour Taos, New Mexico Episode 4: San Francisco de Asis Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos, Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, Earthship Biotecture

In our final episode on Taos, New Mexico, we find the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, drive out to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and tour the Earthship Biotecture Site.

San Francisco de Asís Mission Church Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

Built between 1772 and 1816, the San Francisco de Asís Mission Church is a National Historic Landmark. Located in the heart of the Ranchos de Taos Historic District, the church and plaza continue as the heart of the community.

Front of church faces the plaza

Shopping, food, and art galleries occupy the historic adobe homes and buildings surrounding the plaza where festivals are held. Some buildings are over 300 years old. Unfortunately, we had arrived way too early to poke around the shops.

Side view of church

A major restoration of the church in 1967 included the application of hard plaster to protect the exterior and prevent future damage. June of each year, parishioners and visitors alike gather at the church for the annual “enjarre,” or re-mud, of the exterior using a mixture of mud and straw. This process continues to protect the church.

Altar inside the church

Inside the church, visitors will find stairs that lead to the choir loft above the entrance and an altar decorated with original Spanish woodworking and religious iconography. We missed out on the church tour, but I found an article by Teresa Dovalpage in the Taos News, in which she detailed her experience on such a tour.

Closer look of the altar

According to the article, the painting is “a life-size image of Jesus standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.” At the end of the documentary movie on the church’s history, the docent turned out the lights, and the “image of Jesus turned almost three-dimensional.” I wish we had arrived later in the day, caught the tour, and seen the painting.

Stairs lead to the choir loft

Before its donation to the church in 1948, the painting hung in the Dore Galleries of London and was on exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.

Ansel Adams photographed the church, Georgia O’Keeffe painted the church, and other artists have used the church as their subject, often depicting the rear of the structure.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

We found parking on the east side of the bridge and walked across to the rest area, where additional parking and facilities were located.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

The Rio Grande Gorge Bridge on US Route 64 spans 1,280 feet (390 m) and rises either 565 feet or 650 feet above the Rio Grande River. The exact height depends on who measured the distance and what gear they used.

Rio Grande

Completed in 1965, the bridge received a facelift in September 2012. The renovation comprised structural steelwork, a new concrete deck surface, new sidewalks, ramps, and curbs and gutters. The bridge has served as The National Register of Historic Places listing in Taos County, New Mexico. Natural Born Killers, Twins, Terminator Salvation are but a few of the movies in which the bridge appeared.

Run, Bighorn, Run

The best part of our visit to the bridge was when a bighorn sheep climbed up the hill and ran past us as we stood, taking photos. At one point, the animal charged toward me, and I had to duck behind a wall to get out of its way. I’ve seen bighorn sheep somewhat up close before, just not close enough to fear a collision.

Earthship Biotecture

Are you looking for an unusual bed-and-breakfast for your next adventure, complete with Wi-Fi and TV? Rent a Biotecture Designed Earthship for a night or two. In the Greater World Earthship Community in Tres Piedras, New Mexico, are several Earthships to choose from. [insert website]

Built using natural and repurposed materials, the off-grid homes include thermal/solar heating and cooling, solar and wind electricity, water harvesting, a contained sewage treatment system, and food production. These are the six design principles of Earthship Biotecture.

Me outside of the visitor center

A visitor center includes posters and displays describing the buildings and details of the building methods and materials and continues through the home.

Houses across the dirt path from visitor center
Another Earthship

Wrap Up: A hidden Valley and a Surprise Sunrise

Several yards out our back RV window, a parade of cars, trucks, and motorcycles motored along a gravel and dirt road every day. Where were all these people going and coming from? A sign at US Highway 64 and Valley Escondido Rd. advertised the Valle Escondido golf course.

Recent monsoons made for lush green grass

On our last day at Taos Canyon Stop RV, we drove to see what attracted all those vehicles. Sure enough, there was a golf course, a clubhouse, and a bright green valley sparsely populated with a community of residential and vacation homes.

Wildflowers still in bloom

Oh, and I can’t forget the prairie dogs popping their heads up out of their holes to see what was happening over yonder.

I’m ready for my photo

The morning before we left Taos Canyon, the sunrise gave me a present. Clouds hung low in front of the mountains, reaching the ground in a few places as the sun rose and poked through the cloud breaks. I pulled on my jeans and jacket, tied my shoes, and grabbed my camera.

Fog at sunrise
Reflection lake
The office at Taos Canyon Stop RV Park

There’s nothing more peaceful than walking among nature early in the morning, spying subjects to photograph, and clicking the shutter. It was a perfect ending to a perfect week of exploring Taos and its surrounding area.

Next up: We head to Chama, New Mexico, for a ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, a visit to Ghost Ranch, Heron Lake State Park, and a bit of relaxing.

Safe Travels