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The Rio Chama is the major tributary of the Rio Grande in New Mexico. It rises in the South San Juan Mountains of Colorado, just a few miles north of the border. It passes through the town of Chama, which is known as the southern terminus of the Cumbres and Toltec narrow gauge scenic railway.
South of Chama, the river passes to the side of Heron Reservoir. This reservoir was constructed on a side stream of the Rio Chama for the express purpose of receiving water exports from the Navajo River in southern Colorado. This water is part of the Colorado River allotment of water to New Mexico, and is diverted and then delivered through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to the reservoir. From there it enters the Rio Chama, for delivery mainly to farmers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley (Albuquerque area).
Next downstream is El Vado Reservoir, which stores water for irrigation and other uses. Below El Vado dam, the river enters the Chama Canyon Wilderness Area, and it is also designated the Rio Chama Wild and Scenic River.
A mile below the dam, the privately-owned Cooper Ranch serves as the put-in for a highly-scenic 30-mile river trip on the Rio Chama. Because of its great popularity, access to the stretch is rationed, with a lottery for the non-commercial boating public. Commercial trips are also limited. After the normal run-off season concludes, in mid-June, the City of Albuquerque has provided for weekend use by authorizing releases of water it owns, that is stored in El Vado Reservoir.
The Chama Canyon is unrivaled in scenic beauty, passing through groves of ponderosa pine, box elder and cottowood, and under striped cliffs of the red, yellow and white Entrada Sandstone. The whitewater is mild. Available are side canyon hikes, dinosaur tracks, hot springs, trout fishing, bird watching and such. This canyon and the surrounding area is seen in the widely-reproduced paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe. The wilderness stretch of the river concludes as the Rio Chama passes the Christ in the Desert Monastery, and the canyon begins to widen. This lower stretch is paralleled by a dirt road that provides access to the Monastery from downstream, and constitutes a scenic one-day river trip with mild to moderate whitewater. Shortly below the take-out at Big Eddy, the river enters Abiquiu Reservoir. A short sandstone canyon below this reservoir is often used as a site for film making. Then the river enters an irrigated valley, passes through the town of Abiquiu and joins the Rio Grande at Espanola.