OverviewLocated deep in the heart of Georgia O’Keefe country, Chavez Canyon is carved into the sandstone of Mesa de Las Viejas just west of Abiquiu Lake, a recreation area managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The canyon is situated within the 50,300 acre Chama River Canyon Wilderness, providing solitude and an easy off-trail canyoneering experience in the Santa Fe National Forest. The highlight of the canyon is two slot sections carved into the multi-hued sandstone. The second slot is shorter, but the walls rise precipitously and are reminiscent of Utah-style slot canyons. Hikers to this canyon will enjoy the absence of crowds, scrambling through the canyon bottom, and the views of the towering sandstone cliffs.
Jemez Mountains, and is guarded by the famous Cerro Pedernal. The Chama River has been deemed a Wild and Scenic River, and is popular with rafters and fishermen. The walls of the river canyon are composed of multi-colored sandstone including reds, whites, and yellow, all marking the different sedimentary layers. 70-80 bird species have been recorded in the area.
Although there is not a maintained trail into Chavez Canyon, numerous feet have created a trail that is easy to find, and gets hikers quickly into the canyon bottom. Other maintained trails in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness include The Hart Trail (#293) (a 1.5 mile, 400 foot elevation drop to the Rio Chama) and the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. There are also numerous access points to the Rio Chama along Forest Road 151. The first is named Big Eddy, has toilet facilities, and is open May through September.
Situated literally hundreds of yards from Chavez Canyon is the famous Christ in the Desert Monastery. These monks are in the Subiaco Congregation of the Order of Saint Benedict, with an emphasis on humility, silence, and obedience. The chapel is a well-known landmark created by George Nakashima, a Japanese-American woodworker and architect. The Monastery does offer rooms for rent between $60-$145 a night with a minimum of a 2-night stay, however the lodging is designed to offer guests a chance to share in the Benedictine way of life.
Also located nearby (at the junction of 84 and Forest Road 151) is the Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center. Ghost Ranch is probably most famous for being one of the haunts of Georgia O’Keefe where she painted many of her exquisite works. Given to the Presbyterian Church in 1955 the 21,000 acre Ghost Ranch is a spiritual education center complete with courses, retreats, lodging, hiking, and a museum. The museum is famous for its displays on the geology, archaeology, and paleontology of the region, as well as the culture, history and tradition of northern New Mexico. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 9am to 5pm.
The American Canyoneering Academy rating system would consider this canyon very easy at 1A I meaning that it is typically a non-technical dry canyon that can be accomplished in just a few hours...if you are just hiking to the dryfalls. If you include climbing the technical dryfalls, then the rating would jump to 3A II requiring climbing gear, technical knowledge, and more time to complete. The canyon may be hiked at all times of the year, but the July-August monsoon season can bring deadly flash floods through the canyon. Do not attempt to hike this canyon during wet weather!! Occasionally, there may be pools that require some wading. Care must be taken at all times, there have been two deaths in and around the area. One man died from rockfall, and a woman died when she fell to her death from attempting to climb the sandstone walls. A cross marks the spot where she died.
Canyon DescriptionThe first portion of the trail is an unmarked, but well-worn, foot-path through the Junipers and Pinyon Pine. As the trail slowly gains elevation, the sandstone walls of the canyon become more visible. After about ¼ mile, the trail drops down into the wash, crosses some water, and climbs back out again. The trail then climbs more steeply and after a hundred yards or so, it drops back into the wash and peters out. Turn to your right and follow the canyon upstream. The sandstone walls tower overhead, and the wash cuts through the sandstone. There will probably be a small amount of water here bubbling up from a spring a hundred feet upstream. Overhead, there is a log wedged sideways between the bank and the sandstone, evidence of the mighty force of flood-waters. As the wash turns the corner and heads left, the water dries out, and there are small chunks of yellow sandstone lying in the middle of the dried-up stream.
Further on past the yellow sandstone chunks, a triangle boulder lies in the center of the wash. At this point, the walls suddenly narrow, and the first slot is encountered. Once past this boulder, watch for a carved cross in the sandstone wall to your right. The walls are low, but the water has carved some holes, and smooth formations in the rock. At the end of this slot portion, there is a short scramble, either up a smooth water-carved slide straight-ahead, or up a chock-stone boulder wedged into a cleft to your right. Once past this obstacle, keep heading upstream as the canyon curves to the left and then to the right.
Quickly you will reach the second slot portion. Here, the sandstone has been worn down by the force of water. There are two branches. The left branch enters a slot that is about 50 feet long and ends in a 40 foot pour-off. The pour-off is un-climbable without gear. The second branch to the right is about 150 feet long and looks like a Utah-style slot canyon. The wash twists its way through sandstone walls easily 150 feet high. There are several dry ‘pools’ and a 12 foot dry-fall is encountered. The dry-fall can be easily negotiated using a chimney technique. However, once above the dry-fall, there is another dry-fall in about 25 feet. This fall is higher and requires climbing gear to surmount. Yet, it seems like the slot dies out above the dry-fall, so there is not much impetus to climb it.
The total hike distance is about 2 miles round-trip. It is easily done in 2 hours or less. There were plenty of birds to see, as well as evidence of Elk and other ungulates. For the more adventurous, bring some climbing gear and continue on in the canyon above the slots. There may be more interesting things to see…
Once on 84, head north to Española. Once in Española, you will need to turn left onto Fairview Road (a major intersection). Head several miles, then turn right onto Paseo de Oñate (Chama Highway 84 – BUT it is not labeled as such!). Follow 84 all the way past Abiquiu, the Abiquiu Lake turn-off, the Ghost Ranch Conference Center, and the Ghost Ranch Museum until you see the labeled turn-off to the left for Forest Road 151. The sign will also indicate Christ in the Desert Monastery.
Follow the dirt road 12.7 miles to the entrance of Christ in the Desert Monastery (signed). At that point turn around and go back .3 miles. The trail is unmarked and heads to the canyon on your left (East). There is a parking pull-out just down the road.
The last stop for gas is at Bode’s General Store in Abiquiu. It is worth the stop. Inside there is a little café, and across the street is the house where Georgia O’Keefe stayed when she spent time in Abiquiu.
Red TapeThere is no red tape.
CampingDispersed camping is allowed in the Santa Fe National Forest. Please check their website in advance for any fire restrictions.
MapsThe USGS 7.5 minute topographic maps are Navajo Peak (NM) and Laguna Peak (NM).
External LinksAbiquiu Lake
Chama River Canyon Wilderness
Santa Fe National Forest
The Hart Trail (#293)
Continental Divide National Scenic Trail
Christ in the Desert Monastery
Order of Saint Benedict
Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center
American Canyoneering Academy
Bode’s General Store