Reaching Banded Peaks Country

Photo courtesy John M. Motter
Winter snows sometimes made it impossible for the narrow gauge train to cross Cumbres Pass. One solution is shown in this photo, with two engines coupled together with a snow plow to push the snow from the tracks.

Several weeks ago, I started a column talking about the history of what I refer to as Banded Peaks Country — the extreme southeast corner of Archuleta County. Then, for some unaccountable reason, the focus shifted to bears. Today my focus returns to Banded Peaks Country.
The history of Banded Peaks Country is worth looking into for a variety of reasons. First, it contains the remnants of a Hispaño land grant. In addition, it was home to the Gramps Field, the only producing oil-gas field in the county. It was the location of the only gold rush in Archuleta County. It contains Cumbres Pass and the restored Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railway — a wonderful way to see the golden hues of aspen-covered mountains, it contains a wonderful park with a lake and comping spaces and it contains a delightful view of Chama Falls.
First, we need to talk a little geography by emphasizing the word paradox, which in this usage means unexpected. Our Cumbres Pass area is in Archuleta County, but to drive there, you must, surprise of surprises, drive to Chama, N.M., and through a portion of Rio Arriba County, N.M.
And so, let’s climb into our vehicles and start motoring. From Pagosa Springs, we drive south on U.S. 84 across the Little Blanco River, the Blanco River, the Little Navajo River and the Navajo River, where you encounter the Chromo Store and an eastbound road at the Chromo store, which enters Banded Peaks Country.
You can go to Banded Peaks Country on that road, mind you, but you can’t drive through it to reach the Cumbres Pass area because the road dead-ends. The mountains forming the skyline beyond the end of that road are called the Banded Peaks. They probably average about 12,500 feet above sea level. The Continental Divide enters the Banded Peaks on the north end, but veers sharply to the west as they move south. We’ll cross it on U.S. 84 well before we reach Chama.
On this particular expedition, we don’t stop at Chromo, but continue south on U.S. 84 until we reach Chama. In Chama, we turn east on N.M. Highway 17 and drive through the center of the town. Railroad enthusiasts from all over the world visit Chama, where a maintenance station services the needs of the Cumbres and Toltec train, fully restored in Victorian splendor.
Two side roads serving campgrounds branch in a northerly direction from N.M. Highway 17 east of Chama. The first leaves the highway just before it begins the ascent of Cumbres Pass. This first turnoff dead-ends at the west branch of the Chama River. A number of campsites, water and restrooms are available to the public at this location, which is in Colorado. Several hiking, horseback trails branch off from this campground. One trail follows the river to Chama Falls and is well worth the trip.
The second turnoff leaves the highway just past the rail stop at Cumbres. It serves a well-developed U.S. Forest Service campground with campsites, water and restrooms. Immediately above the campsite is a sizable lake. Several smaller side roads branch from the main road to the campground. Think fishing and wildlife.
As you continue west on N.M. Highway 17, you reach and cross Cumbres Pass with a beautiful view of the valley below. More on Cumbres Pass next week.