Backyard Car Camping, Santa Fe Style | - June 22, 2008

It’s safe to say that if you live in or near Santa Fe, you have an inborn craving for outdoor pursuits. You are either a gardener, a hiker, a skier, a fisher, a hunter, or just a lover of sitting in the comfort of your living room and watching our breathtaking part of the earth rotate outside your window. If it’s car camping that floats your boat, there are opportunities for you as well, plenty of them right beneath your nose.

Depending on how far you want to drive for a camping trip, right beneath your nose can mean more than this space allows. There are wonderful spots west of town in the Jemez Mountains and dozens more in the environs of Las Vegas, Taos and Chama. The camping locations presented here are in the Santa Fe National Forest along the western and eastern edges of the Pecos Wilderness. They are all within an hour’s drive of town, close enough for you to leave Santa Fe after work, spend a night around a campfire cooking hot dogs and swapping stories, and get home in time for the next morning’s business. Amazingly, it is also easy to find an open campsite on most weekends and enjoy a good measure of solitude while you’re at it.

My favorite regional campgrounds charge a fee, which is probably why I like them so much. My reasoning is that if a value is placed on the experience of camping at a spot, those who do so recognize this value and see an interest in maintaining it. They greet you with a smile and don’t stay up half the night blaring music or hooting at the top of their lungs. They clean up after themselves. In other words, I have found that campers at these sites are considerate of their environment and other campers.

Because these campgrounds are so well kept, they offer an illusion of comfort that is almost urban in nature. But it is only that, an illusion. Out there at the campground, rain and snow can still fall, lightning still strike, ankles twist, and yellow jackets sting. Heck, you can break a nail and what would you do then? But seriously, campers, keep your wilderness skills about you no matter where you camp. Bring appropriate equipment and clothing. Make plans for medical or other emergencies. Prepare for weather, and most important, inform loved ones back home of your plans.

Our adventure begins with the two fee campgrounds on the west side of the Pecos Wilderness on the road to the ski basin. Both of these campgrounds are a short drive from downtown Santa Fe, great for area visitors who desire some culture with their nature. I would suggest that you reserve your campsite in advance at these campgrounds, especially on holiday weekends or during festival events in Santa Fe.

The first of these campgrounds, Black Canyon, is about seven miles from Santa Fe on the right side of New Mexico Highway 475 at 8,300 feet above sea level. There are 46 designated campsites at this Americans with Disabilities Act compliant campground, and RVs of any size are welcome. Black Canyon has nice restrooms, picnic tables and fire rings, as well as potable water. For reservations, call the USFS Espanola Ranger District at 877-444-6777.

About a mile up the road, you will come to Hyde Memorial State Park at an elevation of 8,830 feet. There are 50 campsites here, a tent only area, an RV area (55 foot size limit with seven electric hookups), and most of them remain open year-round. Hyde Park offers a ton of activities, volleyball, ice skating in the winter, and of course hiking and incredible aspen viewing in the fall. There is good wheelchair access to the restrooms. Hyde Park is a great site for families, though for that reason it is a good idea to make your reservation early by contacting the Park Manager (877-664-7787).

I should mention the two other campgrounds beyond Hyde Park on the ski basin road, Big Tesuque campground followed by Aspen Vista. They offer free camping but due to how high and, therefore, how cold they are, they seem only to attract those who take camping seriously. Each of these campgrounds has fewer than 10 walk-in tent sites, though Aspen Vista offers RVers a nice flat parking lot. There are bathrooms at both, but only Big T has water, which must be filtered from Big Tesuque Creek. Not too romantic to be sure, but stay at either campground during aspen season and you will sing a different tune.

There is much more camping on the other side of the mountains. To get there, take northbound Interstate 25 out of Santa Fe until you reach the Glorieta exit, then follow the signs to the town of Pecos. At the only intersection in Pecos, take a left turn and proceed north on New Mexico Highway 63. Approximately 9 miles out of Pecos, you will come to the USFS Field Tract campground on your right. There are 14 campsites here (a few with Adirondack shelters), a bathroom, and potable water. Field Tract is on the banks of the Pecos River where anglers can ply their craft, if only for a short stretch of stream. Unfortunately, Field Tract is bounded on the north and south by private land and on the west by the highway, limiting fishing and other activities.

Several miles up the road is the village of Terrero, where veering left at the fork in the road (Forest Road 122) will lead you to the Holy Ghost campground. Open to RVs of a maximum 32 foot length, Holy Ghost is situated in a forest-ringed meadow along the banks of Holy Ghost Creek, which offers good fishing for brown and rainbow trout and, near its origin, a good amount of cutthroat. The 25 sites come with fire rings, tables, and a good degree of privacy. There are restroom facilities as well as potable water. Holy Ghost is a great place for an aspen hike in the fall, and backpackers find the campground a great starting point for wilderness excursions to Lakes Johnson, Stewart, and Katherine.

Continuing north from Terrero, you will come to Forest Road 223 on the right, an extremely rough and rutted track terminating atop Hamilton Mesa at the Iron Gate Campground. There are 6 designated campsites, restroom facilities, but no water. With the fisherman-friendly Mora Flats to the east and the rest of the wilderness everywhere else, this is mainly a jumpoff point for wilderness trips. There is a lot of sky up there too, which means billions of stars on a clear night.

If you go straight instead of right at the Iron Gate turnoff (Forest Road 223), you will eventually reach Cowles, which is more a placename than an actual town. If you take a left turn and head west across the bridge (two ponds will be on your left), you will come to the Cowles campground and its 6 walk-in campsites. Hopefully, you will find an unoccupied site, since the campground usually fills quickly. Bring your own water or a filter for use in nearby Winsor Creek. Cowles is at the eastern end of the Winsor Trail (originating in Tesuque north of Santa Fe), which is popular with backpackers as well as anglers in search of cutthroat trout in Johnson and Stewart Lakes and above them, Lake Katherine.

If you go straight instead of left at the Cowles ponds and bridge, you will come to Jack’s Creek, a fully equipped campground with 46 RV-compatible sites, restrooms, shelters, and potable water. It’s an open, grassy location surrounded by aspens and conifers, with stupendous views of Baldies Santa Fe and Pecos as well as night time starshows that won’t let you sleep. Jack’s Creek is also a great beginning point for wilderness expeditions to Beatty’s Cabin and Pecos Baldy Lake. Everyone who’s been to Jack’s Creek loves it, so be warned: they love coming back, especially on holidays. Also, since many horsepack trips originate at Jack’s Creek, you may encounter a lot of flies, especially in the summer if it’s hot and there’s no wind.

My favorite area campground is a walk-in spot called Panchuela, which is accessed by taking the left turn towards the Cowles campground, then an immediate right onto a road that goes on for about a mile until it ends. Panchuela has about 8 lovely sites (some unimproved tent sites can be found up the trail), a few of them with shelters equipped with fireplaces! There is no RV access at the campground, a good restroom, water, tables, and fire rings.

My best advice for Panchuela: go during the week on a full moon and lay claim to one of the shelters. Bring some folding chairs, lots of firewood, and your best friend. Set a fire, cook your dinner, make your s’mores, and spend the last minutes of your evening talking about how good it’s going to feel to crawl into your sleeping bag. When morning comes, hike the trail heading up Panchuela Creek to its confluence with Cave Creek, a stream named for the cave it runs into before emerging downstream. Continue several miles up Cave Creek to Horsethief Meadow. The view will enchant you, the wildflowers, the peaks. Throw your blanket down and have your picnic. Take a nap, catch a fish, have another bite to eat.

Take another nap. You’re up next on American Idol, but you can’t get onstage because you’re making a list of all the tasks you can’t wait to jump into back at the office. Wake up hyperventilating, and then remember your campsite down the trail where everything is as it should be.