Geographically, New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the nation. So, it should not surprise you to learn there are 35 state parks located in 25 of 33 counties. Parks are found in every geographical region — from mountains and forests, to grasslands, to deserts, to lakes and rivers — encompassing 19 lakes and nearly 190,000 acres of land and water.
Oldest … and newest … state parks
New Mexico’s first and oldest state park is Bottomless Lakes, founded on November 8, 1933. The newest state park, established in 2019, is Pecos Canyon near the Pecos Wilderness in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
In the intervening years, the other 33 — from 40,000-acre Elephant Butte Lake to 38-acre Rio Grande Nature Center — have found their way into our outdoor recreation, along with the preservation of very special natural environments across New Mexico.
State Parks are popular
To say New Mexico’s state parks are popular among residents and visitors alike is like saying, “Well, everyone here — you know — likes chiles.” So much so, between four and five million people spend some time in one or more of the parks a year.
They come to camp, hike, swim, boat, fish, hunt, watch wildlife, identify birds, and even scuba dive. Pick a favorite activity. Pick a park and embark on your adventure.
Camping at state parks
Only three of New Mexico’s 35 state parks don’t offer camping. You wouldn’t expect to camp at the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Carlsbad, for example. But everywhere else, you have lots of choices. There are primitive campsites, basically cleared ground and a stone campfire ring. Developed campsites include picnic tables and grills. A few have shade shelters. If you camp with an RV, you’ll find plenty of space, with some offering electric, sewage, and water hookups where it’s available.
Campsites are $8 a night for primitive camps, and $10 for developed sites. There’s a $18 per night fee for combined electric and sewage hookups. For avid campers, there’s an Annual New Mexico Camping Pass for all the state parks. All the camping you want for a flat fee! Residents pay $180 annually, resident seniors pay $100, and non-residents pay $225. Even without the annual pass, campsite fees at New Mexico State Parks are a great deal.
It’s easy to fall in love with New Mexico’s lakes. While it might be perceived as a desert state, New Mexico offers amazing opportunities for people looking to boat, sail, kayak, raft, or canoe. Cruise the shoreline or river’s edge to take in breathtaking scenery and spot wildlife. Float your own boat or rent your preferred craft from a rental agent. Unless you’re floating on an inner tube, you should complete a boat safety and education course, know the regulations, and always — no matter what type of boat you choose — wear a life jacket.
Seven of New Mexico’s state parks with lakes offer swimming, although the only park with a designated swimming beach and lifeguards on duty during the summer at Lea Lake.
You even find opportunities to go scuba diving at Bottomless Lakes and three others.
One of the most popular activities in New Mexico state parks is fishing. Twenty-four parks offer fishing — from a lazy afternoon casting for pan-fish to a high-energy adventure of fishing for a 40-inch tiger muskie.
Probably the most famous trout fishery is the San Juan River at Navajo Lake State Park. The first four miles of the river below Navajo Dam is Special Trout Water with restrictions on the type of tackle used and the size and number of fish you can keep.
Bowfishing popularity growing
Bowfishing is a growing sport at all lake parks. Only bowfishing for non-game species is allowed and no fishing permit is required.
Ice fishing, too
Even in winter, fishing opportunities are still available in the parks. Ice fishing can be done at both Eagle Nest and Bluewater Lakes. There is a mandated thickness of 9 inches of ice before the park opens for seasonal ice fishing. And if you missed that tiger muskie during summer, keep in mind they bite all year long.
Twenty-two of the state parks have established trail systems. In fact, there are probably more miles of trails in the state parks than any person could hike in a lifetime, especially since some will become favorites to hike over and over. Whether you are interested in an easy and quiet nature hike or if you want a more adventurous experience, you’ll find your favorite trail.
Don’t stop hiking just because it’s winter. Most parks are open year-round, so — conditions permitting (meaning snow cover), think about snowshoeing, tubing, and cross-country skiing.
Birding and Wildlife Sightings
If birding is your hobby, state parks make great setting to observe native and migratory birds. Hundreds of species move through the parks every year, and your life list will just grow and grow. And if all your time isn’t devoted to our feathered friends, you might also expand your adventure with sightings of elk, mule deer, and turkeys. You can even study dinosaur tracks uncovered when the spillway was built at Clayton Lake.
Whether you’re seeking a memorable adrenalin rush or just peace and quiet, you’ll find what you need — high-energy excitement or stress relieving tranquility — in one of New Mexico’s state parks.
Story by Bud Russo
Photos courtesy New Mexico State Parks