We've visited most, but not all of the state parks in northern New Mexico, and what follows is our personal choice of the five best, based on scenery, hiking opportunities, nearby attractions, and campsite amenities. So here goes...
1) Villanueva State Park- This small park is located on the Pecos River, 40 miles east of Santa Fe on I-25, 12 miles south on NM3, and one mile east of the town of Villanueva. It has campsites and picnic sites along the banks of the river. Towering cliffs surround the campsites, providing hiking trails on both sides of the river. There are 33 campsites and 12 sites have electricity. Water at these sites is from shared faucets, so bring a long hose for connectivity. Reservations are essential for the electric sites. The Pecos River is shallow in the summer and wading is popular. The Viewpoint Loop Trail commences at the pedestrian bridge over the Pecos River, and climbs up and down the cliffs for a two-mile loop hike. The views of the river below and the canyon walls are incredible, with far views to the west of the fields leading to the town. This is s very peaceful, relaxing place, and makes for an excellent one night stop.
The Pecos River winds through the cliffs as seen from the Viewpoint Loop Trail at Villanueva State Park.
2) Storrie Lake State Park- This park is located approximately two miles north of the town of Las Vegas on NM 518. The campground is on mostly level ground with scan tree cover, but with excellent views of the lake and Hermits Peak. It has 45 developed campsites with 22 sites offering hookups. Primitive camping is allowed on the beach around the lake. Boating is popular. Hiking is limited to walks around the lake. This can be a very busy campground in summer, but it is so close to the attractions of Las Vegas and the mountains to the west, that we had to include it as one of our favorites. Las Vegas is a classic frontier town with a train station built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, and the beautiful Fred Harvey Hotel, the Castaneda, recently restored and open for business. The town itself has hundreds of homes and structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a full day could be spent exploring the downtown plaza and surrounding neighborhoods. Another day could be spent exploring the mountains west of town on NM65. The road follows Gallinas Creek to the hot springs at Montezuma Castle, and then climbs by many switchbacks to the El Porvenir campground in Santa Fe National Forest. The road is paved for most of the way, but is very narrow, and definitely not recommended for long motor homes or trailers. Hiking trails lead from El Porvenir to Hermits Peak to the north, and along the Gallinas canyon to the west. The Hermits Peak hike is a ten mile round trip, so it is definitely a day trip.
Montezuma Castle on NM65 west of Las Vegas, NM.
Hiking bridge over Gallinas Creek heading west to the cliffs of Gallinas Canyon.
3) Coyote Creek State Park- This is a small, but very scenic park about 20 miles north of Mora on NM434. The campground is located along the banks of Coyote Creek, with 33 sites, 17 of which have hookups. The first hookup sites are in an exposed meadow, very close together, and if you can do without hookups we'd recommend sites 15 - 20 which are more widely spaced and shaded by trees. There is one trail- the Eusebio Romero Trail which is a one mile loop accessed by a pedestrian bridge over Coyote Creek. The trail leads up to the cliff overlooking the creek and the campground, follows above the creek, and then loops back down to the campground. This is a very scenic area in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, very peaceful and relaxing. Fishing is said to be excellent in Coyote Creek. Northbound on NM434 will lead you to the Angel Fire Resort, but be forewarned that this is a very rough, narrow, gravel road with four-wheel drive recommended, and definitely not for trailers or motor homes.
Campers cluster in the hookup sites at Coyote Creek State Park amid the beauty of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
4) Heron Lake State Park- This is a very large park with 250 developed campsites, 54 of which have electricity. The electric sites are located in the Willow Creek and Blanco campgrounds. Primitive camping is allowed along the lake shore. The lake is formed by a dam on the Chama River. Boating is very popular at the lake. There is a beautiful hiking trail from the Visitor Center to the dam, five miles to the south. Another great hiking trail is the Rio Chama Trail from the dam five miles to the south to El Vado State Park. The scenery here is tranquil- it's not the high peaks and valleys of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, but a beautiful lake set among bluffs and a pinon/juniper forest. The park is located off US84 ten miles south of Chama, and then another ten miles into the park on NM 95. You could use this park as a base for catching a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad out of Chama, but be advised that is nearly a 40 minute drive from the park to Chama. Train riders might find a more preferable option at the commercial RV parks located in Chama. See the video below for some great views of Heron Lake.
5) Sugarite Canyon State Park- This unique park is 11 miles northeast of Raton on NM526. Originally this was the site of the Chicorica coal camp, founded in this canyon in 1909. The name Sugarite (pronounced sugar-eet) is the Anglo interpretation of how to pronounce the Spanish word. The coal camp closed in 1939, and now only ruins and foundations remain. The state park was established here in 1988. It has 40 campsites with ten hookups. Lake Maloya in the park is popular for fishing and boating. The lake dams Chicorica Creek, which then flows south through the park to Lake Alice, where there is a group campground. Hiking is very popular in this scenic park with 13 miles of trails, including interpretive trails through the remains of the coal camp. The park is particularly beautiful in the Fall, when the abundant scrub oak turns a crimson red. Camping here provides access to several scenic drives- into historic Raton with its Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad station; north on I-25 to Raton Pass; or east 40 miles to Capulin Volcano National Monument. Capulin Volcano is a spectacular dormant volcanic cone with a twisting roadway around the cone all the way to the top. Unfortunately, this National Monument does not have a campground, so Sugarite State Park is a good base for a visit here. See the video below for beautiful views of Sugarite.
1) Elephant Butte Lake State Park- This is New Mexico's largest state park, and the attractions here are endless- boating, fishing, hiking, camping, bird watching, and just plain relaxing on sandy beaches. The park is just north of Truth or Consequences- take exit 83 from I-25, and then head east to the park on NM195. This is high desert country and the summer season can be very hot. It can also be very crowded with all the boating traffic. We have found that the best time to visit is late winter (February - April) and Fall (October - November). The park has 173 developed campsites with 144 hookup sites. Primitive camping is allowed along the lakeshore. The developed campgrounds are not along the lakeshore, but they are within 1/2 to one mile walking distance. For the adventurous, the West Lakeshore Trail is a ten-mile hike above the west shore of the lake. For the rest of us there is a very nice sandy 1.5 mile loop trail through the cactus and yucca at the Desert Cove Campground. Be sure to drive around the southern end of the park below the dam. There is a campground there (no hookups) along the Rio Grande as it escapes from the dam. Then continue on driving to the spectacular dam overlook and the Winding Roads picnic area. Along the lakeshore there are quaint adobe cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Drought has severely reduced the level of Elephant Butte Lake, as witnessed by terraced levels of soil on the lakeshore.
2) Caballo Lake State Park- This park is another large lake formed by damming the Rio Grande, about 20 miles south of Elephant Butte Lake. Take exit 59 from I-25 to NM187 and you will be right at the park entrance. There are two separate camping areas with hookups- north of the dam and south of the dam. The campsites north of the dam are on a bluff overlooking the lake and are very close together. The campsites south of the dam at the Riverside Campground are much more widely spaced. While views of the lake are not possible at Riverside, the walk through the cottonwoods along the Rio Grande is very pleasant, especially when the leaves turn golden in the Fall. There are a total of 170 developed campsites in the park, with 115 hookup sites. Primitive camping is allowed on a beach towards the north end of the lake. Boating is very popular on the lake.
Walks along the Rio Grande at the Riverside Campground are very scenic at Caballo Lake State Park.
3) Oliver Lee Memorial State Park- This relatively unknown state park is in a beautiful setting up against the Sacramento Mountains with a view west to White Sands National Park. In fact, this is a great base camp for exploring White Sands, as there is not a campground in the national park. Take US54 south out of Alamogordo to Dog Canyon Road where you'll turn east to the state park. When you're ready to go to White Sands, go back north on US54 to its intersection with US70, and then go southwest on US 70 about 12 miles to White Sands. Oliver Lee has 44 developed campsites with 19 hookup sites. Be sure to stop in the Visitor Center for information on the park. There is a wonderful cactus garden to walk through just outside the Visitor Center, and there is a 1/2 mile nature walk loop starting there also. For the adventurous, take the Dog Canyon Trail up into the canyon, where the views are spectacular. Hiking 5.2 miles up the trail will take you to the top of Dog Canyon. Its very hot and dry here in the summer, so be prepared with plenty of water on all your hikes. Oliver Lee was an influential rancher who built a home here (preserved in the park) in 1893. He helped bring the railroad to Alamogordo.
Cactus garden at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. Tularosa Basin in the distance with San Adres Mountains. The light area before the mountains is White Sands.
If you've visited the State Parks of Southern Colorado and New Mexico, you're bound to have a favorite campsite or even several! Let us know yours, and send a photo if you'd like to. Or if you disagree with our selections, let us know why.