Review of the New Mexico State Parks Pass
With summer rapidly approaching many of us are planning our summer travels. One place you should very strongly consider is getting a New Mexico State Parks Pass and staying at their campgrounds. My friend Al spent part of a year visiting them, and he has graciously agreed to write up this report on them. Thanks Al!! See Al’s great blog here: http://rollingsteeltent.blogspot.com/
I love New Mexico. Something about it speaks to me. I particularly love their Annual Camping Permit. (http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/FeesPermits.html)
New Mexico operates over 30 state parks. (http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/FindaPark.html ) Thanks to the Annual Camping Permit I was able to camp in or visit twenty of them this past year. Non-residents pay $225 and the pass is valid for a year from the date of purchase. Residents pay $180, while resident seniors and disabled people pay $100. You can buy the permits at any of the parks.
Most NM parks have two levels of campsites: electric (which includes water hook-ups) and non-electric (which may or may not have water hookups). Some also have “primitive” areas with no designated sites. Without the Annual Camping Permit, non-electric sites and primitive areas are $10/night. Electric sites are $14/night. If there are sites with sewer hookups, they’re $18/night. The permit covers $10/night. If you want a site with electricity or sewer, you pay the additional $4 or $8 per night—even if you don’t need or use them.
What that boils down to is that after 22.5 nights, spread over any of the parks, basic campers will be staying free the rest of the year—which is like boondocking with amenities.
As near as I can remember, all the campgrounds I’ve stayed at had at least vault toilets and one potable water faucet. Many had bathrooms with flush toilets and sinks, and a good number had showers. (Mmmmmm, showers.) Most sites have tables and a fire ring and/or barbecue. Some have ramadas or even shelters. Some campgrounds have playgrounds. There will be a boat ramp at lakes. Sites can be reserved, but I never found it necessary.
My first round of New Mexico State Park camping was in the spring of 2014. I started in the south, because it was warmer, and headed north, where it wasn’t quite warm enough yet. The second round was in the fall, starting in the north and moving southward.
Pancho Villa State Park: is kind of an odd duck. It’s right on the edge of Columbus, NM, on the site of the former Camp Furlong. There’s a museum about Pancho Villa’s raid in 1916. Is it a campground with a museum, or a museum with a campground? Either way, it felt more like camping in a city park. With showers.
Rockhounds State Park: Up the road, near Deming, I drove through Rockhounds State Park. A lot of families in RVs. Not my cup of tea. I read later that the place has sort of been rockhounded out. But there are cellular towers right above the campground. Excellent reception.
City of Rocks State park: Between Deming and Silver City is one of my favorites. City of Rocks State Park looks like a cross between Stonehenge and Bedrock City. There are sweet campsites among the rocks. It’s so good for stargazing that they even built a small observatory there. Weak cell service, though. Showers. I stayed there twice, bringing friends the second time.
Leasburg Dam State Park was cramped and full. It’s handy to Las Cruces. I didn’t stay.
Caballo Lake State Park: I stayed twice at Caballo Lake State Park. The first time I was in the upper primitive area, on the shore. It was very nice. That part was closed when I returned in October, so I stayed below the dam, next to the Rio Grande. There are regular campsites there, but I was in a quieter “overflow” area farther along. Strong cell signal, showers.
Percha Dam State Park is nearby. It has seen better days. Much better days. The non-electric sites were particularly sad. I didn’t stay.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park is large and popular. It’s also handy to the towns of Elephant Butte and Truth or Consequences. There are several camping options. The first time I was there I found a nice hilltop spot in a primitive area, away from traffic and noise. If I’d wanted, I could have camped down on the shoreline, but the lack of shade makes it like a frying pan. The second time I stayed in a regular non-electric site on the bluff, overlooking the lake. Shelter, table, barbecue, fire ring, potable water faucet, with vault toilet and dumpsters nearby. A little too much traffic, though. There’s an all-electric campground at the north end of the lake. It’s new and shiny and nicely spread out, but I didn’t want to pay extra.
Bottomless Lakes State Park: The next campground that spring was Bottomless Lakes State Park, just east of Roswell. I stayed at the Lea Lake campground, which was a mistake. Imagine a crowded loop of large RVs with a row of parking spaces. The non-electric “sites” were those parking spaces. At least the beach wasn’t open for the season yet, so it was quiet. Showers, okay cell service. No UFOs spotted.
Villanueva State Park : I got to Villanueva State Park on Easter weekend. It was packed. But then I discovered the upper level. Since it has no electric sites, and the steep, curvy road discourages large RVs, it was almost deserted. There were nifty stone shelters and a view of the Pecos River. Minimal cell service.
Storrie Lake State Park: north of (the other) Las Vegas, looked unappealing to me. Some people love it, though.
Morphy Lake State Park: I drove on to Morphy Lake State Park. The winding access road is only about a lane and a quarter wide, so I kept my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t meet oncoming traffic. I didn’t. Other than the low water level (which, sadly, is usual these days all across the West) it’s a picture perfect mountain lake. Small campsites, no electricity, but a wee bit of cell service. I would have liked to have stayed longer, but I was on a schedule and wanted to see a couple of other campgrounds.
Coyote Creek State Park: I was absolutely the only one at Coyote Creek State Park. I didn’t even see a host or ranger. So I grabbed an electric site. It was my only choice, since the area with the non-electric sites, on the hillside across the creek, wasn’t open yet. Weak cell service.
Eagle Nest Lake State Park: It’s like a big dirt saucer. Boating and fishing? Sure. Camping? Yuck.
Cimarron Canyon State Park: is very dramatic and attractive. But the camping areas are squeezed in between the highway, creek and canyon walls. There’s very little solar exposure. It wouldn’t work for me.
Bluewater Lake State Park: My fall tour started at Bluewater Lake State Park, near Grants.The campsites on the bluff were nice, but I chose the primitive area on the north shore of the lake. It was a bit of a walk to the vault toilet, and a drive to the showers, but I had the special feature of daily visits from a herd of wild horses. And occasionally cows. The boats weren’t loud. Great cell service (the tower is just down the road). I stayed several days.
Fenton Lake State Park: One of the best things about Fenton Lake State Park is the drive up through the Jemez Mountains. The lake is small and the campsites are all below the dam, in the forest. It’s beautiful, but I had to drive to the boat ramp parking lot each morning in order to get enough sun to charge my batteries. There’s a lovely hiking trail through the meadow and trees. There’s zero cell signal. I stayed a few days anyway, even through a hail storm.
Heron Lake and El Vado Lake State Parks are side by side. I know of a guy who spent most of a summer moving back and forth between the two parks after each 14-day maximum stay. I stayed at Heron Lake. The boat ramp was closed because of low water. That and the coolish weather meant there were few people. The non-electric sites were tiny and crowded together, so I splurged on a nice electric site.
Manzano Mountains State Park: I had no idea what to expect at Manzano Mountains State Park, southeast of Albuquerque. I was delighted. It’s a small park, but the sites are nicely separated by natural growth of pines and oaks. No boaters, no ATVers. And a big cell tower a mile down the road. Nearby Mountainaire is a nice little town. Check out the farmers market and the strange-but-cool old hotel.
Brantly Lake State Park, near Carlsbad, was disappointing. The primitive camping area was closed for the season and the rest of the campground was rather crowded with large RVs. And the flies were awful.
Oliver Lee Memorial State Park: My last stop, at Oliver Lee Memorial State park, south of Alamogordo, was another pleasant surprise. The electric and non-electric sites, with and without shelters, were nicely mixed together with plenty of room between. There’s a trail up a tree-shaded canyon, and a great sunset view out across White Sands to the Organ Mountains.
All in all, I’ve been very happy with my New Mexico State Parks experience. I’ll certainly do it again. Wanna come along?
Thanks again Al! That’s a very helpful post! Since I’m posting this in May, most of the southern Parks should be just about the right temperature. Head there right now!
Don’t buy the State NM State Parks Pass without a state Atlas. I prefer the Benchmark, but some people prefer the Delorme. Get them from Amazon here, and I will make a little money and it will cost you nothing:
Benchmark New Mexico Road & Recreation Atlas
DeLorme New Mexico Atlas & Gazetteer
I also own and recommend a book called “Scenic Driving New Mexico.” Get it from Amazon here:
Scenic Driving New Mexico
When I bought my last NM State Parks Pass it was good to the last of the month I bought it in. So a pass purchased on June 1, 2015 would be good until June 30, 2016. That means essentially 13 months of camping for $225. For what it is worth my opinions on several of the campgrounds is much higher than the author’s opinion. I suggest you form your own opinion by visiting the park yourself and see if it fits your wants.
True, these are only my opinions. Each person has different things they look for in a campground. The time of year and weather also influenced my impressions.
I agree with you completely. Thanks for the article.
An excellent writeup & well timed.I especially liked the part where he pointed out that after 22 nites you’re camping for free
Thanks for the great write up. I was wondering when you evaluated cellular reception at the various NM State Parks, were you using a cell phone booster or directional antenna or was it a cell phone without additional aids?
I’m using a cell booster with a standard antenna.
I should add that with the annual pass window sticker you just drive in and pick a campsite. No need to fill out a pay envelope or anything else—unless you choose a site with electricity or sewer.
Thanks Al. Great information.
As a former NM resident and now (mostly) a vandweller, I have visited several NM state parks but stayed only at Oliver Lee. I liked it a lot. It also has a botanical garden to walk through with plants labeled so you can learn what you’re seeing in the high desert. Al’s post has convinced me I need to buy a pass for 2016’s trips.
By the way, the Ft. Stanton area has some nice boondocking available on BLM lands. I spent weeks in the area for location details on my last novel. A higher elevation and free Forest Service campground called Baca is also in that area.
I loved the article. New Mexico was one of my favorite places for camping. My favorite was Sugarite Canyon SP. A wonderful park with many different camping areas. You can even hike to the top of a beautiful mesa for a wonderful view of the canyon.
Yes, I want to go to Sugarite Canyon. It was just too cold for me at the time I was in the area.
I loved the article. New Mexico was one of my favorite places for camping. My favorite spot was Sugarite Canyon SP. A wonderful park with many different camping areas. You can even hike to the top of a beautiful mesa for a wonderful view of the canyon.
Goldcityguy, it is a beautiful state!
Colorado state park passes are $70 for 13 months. Thats a good deal.
Richard, that is a good deal, bu only if it includes camping and isn’t just day use fees. Do you know?
If it includes camping I’ll buy one tomorrow!
Bob, your suspicions are correct, the $70 annual pass is for admission only (its $60 for state residents 64 and older), camping is extra and the cost of camping varies by park and season.
Colorado has some awfully pretty parks (the nicest may be Sylvan Lake: http://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo/parks/SylvanLake/Pages/default.aspx) but camping fees can get expensive.
That seemed like too good a deal Alfred. Nearly every state has a yearly pass for day fees, and if you go there enough they are good deals.
Nevada has even a better deal on State Park camping than NM, but it is has strict limitations. You have to be 62 and been a resident for the last 5 years. Then it’s about $20 for a years free pass to all the State Park campgrounds. I will qualify but very few others will.
Great timing on New Mexico. Am in the process of making “getaway plans” right now! I went ahead and bought a N.M. Benchmark through your site, Bob. Thanks again for another timely post.
WTXcal, you’ll like the Benchmark, it shows BLM land and that really helps!
Really nice writeup on these parks.
It is only day fees. I see alfred got back to you about it before I could. Thanks. Yes Sylvan Lake is very nice! I am a big fan of Golden Gate Canyon State Park.
Bob, When were you at Oliver Lee? We were there Christmas- New Years 2014-2015. There was a van there that looked like your set up. I’m new to your blog and have been enjoying! Diane
Hi Diane, that was my friend Al who wrote that article ad was at the NM parks, I’ve never done it. But his van does look like mine so maybe it was him!
I was born and raised in NM, and rally miss it since I moved into the Soupy South.
If/when I bust loose, I may head back and use my parents’ address to re-establish residency, and spend most of my time between the parks. My only real necessity is a good internet connection, as I can work my current day job from anywhere with good signal. So, some of these sites would be sketchy on that front, but that can be planned around. I’d also look to surrounding states for part of the year, including RTR, maybe drifting along with someone with more experience for a bit.
My wife and I camp at Bottemless Lakes State Park for over 20 years now. There is over 30 sites with electric and water at Lea lake with three Primitive sites there. About a mile up the road there are more primitive sites and Very secluded.
A very wonderful place to visit.
Wow! Thanks, 4 years later and this is still valid.
I’m just about ready to start doing just this very thing. Although, with a tent. I’ll have to check if that’s acceptable.
Does the camping pass cover day use as well?