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!
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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