Skip to Content

Eco Tourism

Our Great Lakes

Four Desert Oases in North-Central New Mexico

Northern New Mexico has enjoyed a wet summer, but that doesn’t change our desert status. “The lakes and rivers of New Mexico make up only 0.002 percent of the state’s total surface area,” says Reginald Bourgeois, strategic planner at the Army Corps of Engineers. “This is the lowest water-to-land ratio of all 50 states.”

Which makes New Mexico’s lakes—a.k.a. its 15 man-made reservoirs and their respective watersheds—crucial to the environment and the economy. “They are important ecosystems that, when developed and protected, can sustain a healthy balance of river life and provide us with recreation while supporting our socioeconomic needs,” says Bourgeois, noting that the benefits of lakes include easing the impact of floods and droughts, replenishing groundwater, providing drinking water and irrigating crops.

It’s the recreational aspects, though, that attracts most people to lakes. So, whether you’re a boater, angler, swimmer or camper, here’s how you can take advantage of Northern New Mexico’s four largest bodies of water.

Located about 55 miles northwest of Santa Fe, Abiquiú Dam—the tallest earthen dam in New Mexico—holds approximately 122,000 acre-feet of water that flows in from the Rio Chama. “We were built for flood control,” explains park ranger Austin Kuhlman. “You know Riverside Street in Española? That’s not named so by coincidence.” Nowadays, in addition to protecting the region from runoff and monsoon flooding, Abiquiú—as part of the San Juan-Chama Project—also stores drinking water for Albuquerque.

During the summer and fall, swimming, camping and boating are among the most popular activities at the lake. Two ramps make loading and unloading watercraft fast and easy; just make sure to stop by the boat inspection station first to be checked for aquatic hitchhikers—and to pick up a life jacket, which you can borrow at no cost.

If you prefer land over water, Abiquiú’s intermediate trail system accommodates hikers, runners and mountain bikers—as well as leashed dogs. “We probably only have three miles of trail, but because it’s a stacked loop design, you can ride or run or hike to your heart’s content,” says Kulman of the International Mountain Bicycling Association-standard singletrack. “There’s enough loops to wear anybody out here.”

And although fishing is an option year-round, Kuhlman says angling is particularly popular during colder months. “In the wintertime, most of our visitors are probably trout fishing down on the river below the dam. It’s one of the best winter fisheries in the state.”

If you go:
Daily admission: Free
Overnight camping: $7-$16
Group shelter: $50-$80
Boat launch: $3
Restrictions: No cliff jumping or alcohol consumption

Of note: The trailhead to flat-topped Cerro Pedernal, one of the area’s most recognizable landmarks, is about a 14-mile drive south from the lake’s visitors center. The super adventurous can climb the 9,866-foot mountain and cool off at the reservoir after the hike.

Details: (505) 685-4371 or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Abiquiu Lake Recreation Area

El Vado
Another 55 miles northwest of Abiquiú is El Vado reservoir, part of El Vado Lake State Park. “I’m kind of partial to El Vado,” says park manager John Rector, who has lived in the area for 17 years. “Every day I get people saying I’ve got one of the most beautiful parks in the whole state.”

And, this year, Rector also has one of the fullest reservoirs. “We are way up on our water levels,” Rector says. “We’re higher up than we’ve been in four years and 30 feet higher than last year.” That’s due to area runoff and rain in the Albuquerque area; if farmers there don’t need water for irrigation, it stays in El Vado until they do. “If water levels stay up, we’re going to be full next year,” Rector says, and that is great news for outdoor enthusiasts who want to enjoy the lake’s current 114,493 acre-feet of water.

If you go:
Daily admission: $5 per vehicle (7 a.m.-9 p.m.)
Overnight camping: $8-$18
Group shelter: $60
Boat launch: Free with a day use or camping pass

Of note: A 5.5-mile hiking trail crosses the Rio Chama Gorge via a pedestrian suspension bridge and runs through wooded terrain to Heron Lake State Park.
Details: (575) 588-7247 or New Mexico State Parks - El Vado Lake


At Heron Lake State Park, an impressive 81,652 acre-foot reservoir sits at 7,000 feet among tall pine trees. The designated quiet lake is a favorite of sailors; canoe and kayak paddlers, as well as larger boats, are required to operate at no-wake speeds. Perhaps the low-key atmosphere also appeals to the resident fish population, many of which grow to record size. In February 1999, for example, Paul Casias of El Prado caught a 31.4-pound, 41.5 inch-long lake trout. “It took three of us to catch that laker,” Casias told the Amarillo Globe. “It had scars [from other attempts].”

If you go:
Daily admission: $5 per vehicle (6 a.m.-9 p.m.)
Overnight camping: $8-$18
Group shelter: $30-$60
Boat launch: Free with a day use or camping pass

Of note: The lake, dam and state park were named for Kenneth A. Heron, an engineer in the early 1900s who realized that water could be diverted from wetter areas in the northern park of the state to benefit more arid regions to the south.
Details: (575) 588-7470 or New Mexico State Parks - Heron Lake

Abutting the Colorado border, roughly 200 miles northwest of Santa Fe, Navajo is the second-largest lake in the state (only Elephant Butte is larger). The 1,465,110 acre-foot reservoir on the San Juan River boasts two marinas (Navajo Lake and Sims) and offers “great boating activities such as jet skiing, wake boarding, water skiing, and fly boarding,” according to manger Allen Adkins, who notes that all types of watercraft are available for rent if you don’t own your own.

Year-round fishing is also a big attraction—go on your own, or participate in one of the many tournaments that take place, such as Cast for Kids, which gives children with disabilities the opportunity to fish with experts each May. “Fishing at Navajo Lake State Park will take you through all of the seasons, with the northern pike starting the battle along with some brown trout trolling action, then we start the crappie spawn,” Adkins explains. “Then the small mouth and large mouth bass start hitting; the kokanee salmon can be caught anytime of the year if you find the right depth to fish for them; they constantly move to find their perfect temperature.” (Brad Williams did this back in 2000, when he caught a state-record 24-inch kokanee salmon at the lake.)

If you go:
Daily admission: $5 per vehicle (6 a.m.-9 p.m.)
Overnight camping: $8-$18
Group shelter: $30-$60
Boat launch: Free with a day use or camping pass

Of note: Navajo Lake offers seven campgrounds with 244 developed campsites, most of which have water and electricity.
Reserve a campsite online in advance
of your visit to Navajo, as well as Heron or El Vado.
Details: (505) 632-2278 or New Mexico State Parks - Navajo Lake

Although summer is high season for swimming and boating, autumn provides more favorable temperatures and scenery at these four lakes. “In the fall, the trees are turning colors, the wildlife is moving around, and the cool chill in the air makes everything seem all right,” Adkins says. “The bald and golden eagles agree with me, as they start showing up to stay for the winter.” And you should, too.