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Natural Resources


rio chama overlook
Millions of years ago, a geological rift during the Cenozoic Era formed the bed where the Rio Grande now flows. The Rio Grande Rift, as it is known, is a massive rent in the Earth’s crust, 20 miles wide and several miles deep. Stretching for miles, it forms Colorado’s San Luis Valley and slashes New Mexico in two.

As explained by the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources, the rift resembles “a plowed furrow with raised shoulders.” The shoulders are the high peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east and the Precambrian volcanic rocks of the Tusas Mountains on the west. With the rift as bed, the Rio Grande courses south, cutting through the Taos Plateau and the Española Basin, its many tributaries forming a hub of water resources in an otherwise arid and semi-arid landscape.

One important tributary, the Rio Pueblo de Taos, for example, originates high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and passes through the center of Taos Pueblo, a World Heritage Site inhabited for more than 1,000 years. Joining the Rio Pueblo near the town of Taos are the Rio Lucero, Rio Fernando de Taos, and the Rio Grande del Rancho – all tributaries of the Rio Grande – that flow together into the 800-foot-deep Rio Grande Gorge, where the National Register-listed Rio Grande Gorge Bridge offers a spectacular view of the geologic rift. [Rio Grande Gorge]

To the northwest, the Rio Chama comes down from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and cuts across the San Juan Basin of Rio Arriba County before it joins the Rio Grande a few miles north of Española. On its way, the Rio Chama cuts a colorful sandstone canyon, 24.6 miles of which have been designated by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River. [Wild Scenic River Rio Chama]

Joining the Rio Chama north of Hernandez is the Rio Ojo Caliente, which flows south from La Madera and through the town of Ojo Caliente, noted for its mineral hot springs. [Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs]

The 46-mile-long Santa Fe River, with headwaters in the high country east of the city of Santa Fe, runs through New Mexico’s state capital before it joins the Rio Grande, its entire watershed covering about 285 square miles and providing a home for humans and wildlife.

rio grande at san ildefonso
Hot springs stem from the Heritage Area’s volcanic past. North of Tres Piedras in Rio Arriba County, for instance, the isolated, volcanic dome of San Antonio Peak swells up from the Taos Plateau.

Farther south are the Jemez [HEH-mehz] Mountains, a volcanic field that developed simultaneously with the Rio Grande Rift. Near the center is the Valles Caldera, a 12-mile-wide crater formed by a collapsed super volcano and crowned by a series of post-collapse lava domes. The caldera is one of only three super volcano sites in the United States, and is listed on the National Registry of Natural Landmarks. New Mexico’s highest peak, 13,161-foot Wheeler Peak, rises in the Taos Range of the Sangre de Cristos, which are uplifted, fault-block mountains. Near Glorieta Pass, southeast of Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristos mark the southern terminus of the great Rocky Mountain chain. Like northern New Mexico’s rivers, the rocks and their ancient movements, coupled with the eroding work of water, wind, and sun, shaped New Mexico’s spectacular landscapes, from its mountain peaks, flat-topped mesas and piñon/juniper foothills, to its sandstone canyons and Rio Grande Gorge. The Piedra Lumbre and Ghost Ranch Centers in Abiquiu are excellent places to explore the geology, paleontology and archeology of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area. At the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology visitors will see well-preserved skeletons of the Coelophysis (SEE-Low-FY-sis) dinosaur and geology, flora, and fauna from the Triassic period. [Ghost Ranch]


The Heritage Area comprises immense topographic and geologic differences and distinct eco-systems that vary by elevation and climactic conditions. Ecosystems range from the San Luis Shrub Lands and Hills, to the Taos Plateau and the varied eco-regions of the Southern Rockies – from grassland parks, to foothill woodlands and shrub lands, to sub-alpine and mid-elevation forests, both sedimentary and volcanic. Vegetation is as varied as the region: Sagebrush, yucca, and piñón/juniper dominate on the plains and foothills, where it is warm and dry. Scrub oak and ponderosa pine grow at higher elevations, on the broad mesas and sides of mountains, then give way to mixed conifers – Douglas fir and blue spruce, which appear at elevations of 8,500 to 9,500 feet.

Above 10,000 feet, harsh weather dwarfs the spruce, but hardy plants and wildflowers sprinkle the landscape. These eco-regions provide habitat for antelope, gophers, prairie dogs, coyotes, crows, ravens, eagles, several species of hawks, butterflies, bats, and a veritable encyclopedia of nocturnal flying insects. Waterways support native cut-throat trout, naturally reproducing brown trout, rainbow trout, bass, and other game fish.

Pronghorn and mule deer roam the rolling plains, while black bears, mountain lions, mountain sheep, and elk are found in higher elevations. Occasionally, herds of bison are seen from the highway on various Pueblo lands.

While species have adapted to the region’s tremendous differences in altitude, rainfall, and temperature, dozens of species have been identified as endangered.

Endangered mammals include the Black-footed Ferret, New Mexican Meadow Jumping Mouse, Southwestern Otter, Townsend’s Big-eared Bat, the Spotted Bat, American Marten, and the Rocky Mountain Big-Horned Sheep.

Endangered fish include the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout and Rio Grande Silvery Minnow. Birds include the Mexican spotted and Western burrowing owls, the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, Southwestern Willow Flycatcher, and the Mountain Plover.

The Mountain Toad and Jemez Mountains Salamander are listed as endangered, as are the New Mexico silverspot butterfly, the Sangre de Cristo pea clam and Cockerell’s striate disc, a snail.

An inventory of birds compiled by the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area and others, including the Española Field Office of the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service, counted 194 types of birds in the three-county area, from the Black-Chinned and Broad-Tailed Hummingbird to Golden and Bald Eagles to finches, teals, flycatchers, and nine types of sparrows. A number of important bird areas are situated in the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area, including Chama River Gorge/Golondrina near Tierra Amarilla, Los Luceros at Española, and Burford Lake near Dulce. In Santa Fe, the 135-acre Randall Davey Audubon Center & Sanctuary offers guided bird walks where approximately 130 species can be found.


Within the Heritage Area there are 17 designated National Landmarks, one World Heritage Site (Taos Pueblo), and two National Monuments. Bandelier National Monument and most of the National Landmark sites identify places of historical significance within the native and Spanish cultural settlements. The Bandelier and Puye Cliff dwellings preserve the living quarters and communities of early native peoples, ancestors of the current Pueblo cultures. Other landmark sites include churches, government buildings, and community facilities reflecting the history of Spanish colonization. The recently designated Rio Grande del Norte National Monument falls within the boundaries of the National Heritage Area.


Three major National Historic Trails emerge from or terminate in the National Heritage Area: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, the Santa Fe National Historic Trail, and the Old Spanish National Historic Trail. The Camino Real is the original Royal Road connecting Mexico City to the northern frontier capital city of Santa Fe. It served Spanish and Mexican trade since it was forged in the original colonization of the northern territories in 1598 by Juan de Oñate. The Santa Fe Trail was opened in 1821 with the opening of trade between the United States and Mexico from Missouri to the capital of Santa Fe. The Old Spanish Trail established trade between Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico and the ranches in southern California at Los Angeles. A more recent national road running through the Heritage Area is the path of Route 66, which crosses into Santa Fe County and through Santa Fe on its way west. The Enchanted Circle National Scenic Byway in Taos County loops 84 miles through the Carson National Forest, encircling Wheeler Peak, while the Wild Rivers Backcountry Byway winds its way along the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge. Passing through the towns of Madrid and Cerrillos in Santa Fe County, the Turquoise Trail National Historic Byway offers spectacular views of mountains, canyons, and bizarre rock formations, as well as safe access to dozens of pre-1900 mines.


The Heritage Area’s abundant natural resources – its rivers and streams, lakes, forests, ecosystems, and almost limitless vistas – enhance the region’s quality of life and economic value. Open space, parks, recreation areas, scenic lands, and vistas attract businesses and ecotourism and strengthen the region’s communities by providing a connection to nature and incredible opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Half of the roughly 6.5 million acres comprising the Heritage Area is federal, state, or tribal land. Vast expanses, some 3.2 million acres, are part of the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management owns an additional 880,000 surface acres (as well as subsurface mineral acres leased for natural gas and oil). Federal lands include wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, scenic byways, and historic trails. The State of New Mexico also owns significant acreage in the Heritage Area. State Trust Lands comprise about 320,000 acres, the majority of which are leased, but not exclusively, for grazing. Other state agencies maintain state parks and wild management areas, while eight pueblos own tribal land.

Carson National Forest, in Rio Arriba and Taos counties, offers some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the Southwest, including the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and Red River Canyon. The national forest is known for trout fishing, while hunters seek out mule deer, elk, antelope, and small game such as rabbits. Hiking, horseback trails, and scenic byways offer an excellent introduction to the region’s flora and fauna, while winter sports enthusiasts will find places to ski or snowshoe.

The Santa Fe National Forest, in Rio Arriba and Santa Fe counties, lies on both sides of the Rio Grande in a region rich in natural resources. The Santa Fe National Forest includes more than 300,000 acres of wilderness area, including the Pecos Wilderness, near Pecos, and San Pedro Parks Wilderness, northeast of Cuba. The Pecos Wilderness comprises 223,667 acres, which include 15 lakes and key streams that sustain plant and animal habitat, including the native Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout. Terrain ranges from open meadows in the Pecos River Valley to 13,102-foot Truchas Peak. The San Pedro Parks Wilderness features large, grassy meadows framed by dense stands of spruce and mixed conifers. Fishing and hiking are popular in the summertime; cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the wintertime.



The Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area includes numerous lakes and state parks.

In Rio Arriba County, the impoundment of Willow Creek created Heron Lake, set among tall pines west of Tierra Amarilla. A five and one-half mile trail along the Rio Chama connects the lake and state park to El Vado Lake State Park. El Vado Lake State Park is a place to water-ski, hike or cross-country ski in the winter.  Heron Lake State Park is designated as a “quiet lake,” where boats operate at no-wake speeds only. The lake is noted for its excellent fishing.

At Abiquiu Lake and Dam an interpretive trail highlights the region’s plant life, cultural history, and water conservation.

In Taos County, Cimarron Canyon State Park is part of the 33,116-acre Colin Neblett Wildlife Area, the largest in New Mexico. About 12 miles north of Taos is the 13,304-acre Urraca Wildlife Area, purchased in 1966 to provide habitat for deer and elk. The area rises from dry sagebrush flats to aspen and pine groves found at more than 11,000 feet in elevation.

Near Chimayo, Santa Cruz Lake Recreation Area occupies a semi-arid region at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, offering recreational opportunities for anglers, boaters, picnickers, and campers. At Santa Cruz Lake, the Rio del Medio and Rio Frijoles are impounded behind Santa Cruz Dam, built in 1929 by the Santa Cruz Irrigation District, which regulates water releases for agricultural use in the Santa Cruz Valley. The Bureau of Land Management manages the recreation area.


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.