El Vado Lake State Park – Teirra Amarilla, NM

  • Date: May 2014
  • Location: Tierra Amarilla, NM (north centralish New Mexico)
  • Number of Sites: 80 developed site spread over 8 campgrounds. 19 with 30amp electric and water (all in one campground).
  • Cost: $10 dry camping to $18 elec/water per night.

Wanting to get out of Albuquerque for a bit, and to go ride the rails, I decided to head northwest and check out El Vado Lake State Park for the week. Amanda and Tim, of Watsons Wander, have been taking a tour of New Mexico State Parks and have been raving about how nice the lakes are in this state. I must admit, I am impressed with what I have seen so far!

El Vado Lake is a reservoir on the Rio Chama, that feeds into the Rio Grande, which provides water to a large percentage of New Mexico’s population. There is another reservoir just north of El Vado Lake – Heron Lake, which also has a very nice, but larger, state park. The lakes are a bit different – El Vado allows unlimited speeds (but isn’t very large so we aren’t talking big boats hauling ass), which Heron is limited to trolling speed only (and is the larger of the two lakes). Take your pick – they are both wonderful locations!

It was a bit of an adventure getting to El Vado Lake State Park. I plotted out my route from ABQ and saw there were two possibilities. Up through Sante Fe and in from the north approach, and one straight out NM 550 (which I was staying on) and up through the south approach. The south approach, according to Google Maps, was shorter in both time and distance, so I decided to go this way. Boy did it get the time thing wrong!

Turns out the route I picked was great, with very little traffic, until the pavement ended. Just like that. For 16 miles, through an Indian reservation, I got to pick my way very carefully down a dirt road. A nice dirt road (for the most part), but still a dirt road. Ooops! Towing a 5700 pound trailer on a dirt road means you go slow. Really slow. And stuff still got ‘rearranged’ inside. Sigh…

Let’s just say I didn’t choose that route to get back to Albuquerque.

Oh, and the best part? At the end of the 16 miles there was the El Vado Lake dam. A very narrow, one lane structure that is something I wouldn’t choose to drive across towing a house. But I did. It was either that or turn around and do the 16 mile dirt road again and add, oh, probably 5 hours to the day. Yeah, it was a ‘fun’ trip!

Site 32 is literally perched on the edge of a cliff that drops down to the lake, whose level is very low. I imagine in non-drought periods, the water is much closer and you could probably fish from the site. Not so now, with water levels being a good 5-7 stories below.

As a virtual employee, Internet connectivity is a big deal. Without I can’t work. I knew by looking at the Verizon coverage map that I would have issues here, but I took a chance anyhow. It paid off as I got a fairly weak 3G signal, that even with using my signal booster, it still caused me a bit of grief. But I managed. Barely.

Heron Lake State Park is in a much better coverage location, even though it is just a handful of miles away (but about a 45 minute drive due to the way the roads go around here). Welcome to New Mexico mountainous area. There are no straight lines and a good signal can be found just over that peak.

While Heron does have several campgrounds with lakeside campsites, they are only suitable for tents or very small trailers. I couldn’t get my 24 foot trailer in any of these spots, so the only suitable campsites for me have wonderful tree view, but no water views. Since I was looking for lakeside camping, I choose El Vado and its crappy Internet connection. #nomadproblems

There is a 5.5 mile trail that connects the two parks, and I hiked most of the way one morning. This was one of the most poorly marked trails I have ever been on. Turns out most of the mesa it treks across looks the same, so unless you are on your toes, you might take a wrong turn and end up wandering around for over a mile until you find the trail again. Not that this happened to me or anything. Thankfully I was tracking my progress with a GPS hiking app so I knew where I came from, but unfortunately the actual trail didn’t show on the map, so I had no idea where I was going. But by using some logic, I figured out where the trail should be. Again, after taking a wee bit of a detour. Ended up turning around after hiking a little over 6 miles one way. I didn’t want to descend down to, and climb back out of the Rio Chama (twice), so I headed back. The hike back was much shorter. Amazing what happens when one follows the actual trail. Total hike was 11 miles at 7000+ feet. Out. Of. Shape.

El Vado Lake State Park is a nice base if you wish to explore the Chama area. However, nothing is close by, with Chama being about 40 minutes away. Fortunately the surrounding area is absolutely gorgeous so you have a nice feast for your eyes as you travel.

If Internet connectivity is really important, I would choose Heron Lake State Park. But the views at El Vado made connectivity hassles worth it.

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