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Fall is a Great Time for Camping Here in New Mexico

Posted by on September 27, 2008

The crowds and heat of summer have waned and the tantalizing colors of autumn now beckon.

And with the monsoon season behind us, New Mexico’s autumn days are warm and inviting and the nights, crisp and clear.

One of the best places to enjoy these spectacular conditions is a gem of a campground known as Mills Canyon.

Found far out on the eastern plains between Roy and Abbott on State Road 39 this recently refurbished U.S. Forest Service campground lies at the bottom of a canyon through which the Canadian River flows.

Visitors cross the sparse, rolling prairie through sections of the federally managed Kiowa Grasslands to reach the camping area.

One may pass a group of grazing antelope or proceed under the watchful eye of a circling hawk while heading down there.

Upon reaching the canyon’s edge a visitor is struck by a surprising view through the ponderosa pines and scrub oak of a shimmering, ribbon of river below.

Ablaze with red willows and towering, gold cottonwoods in the fall and rimmed by red sandstone cliff walls, Mills Canyon is a feast for autumn revelers.

Once home to a large scale farming operation that provided supplies to the railroads, modern day explorers will still find the ruins of once majestic stone buildings and stands of hardy fruit trees.

Visitors will find new campsites and outhouses but no water or other services at the bottom.

Back atop the rim of the canyon, visitors will also find new campsites and horse corrals and best of all, these sites are free for use by the public.

Administered by the Forest Service’s Kiowa and Rita Blanca Grasslands office in Clayton, more information about Mills Canyon can be had by calling 575-374-9652 or visiting the Cibola National Forest – Welcome! web site.

More spectacular fall camping in northeastern New Mexico can be found straddling the Colorado state line at Sugarite State Park.

Considered by many to be the best of New Mexico’s state park system, Sugarite boasts spectacular views of the canyon and plains below from its mesa top, Soda Pocket, campground.

The park features numerous hiking trails including two, half-mile climbs to the mesa tops surrounding Soda Pocket campground that offer even better views.

The park’s headquarters are located on what was once a bustling coal camp where visitors can explore the camp’s preserved ruins or enjoy some fishing on nearby lakes Alice and Maloya.

Wildlife viewing opportunities abound at Sugarite with bear and other forest creatures in abundance.

So much so that Woodall’s Camping Life in April 2006 ranked Sugarite among the top-ten, state parks in the entire country, citing it’s wildlife viewing opportunities as one of its top draws.

Normally a busy place, fall provides visitors an opportunity to freely enjoy Sugarite’s many charms without the pressure of summertime crowds.

Located on State Road 526 outside of historic Raton, Sugarite State Park is a fine choice for a fall road trip.

For more information call the park at (575) 445-5607 or visit the state parks section of the state Energy Mineral and Natural Resources website at

Those venturing up the Rio Grande Valley during the autumn months to north central New Mexico might find themselves hard pressed to keep their eyes on the road, the scenery is that spectacular.

The Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Rivers Recreation Area just north of Questa boasts arguably the finest, scenic overlook in the state at the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Red River.

Peering 800 feet down into the Rio Grande Gorge, one can imagine the immense geologic forces that worked to create New Mexico’s own Grand Canyon.

One can take a strenuous hike into the gorge from several different trails to experience the gorge’s awesome beauty or fish the Big River’s fabled waters.

Numerous campsites line the gorge’s edge with El Aguaje being one of the best featuring an easy trail down into the Red River gorge, recently refurbished campsites and great access to the rest of the recreation area.

Located off State Road 378 just past the village of Cerro visitors will find a manned visitors’ center open within the recreation area for more information.

The Wild Rivers Recreation Area can be a hot, dusty, sun-baked place in the dead of the summer. But in the fall, one can explore its many possibilities in relative comfort and safety.

For more information about the Wild Rivers Recreation Area check out the BLM’s website at

Further out west in Indian Country lies a historic watering hole, El Morro, where fall travelers can enjoy a remarkable experience.

Operated by the National Park Service this monument features excavated Indian ruins including a mesa top kiva, petroglyphs, some of the finest, historic graffiti in the country and one neat little campgound.

Located west of Grants on State Road 53 on the outskirts of the Ramah Navajo Reservation the reliable watering hole lured many travelers who left their mark
in the soft sandstone, including that of Spanish Conquistador, Don Juan Oñate.

Noted for its towering sandstone bluff, visitors will find a modern visitor center at El Morro, interpretive hiking tours and campsites featuring water spigots, tent pads, picnic tables and fire rings.

Traveling to El Morro visitors will pass through the El Malpais National Monument, a massive area featuring great lava flows, ice caves and volcano craters.

Normally a lonely, hot and inhospitable area in the summer, a trip to El Morro can be a delight in the fall.

For more information see the National Park Service’s website at and follow the links for El Morro and El Malpais.

And lastly when venturing out in New Mexico during the fall one can’t help but be drawn to the southwestern part of the state where cooler temperatures make a visit to the Gila wilderness and national forest a must.

Covering over three million acres, this vast area of the state features dozens of campgrounds, several lakes, numerous streams, high mountain peaks, protected wilderness areas and an amazing array of sightseeing opportunities.

If heading down into the Gila from the west through Magdalena and Datil one can spend a day at Lake Quemado where good camping, hiking and fishing can be had.

Upon leaving Lake Quemado travelers will find the fall scenery abundant along State Road 32 heading south to US 180 and into the heart of the Gila.

A stop at the catwalk for a little hike and a picnic is recommended before proceeding on to more adventuresome destinations.

Some of the best scenery the Gila has to offer is reputed to be had up around McKnight’s Cabin in the Black Range where aspen stands and open meadows provide excellent views.

McKnight’s can be accessed by State and Forest Road 152 which leads to Kingston and climbs up over Emory Pass where great views are available too.

And perhaps one of the best draws about the Gila this fall is that several previously closed creeks have been reopened to fishing for the once endangered Gila trout.

Visitors can drive to Black Canyon on Forest Road 150 and fish upstream for several miles for the native trout that has made a comeback due to extensive recovery efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Game and Fish (see related stories).

For more information about the Gila check out the U.S. Forest Service’s website at

The Gila is a hunter’s paradise too, so fall travelers need to be alert to the potential of encountering them, whether in a campground or in the woods.

It’s highly recommended to consult the state hunting proclamation or call a regional state Department of Game and Fish office to determine if and when a hunt may be occurring in an area one may wish to visit.

Most hunters are active early in the morning and late in the afternoon, and bow and muzzleloader hunts require hunters to get close to their prey, usually 50 yards or less.

Those hunters don’t present as much of threat to others sharing the woods as rifle hunters may.

It can be dangerous wandering around the countryside during a rifle hunt due to the long-range lethality of the modern rifle and a rifle hunters’ willingness to shoot at distant targets.

Avoid the backcountry when a hunt is on and if venturing into the woods during hunting season to fish or hike, wear at the very least a blaze orange cap so you’re readily identifiable.

The Best of the Rest!

We would be remiss in not mentioning some of the state’s other great camping areas that are worthy of visiting in the autumn.

Percha Dam State park on the Rio Grande south of Truth or Consequences is resplendent in the fall under a canopy of colorful Cottonwood trees.

The park pales in size compared to its upstream cousins at Caballo and Elephant Butte Lakes but that’s exactly what makes it such a wonderful place to camp.

It’s rural and remote but within easy striking distance of the big lake’s attractions and the hot springs and other amenities found in the little city of Truth or Consequences.

Percha Dam State Park features shady campsites and grassy lawns to lay upon. There’s a playground for the kids and good fishing and bird watching down by the by the river.

This place is a little known jewel of the state parks system and is located about 20 miles south of T or C off I-25 at exit 59. Take State Road 187 south for about a mile to the park entrance.

Further up north one can find some of the best fall scenery in the state along the long, lonesome road into the high country of the Valle Vidal.

A hunter’s paradise in the fall with exceptional bag rates for a once in a lifetime draw, the Valle Vidal, boasts great herds of elk hiding among its many stands of brilliant aspen trees.

Camping can be had at the mountaintop Cimarron campground or down the other side of the mountain at McCrystal campground.

Camping within the Valle Vidal is restricted to these two sites unless one is hiking into the backcountry.

Cimarron campground’s proximity to Shuree Ponds and its wonderful fishing make it a popular site.

McCrystal campground has no water and is more remote, which usually results in less company.

McCrystal is also located near the restored homestead of the Ring Ranch which makes for fascinating exploration on a fine fall afternoon.

This is bear country and sightings are common so camp and hike accordingly.

The Valle Vidal’s fall colors and crisp clean, air make is a worthy destination for a fall road trip.

Take State Road 522 out of Taos to the Colorado State Line and head into the Valle Vidal at Costilla. Stay on the forest road and come out the other side on U.S. 64 at Cimarron and head over to Taos the back way for a special trip.

And lastly, the fall is a great time of year to head into Indian Country for a tour of Chaco Canyon.

Normally a hot, dusty location with little or no shade, exploring the ruins in the fall can be a much nicer experience for visitors.

Chaco is a historical goldmine for those interested in the ancient Indian cultures and the mystery of what happened to them.

The location offers stunning photographic opportunities, incredible archeology and at night? – star gazing perfection.

Driving the bone jarring, winding, dirt road into Chaco Canyon is a rite of passage for many visitors to the West and well worth the effort.

Located off U.S. 550 at the Red Mesa gas station just north of Lybrook, visitors take San Juan County Road 7900 to SJCR 7950 and on into the canyon.

Be prepared!

A version of this article appeared in the September 2008 edition of New Mexico magazine.

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