It’s a short but steep climb to the top of the hill overlooking this tidy little state park, but the rewards are spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and countryside.
The state park located about 60 miles east of Santa Fe has long been a draw for locals but others are also finding their way down into this secluded, picturesque valley along the Pecos river.
During a recent mid-week visit a French tourist and a Wyoming retiree were found hiking along the park’s popular overlook trail while at the bank of the river a couple of locals cleaned a fish they’d caught.
There’s a reason Villanueva State Park has long been known as a locals park and that’s in part because it is, having been created back in 1967 with land donated by the San Miguel del Bado Land Grant Board of Trustees.
“This is the only state park I know of initially created by a land grant board of trustees,” says Malcolm Ebright, director of the Center for Land Grant Studies of Guadalupita in a 2009 report to the state regarding the park.
The report, found online at www.newmexicohistory.org provides a fascinating historical perspective of how the park was born during a tumultuous time in the state’s land grant history.
The report notes that the land grant trustees not only transferred 67 acres including 4,800 feet of river front access to the park but that an additional 3.5 miles of the Pecos River flowing through the grant would be opened up to the public for fishing and other recreational purposes.
The nearby village of Villanueva where most of the land grant members lived at the time was expected to benefit from the increased commerce from those frequenting the park, the report notes.
Visitors to the village may want to drive up to the top of the hill overlooking the town to see the grotto containing santos and other religious items. The village boasts a beautiful church constructed of local rock back in 1830 and a stop at the village mercantile is a must for those who cherish local, mom and pop, stores.
The park is located just a few miles down the road from Villanueva and has proven to be very popular.
“The locals love it here on weekends and especially on Easter Sunday,” says Ramon Gallegos Jr. a 25-year State Park veteran and Villanueva’s Acting Manager. “But during mid week it’s peaceful and a great place to come relax and enjoy the scenery.”
Today the park spans about 1,600 acres with a pleasant campground featuring 33 sites, 12 of which provide electricity. There’s a bathhouse with showers and a modern playground for the kids to play in.
The river is regularly stocked from fall through spring and provides good fishing while swimming and wading becomes the favored activity during the summer months.
A visitor center with a classic adobe-colored stucco exterior and a small cupola on a metal roof features brochures, pamphlets and small informative displays inside.
Visitors will find numerous appealing campsites nestled among shade trees along the streamside while newly rehabilitated camping shelters atop a hill overlooking the lower campground are equally attractive to campers.
Hikers will find by crossing an attractive iron bridge spanning the river a 2.5 mile loop trail that heads up to the ravine overlooking the campground and river below.
Upon first heading upstream on the trail hikers will encounter a small butte jutting out over the river where the remains of rock walls can be seen. Native Indians and later Spanish settlers both apparently made good use of this spot and hikers can too.
Continuing on, the trail then switches back and begins a short but steep climb to the top of the overlook where visitors will find several rustic picnic shelters and an observation deck.
This is a superb spot to relax and enjoy a couple of cold beverages. Visitors need to pack out what they bring in and well-behaved, leashed pets are welcome.
Hikers can then continue their hike along the ridgeline and return to the bottom just downstream of the bridge.
Gallegos notes that the river is popular among kayakers and canoeists during years of ample spring runoff. One can take a day-long float through rugged, remote canyon lands covering about 19 miles to a take out at U.S. 84 at Tecolotito.
The river runs primarily through National Forest land starting a couple miles downstream of the state park and is reported to be a delightful float of relative ease with excellent fishing along the way.
Unfortunately the runoff forecast for this year is poor and it remains to be seen how good the river running will be. Equally disturbing is the fire threat this year which has forced parks such as Villanueva to prohibit open fires.
“We’re not allowing anything but propane right now,” Gallegos said.
In the meantime though with spring descending on the valley visitors will find the wildflowers in bloom, trees budding and the fishing biting at one of New Mexico’s more secluded get aways.
If You Go:
From Santa Fe take I-25 east towards Las Vegas and get off at exit 323 and follow St. Rd 3 to the outskirts of Villanueva. Note the sign at the intersection with County Road B 28 A which leads down to Villanueva State Park. Beer is available on the way at El Pueblo. Groceries and fishing supplies can be had at the General Store in Villanueva. A sit down meal can be had at the landmark La Risa Cafe in Ribera.