Born and raised in New Mexico, I’ve rafted the Rio Grande, climbed most of the big peaks, and have fished almost every inch of running water that is open to the public. At an early age, I was taught that our state is the fifth largest in the nation and that our state bird is the roadrunner. I pride myself on my knowledge of my homeland, which is why I was floored to learn that there are more than 1,200 lakes speckled across its high desert expanse. New Mexico may not be Minnesota, but think of all the canoes and kayaks one could float on all that agua, the hours upon hours you could pass jet skiing, windsurfing, or sailing, or how many spectacular wrecks you could execute on your water skis. On top of all that, imagine all the fabulous fishing and the miles of gorgeous shorelines on which to lay a campsite.
The only problem with all these options seems to be narrowing them down. Due to space limitations, I’ll attempt such a feat by highlighting a sampling of popular watersports getaways. Know that plenty of comparable sites can be found by contacting the state and federal land management agencies. The most comprehensive information on water conditions, prevailing weather, no-wake restrictions, and concessions can be found at the New Mexico State Parks website, www.emnrd.state.nm.us or by calling 1-888-NMParks. For detailed information about whitewater sports and fishing in New Mexico check out the articles under “Related Info”.
Located in the dramatic sandstone mesas about an hour east of Farmington, Navajo offers something for just about everyone. There is ample space for cruise boats, house boats, waterskiing, jet skiing, scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing kayaking and canoeing. The lake’s coves and depths are home to almost every freshwater fish you can name, and for the fly fisherman in your group, the world famous San Juan River flows cold and full of trout out of Navajo’s dam. The lake has two boat ramps, one at Sims Mesa and another at Pine Recreation area, as well as three docks at those locations. Watercraft and slips can be rented at the Navajo Dam Marina and at the Sims Lake Marina, or the Two Rivers Marina on the Colorado side of the lake.
Located on the Canadian River in the east central region of New Mexico, Conchas offers 88 miles of shoreline and is a favorite of watersports enthusiasts of all stripes. The lake is about 34 miles northwest of Tucumcari on Interstate 40, roughly three hours away from Santa Fe. There are 8 boat ramps and one full-service marina, and select private and public campsites around this wonderful lake. There are several narrow stretches, so be sure you’re familiar with the layout before bringing along your water skis. If you’re a paddle boater, ask about the several petroglyph locations on the sandstone bluffs around Conchas.
Just northwest of Las Vegas, Storrie Lake is a small (1,100 acres) lake with an incredible view of Hermit’s Peak and the Pecos Wilderness. It’s a favorite of windsurfing and sailing buffs, and offers some waterskiing and cruising opportunities, but I’d leave it alone on crowded days. There’s no marina at Storrie, one boat ramp, and one dock. There’s also camping near the park entrance, though I would only camp at Storrie if I wanted an extremely social camping trip.
El Vado Lake
Take highway 84 north out of Espanola and turn left at Tierra Amarilla, following the signs to this spectacular lake. There is good camping on the east and west shores, great boating and skiing opportunities but, sadly, no marina for services or craft rentals. There are two ramps, North El Vado and the Main ramp, and two docks. The area above the North ramp, which includes the mouth of the Chama River, is restricted to no-wake boating. El Vado is well known for its great fishing, either in the lake itself, up the mouth of the Chama, or below the El Vado dam.
A mile or so north of the El Vado turnoff, you will reach the turnoff to Heron Lake, northern New Mexico’s premier sailing destination. Sailors, windsurfers, and paddle boaters love it because the entire lake is restricted to no-wake boating. Heron has one developed sailboat marina at the mouth of Willow Creek. There is a boat ramp at Willow Creek, another ramp called La Laja, and four docks. There is stupendous shore camping around Heron, and great kokanee and lake trout fishing.
Elephant Butte Lake
Approximately 40 miles in length, Elephant Butte backs up behind a dam on the Rio Grande and is New Mexico’s largest lake. All types of enthusiasts will have a ball here, thanks to three full service marinas, the Marina del Sur, Rock Canyon, and Dam Site marinas. Before going, check to see which marina is best given current lake levels. There is great primitive camping for paddle boaters on the eastern shore, and at certain times of year, the birding can be spectacular. Its warm water fishery is gaining a reputation worldwide. As it’s easily reachable from several college towns—Las Cruces, El Paso, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe—Elephant Butte can be crowded, though it is big enough to absorb even the biggest mobs.
A short drive down Interstate 25 from Elephant Butte is the Caballo reservoir, a welcome option to its busier upstream neighbor. Caballo has two boat ramps, Caballo Dam and Lakeside, three docks, but no marina. In its upper portion, the lake offers excellent paddle boating; their quiet approach is ideal for viewing wildlife and birds of an amazing variety. Like Elephant Butte, Caballo boasts several beaches, which are popular with families.
Operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Abiquiú is popular with Santa Fe boaters for several reasons. The lake is close, a mere hour’s drive. Its fishing for walleye, bass, and monster brown trout can be off-the-charts great. The waterskiing and boating is relatively uncrowded; but whatever your passion, your experience will include the view that inspired Georgia O’Keefe to make her home only minutes away. Abiquiú has two boat ramps and no marina facility. If leaving from the Cerrito ramp on the eastern shore, it is important to stay on the eastern side if you’re going north, since there’s a spit jutting out from the west that can be a shallow water hazard.
Another Corps of Engineers project, Cochiti is a short drive south of Santa Fe and about an hour north of Albuquerque on Interstate 25. Though mostly on Cochiti Pueblo land, there are two areas that are open to the general public, the Cochiti Recreation Area on the western shore by the dam, and the Tetilla Peak area on the east. Both spots have boat ramps. Since the lake is entirely no-wake restricted, it is popular with windsurfers and paddle boaters. People who fish for northern pike also love Cochiti for its springtime catches of huge spawning fish in the shallows. Cochiti has no marina, though there are plans to build one in the future.
It should go without saying that this article shouldn’t be your only research into the waters I’ve described. They all have unique considerations such as water levels and weather patterns; you don’t want to pull up to a marina and find that it’s not there due to a drastically changed water level (this can happen at the bigger lakes like Elephant Butte and Navajo). You don’t want to get wave-washed in Heron. I’ve also assumed that any boater who wishes to enjoy these gems is up to date on the latest water safety requirements and methods, and that you’ve met all regulatory requirements. I’m assuming you’re a smart boater, that you boat only when sober, keep your machines in good repair, and—no matter what the guys on the shore might want—you break out your new string bikini when there’s no possibility of snowfall or a cold front blowing in. That means summer but prepare to cover yourself up anyway. Sorry, fellas.