Camping in New Mexico

Brenda Fleming takes a picture of a friend while hiking in the Organ mountains.

Camping in New Mexico

Springtime means planning for sleep-under-the-stars season in the Land of Enchantment

By Brenda Fleming

“What do you actually do camping? Like, sit around and drink beer? I don’t get it.” 

My coworker had just moved from Alabama to New Mexico. Camping was not something she had been exposed to—yet. 

In New Mexico, most people love camping. Perhaps it’s the stars, or the lack of bugs (comparatively), or the quiet, crisp nights. Or maybe, it’s the adventure and exploration.

What do we do? I didn’t know how to answer that. Every place is special and different. 

The Pecos Wilderness looks like an expansive backdrop to any going-out-west movie. My family of five likes to camp at Field Tract Campground, which borders the Pecos River and is shaded with ponderosa giants. One particularly hot day, we had a big circular watermelon-slice-shaped floatie and rode down the length of the campsite over and over again. There were a couple big rocks that formed a swoop in the water, making a wave that was nothing less than inner-kid-screamin’ joy. 

Another favorite spot to camp and cool off is Rianna Campground at Abiquiu Lake. Abiquiu’s teal water is surrounded by a layer of soft red and orange rock. It looks like neapolitan ice cream, but instead of strawberry, chocolate and vanilla, it’s more like strawberry, orange, and tangerine. The sunsets are the best on the planet. (Nope, not debatable.) I remember one particular evening trying out a new paddle board and having an endless monsoon sunset sky above and the reflection around me on the expanses of glassy water. Magical.

Every year in college, I used to take my little brothers camping, and Abiquiu was the choice destination. One year, we were determined to “catch” our food for the camp trip, and ended up with two crawdads. Despite not having brought along any other food, my sister had given me a Moroccan spice kit which was somehow still in my ‘93 Corolla. We opened the spice gift and cooked up those crawdads Five-Michilin-Stars style—amounting to about a quarter-size of meat.  

Now, as a mother of three, I asked my kids about their funniest camping memory. They immediately brought up Navajo Lake State Park. One by one, each kid shared how they managed to fall into a cactus. The “funny” part was when it happened to the other sibling. My kids (Daphne, age 11; Donna, 10; and Eli, 5) had a blast there this past summer. They went inner tubing, caught a bull snake, and made prickly pear juice. Donna had read something about making prickly pear juice by filtering the cactus fruit through a sock.

Daphne Fleming playing on the soft sandstore rocks at
Abiquiu Reservoir.

Daphne Fleming playing on the soft sandstore rocks at Abiquiu Reservoir.

“It actually wasn’t bad!” Daphne told me as we hiked down to the lake, “It tasted sorta like mango… and dirty sock.” 

I suppose finding quality food in the outdoors doesn’t run in my family.

The Jemez Mountains, which were formed by a super volcano, offer mud pots and hotsprings to explore thanks to the geothermal activity. Limestone deposits in certain nooks allow for fossil hunting. I took my little brothers, and later my own kids, on these nature treasure hunts for little ancient sea creatures and sea plants. My favorite campsite in the Jemez Mountains is San Antonio. The little paved paths along a creek are perfect for kids on bikes to go up and down all day, and across the road there is the trailhead for San Antonio Hot Springs. Last year, we met my sister and her husband’s family at this campsite. His parents cooked up a massive pot of red chile which they served over hotdogs with cheese and onions. The chile was delectable. This amazing food memory might be another reason San Antonio forever has a place in my heart. 

Let’s be honest, a good meal in the woods can forge a lifelong happy memory.

Take Elephant Butte, New Mexico’s desert beach for example. A fantastic place to play in the sand, jump in the water, and get a sunburn so bad you’ll be left crying. I remember being a poor college student, and late at night when the sand and sky cooled off, some elderly folks beckoned my group over to their fire and (perhaps sensing our hunger) fed us the best freakin’ fajitas I’ve ever eaten. 

Another memorable meal was chili and cast-iron-skillet cornbread on a particularly cold camp trip. The setting sun pitched golden light on the fortress of canyons that partitioned the campsite in Chaco Canyon, an ancient city connecting all the way to Maya civilizations that once housed thousands of people and was filled with everything from turquoise to pet macaws and breath-taking architecture: intricately stacked thin stones perfectly straight, and angled walls, and doorways that led to room after room, each with its own history, its own stories. The Chaco Canyon visitor center showed us how much archeologists were able to gather information from the nests of pack rats (which made me wonder what future people will find under our home!).

Donna Fleming exploring Chaco Canyon.

Donna Fleming exploring Chaco Canyon.

We took a trip over to the Bisti Badlands, which felt like traveling to a scene out of a Dr. Seuss book. There were bubbly rocks, drooping rocks, red rock, and blue rocks! The kids ran around and climbed, jumped and explored. Petrified wood was sprinkled across the desert horizon.

Bandelier is another favorite camping spot. “I helped make the trails there. There are over 70 miles of trails!” A coach from Taos at my kid’s hockey game told me. 70 miles! Growing up in Los Alamos, I have probably done the lower loop (about one mile) about 70 times and I never tire of it. This trail winds through ruins and up the side of a canyon along caveates. You can climb in them and imagine what life was like making pottery and obsidian arrows, cultivating corn and beans, and hunting deer. 

I didn’t make it to Carlsbad Caverns until my thirties. Once a mine for the high nitrate fertilizer guano (bat poop), it is just magical. My kids ran through the mile-long trail, and we were in awe at the beauty, the perfect underground temperature, and the lit-up trails through stalactites and stalagmites.

Red River is my “plush” destination. We have spent many nights in the Enchanted Forest yurts, and depending on the season, we’ve hiked, biked, skied, and snowshoed the one-mile trek to stay in the yurt. Fall in Red River is breathtaking. You can see yellow aspens contrast with evergreens, and peekaboo glimpses of a snow-capped Wheeler Peak are sights to be seen. We’ve spent time at all the forest service campsites as well Columbine, Elephant Rock, and Fawn Lakes. No matter where we camp, we always visit Steam Coffee for a latte and the Candy Crate for maple fudge. Hey, who says you can’t live a little while camping?

Donna Fleming of Los Alamos hiking in the
Jemez wilderness.

Donna Fleming of Los Alamos hiking in the Jemez wilderness.

The Organ Mountains are in southern New Mexico, and I first saw them when I went to college in Las Cruces. Growing up at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, I remember being nothing short of impressed by the entirely different type of mountain range. The pokey, majestic mountains east of the town are perfectly named, because the pointed spires resemble that of a pipe organ.The peaks turn a golden purple when the sun bids goodbye. Every so often, a yellow moon rises over them, declaring himself conductor of the congregation of neighborhoods that make up the town of Las Cruces. 

On a whim, my friend Erin and I decided we should hike to the top of the mountains and camp for the night. We tied sleeping bags to our school backpacks, hiked straight up, and slept at the top. We lost the trail on our descent and found ourselves cursing while scaling down the rocky spires. At one point, Erin ended up throwing her sleeping bag off a cliff after it swung like a pendulum and almost killed her. The spiky rocks scraped us, the sea of cacti bit us. We came back to my car exhausted and scraped, and I was late to my 10 a.m. shift as a pizza delivery girl. 

But for a moment, we felt like the conductors of the Organ Mountains.

Camping adventures forge magical memories. It’s enjoying the spectacular fiery glow of the sun bidding goodbye and being blanketed by the stars. It’s the feeling our struggles slip away while . snuggling with those we love. It’s the wonders around us that heal us as we breathe in a new place that seems to be on top of the world.

 So yeah, those are a few reasons to camp. But mostly to sit around and drink beer.

Brenda Fleming is the mother of three kids and loves all things New Mexico, including hiking, mountain biking, snowboarding, and camping. She is author/illustrator of the highly rated Short Front Legs: Observations of the Human Species from a Tired Mother (for sale locally at Indigo Baby and Collected Works) and is the illustrator of the popular children’s book Goodnight, Los Alamosthat won Best Picture Book from the Arizona and New Mexico book awards. Brenda also sells New Mexico themed T-shirts and wildlife/landscape stickers at REI, PEEC Nature Center, and Valles Caldera Gift Shop.

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