December 19th, 2019
We only managed one camping trip this summer due to various reasons related to work schedules, camping gear, and New Mexico weather. When the opportunity presented itself, Stacia and I decided to head north and booked a campsite at Heron Lake State Park, along with the dogs. The heat of the summer months makes it hard to camp and hike in the lower elevation desert areas of the state (particularly with the dogs), so from May through August we head north into the mountains!
Heron Lake State Park is located in northern New Mexico, about 20 miles south of Chama and 28 miles south of the Colorado State border by NM Route 17. Heron Lake itself is a massive reservoir spanning over 9 square miles. The backdrop: a valley encased by mountain peaks and mesas, the majestic Brazos cliffs in view to the northeast, the Chama River carving its way through the valley floor just south of the lake with tall pines and spruce trees all around.
Heron Lake State Park Itself
The State Park is also sprawling as it circles Heron Lake, though much of the recreation is located along NM Route 95 on the southern side of the lake. The park itself boasts 250 developed campsites, along with several primitive camping areas! On the one side, the sheer size of this park is incredible. With so many campgrounds and campsites to choose from, it’s likely that even a last-minute camper would have their choice of sites.
On the flip side, quantity does not outweigh quality. The upkeep on these sites are great, but the downside is that some of the sites are squeezed pretty close together. Yes, this is car camping, and I don’t expect car camping to be like backpacking out in the wilderness, secluded, no one else in sight. I do enjoy a little buffer from my fellow campers, especially when camping with dogs!
Before I chose a campsite, I typically do some Google Maps satellite stalking of the campground and surrounding area. After a bit of research, I chose to camp at the Willow Creek Campground because it seemed the most spacious and secluded. Seeing all of the campgrounds in-person reinforced my decision, though some sites at other campgrounds offer views of the lake or better access to the lake by trail. Lake access seems to be a big draw here. Since there are few hiking trails, the main recreation draw here involves the water--something our dog Texie took full advantage of!
Our Weekend Camping
We didn’t visit Heron Lake State Park for the water sports, but somehow we did manage to arrive at our campsite just as it started to rain. Not knowing how much daylight we had left that evening, we started setting up in the rain. Stringing a tarp up in the rain wasn’t easy on my hands, since I get inflammation in the first two knuckles of both hands that worsens with use, but we managed to get up two tarps (they didn't look too pretty, as you can see below!) before it stopped raining. Luckily, even though we were threatened by storm clouds and thunder on and off over the next few days, it only rained that first night.
Sleeping on the ground is tricky with Ankylosing Spondylitis. I’ve tried sleeping on air mattresses, but no matter how thick each mattress may inflate to, it never provides enough support to keep me from experiencing an increase in back pain the next day, not to mention little sleep during the night. I’ve tried thin self-inflating sleeping pads too. Thin (half inch or inch thick) sleeping pads provide little cushion from the ground, which also means increased back pain. This summer I purchased a sleeping pad with a foam interior that inflates to 3 inches thick. Though a bit too firm when fully inflated, this sleep pad provides sufficient support and keeps my back off the ground.
Even at home, on a firm memory foam mattress, it’s rare that I get a decent night’s sleep uninterrupted by back pain. With that said, I don’t expect to get good sleep on the ground in a tent. But to hike and enjoy the weekend outdoors, decent sleep is a must, so if you’re like me with chronic back or joint pain, make sure you find a thick but firm sleeping pad.
All in all, this was a relaxing weekend outdoors. We spent part of the time in a hammock or around the campfire, making short hikes exploring close to the campground or driving to different areas around the park. I was looking forward to hiking the 5-mile Rio Chama trail. The trailhead begins far above the river and requires hikers to first descend a wooden staircase, but unfortunately the staircase was closed due to safety concerns. So, instead of hiking we decided to explore along the sandstone that leads into the southern side of Heron Lake and let the dogs swim.
The Northern New Mexico Landscape
It’s hard to beat New Mexico when it comes to landscape and climate variety. The area just north as well as the area just south of Heron Lake provides some dramatically beautiful scenery. The landscape around Chama, just north of Heron lake, resembles that picturesque Colorado mountainous environment awash with pines and spruce trees.
To the south is Abiquiu, surrounded by the red and yellow sandstone cliffs, nearly inseparable from the artist who made that landscape seem so familiar: Georgia O’Keeffe. Driving up NM Route 84, through Abiquiu, past the Ghost Ranch where Georgia O’Keeffe spent many years, by the Echo Amphitheater worn into the sandstone cliffs and then north toward Heron Lake is a drive I highly recommend!