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Hike, Camp & Swim the 505

Hike, Camp & Swim the 505

Summertime is here, bringing with it the call of the wild. Rene Thompson reports on the best camping sites, hot springs and hiking trails in New Mexico.


It’s summer in New Mexico, and that means it’s time to dust off the tent and venture into the great outdoors with friends or family.

When it comes to distinctive outdoor locations and activities, New Mexico has much to offer. Peruse highlights from our inaugural guide to New Mexico camping spots, hiking trails, lakes and bodies of water that transcend the ordinary. Excerpts from this article appeared in our print issue.

Camping sites

Gila National Forest

Proximity from ABQ: Approx. 4 hours

Gila National Forest has designated camping areas with fees ranging from free to $40. If you’re prepared to rough sans amenities like water and toilets, the Gila also offers dispersed camping, meaning you can pitch a tent pretty much anywhere within the area listed at bit.ly/CamptheGila.


Chaco Canyon Historical Park

Proximity from ABQ: Approximately 3 hours

Chaco Canyon offers limited space for designated camping, as it houses the vast ruins of the Chacoan culture, and it’s one of only a few night sky reserves in the country. Chaco Canyon boasts out-of-this-world, one-of-a-kind stargazing.

Individual camping site fees are $15 per night. These sites, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, feature thrilling desert vistas but absolutely no shade. Before you leave town, check the weather for daytime high temps. Pack (and apply) your sunscreen, plus floppy hats and plenty of drinking water for the daytime heat and sweaters and/or blankets for the evening chill. For more info, visit: nps.gov/chcu.


Photo CC Joey Gannon via Flickr

Photo CC Joey Gannon via Flickr

White Sands National Monument

Proximity from ABQ: Approximately 3 ½ hours

White Sands’ 143,733 acres of white gypsum sand dunes make this an authentically otherworldly camping spot. The park offers sand sledding, backcountry hiking and primitive camping. The landscape stars dunes as far as the eye can see. White Sands is exceptional for photography and stargazing. 

Entry fees are $5 for adults and free for children under 15. For camping, a permit is required, and only 10 spots are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There are no amenities such as water or toilets, and a separate camping fee is applicable. RV and vehicle camping is prohibited. To learn more, visit: nps.gov/whsa.

Watering holes

The high desert of New Mexico proffers dozens of great lakes and rivers to immerse yourself in come summer. If you dig fishing, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department hosts an online fishing licensing site, at costs ranging from $12 (one day) to $25 (annual) for New Mexico residents, at: onlinesales.wildlife.state.nm.us.

Bluewater Lake State Park

Proximity from ABQ: Approximately 1 hour, 45 minutes

West of Grants in the Zuni Mountains lies Bluewater Lake. Well stocked with trout and catfish, Bluewater has boating docks and a dam that hosts hundreds of bird nests just below the top rim.

The park offers primitive camping, hiking and horseback trails. Day use fees are $5, and camping will run you $10. An electricity hook-up is $4 extra.

Pecos River National Historical Park

Proximity from ABQ: Approximately 1 hour, 20 minutes

In this Ponderosa pine forest, a phenomenal three-mile stretch for camping and fishing is available by reservation and on first-come, first-served thereafter.

Anglers travel from near and far for the fantastic trout fishing and to vibe on the Pecos’ mellow flow. Fees range from $7 to $25 per person each day, depending on activities.


Photo CC U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr

Photo CC U.S. Army Corps of Engineers via Flickr

Cochiti Lake

Proximity from ABQ: Approx. 55 minutes

Cochiti offers sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, fishing and camping. It’s a no-wake lake, which means people water crafts can’t travel faster than idle speed. Nearby Tent Rocks is a geographical wonder of cone-shaped volcanic formations.

You can hike out to truly remarkable landscapes at Cochiti. The lake is stocked with pike, brown or rainbow trout, and bass. There are no fees for day use, and visitors can choose from 80 individual campsites and RV sites.  Alcohol is completely banned from lake recreational areas. Boat launch fees are $3, and camping costs $20.  

Hot springs

Soaking in hot springs is a must during New Mexico summer, but never submerge your head in spring water, lest you risk exposing yourself to meningitis-causing amoebas via your mucus membranes. Other potential dangers include spider nests, other parasites, vandalism and even random nudists, so stay aware of your surroundings.

Bring along tons of water. Drink alcohol responsibly or not at all, as higher water temperatures can quickly dehydrate the human body. Make sure all your belongings and vehicles are properly secured to prevent parking lot theft. To avoid the summer crowds, go on a weekday, or even during the fall or winter off-season.

Montezuma Hot Springs

Lower tubs: 98-112 degrees, suits required

Proximity from ABQ: Approximately 2 hours

Hike: n/a

For an easy-to-access location, Montezuma Hot Springs are literally right off the road heading northwest on Hwy. 65 outside of Las Vegas. There’s a stunning view of the United World College castle that overlooks the nearby river.

When it comes to convenience, these springs can’t be beat, but they’re also frequently and heavily populated by locals. The top-tier spring can prove intense, with temperatures rising to 138 degrees; try out the lower pools first.


Middlefork/Lightfeather Hot Springs

130-149 degrees, clothing policy not specified

Proximity from ABQ: Approx. 4 hours 45 minutes

Hike: 20 minutes

Forty-five miles inside Gila National Forest, Light Feather Hot Springs can be found along the Gila River. Just a 20-minute hike and two river crossings from the visitor center on trail 157, these springs are considered volatile because of their specific geothermal location.

They spike in temperature sporadically, so stay in the lower pools that mix with river water to avoid being scalded by rising temperatures or hot rocks in the higher pools.


Photo CC Joel Saland via Flickr

Photo CC Joel Saland via Flickr

San Antonio Hot Springs

100-110 degrees

Proximity from ABQ: Approx. 1 hour, 55 minutes

Hike: Half-mile

The San Antonio Hot Springs are a popular destination, owing to its size and the number of pools. Located amid mountain scenery six miles up Forest Road 376 from 126, left of Highway 4. The hike up to the spring from the parking area is short but steep, and the springs are heavily populated during the summer. Algae and snails thrive there, and nudists are known to frequent these particular springs.

Centralized hiking

Even if you can’t get out of town, accessible hiking trails are plotted all over Albuquerque. Hikes here range from easy to difficult; all include exceptional scenic views.

Rio Grande Nature Center or Tingley Beach


Central ABQ

For a relaxed stroll by the river, Nature Center walking and biking trails line the Rio Grande, offering an assortment of flora and wildlife for observation. Tingley Beach and the surrounding Bosque offer both fishing and bird watching, paddle boats, boat racing and a plethora of trails that are easy to navigate.

Tingley also boasts a kiddie train that travels to all the BioPark attractions, including the zoo, botanical gardens and aquarium. Admission to the Nature Center is $3 per vehicle. It’s free to park at Tingley, but fishing does requires a license. The fishing bag limit is four fish per day. For more info on fishing licenses, see the above watering holes section.

Photo CC I Am New Mexico via Flickr

Photo CC I Am New Mexico via Flickr

La Luz Trail

Moderate to strenuous

Proximity from ABQ: Approximately 20-30 minutes

Trail length: 8-9 miles

For folks who stay near the trail head, this can be a breeze. Yet it extends to the Sandias’ highest point, 10,678 feet. The base of the trail features The Rock House aka Kiwanis Cabin; this trail and the Rock House offer spectacular views feet from the parking lot. If you tackle the trail in toto, make sure to take at least 2 quarts of water per person and high-protein snacks, and allow plenty of time to hike back down before sunset.


Featured photo: Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

Photo CC John Fowler via Flickr

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Rene Thompson is a staff reporter at ABQ Free Press. Email her at rene@freeabq.com.

Latest posts by Rene Thompson (see all)


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  • Jalvarez
    June 2, 2016, 9:39 am

    This informative article refers to the Pecos’s river flow as mellow., which is quite an understatement, at least this time of the year. During Memorial Weekend I backpacked from Jack’s Creek to Pecos Falls to Hamilton Mesa, down to Mora Flats, up to Iron Gate and out thorough Planchuela. The Pecos, as well as other lesser streams, were roaring. There are bridges across the Pecos at several spots, the only way to cross it. Other streams varied from tricky to impossible to cross.

  • Features, A&E News – Rene Thompson
    June 5, 2016, 12:21 am

    […] Hike, Camp & Swim the 505 […]

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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