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If it’s water you want, look no further than the Tierra Amarilla area

When it comes to outdoor recreation, Tierra Amarilla sits in the middle of vast tracts of wild country for those looking to escape the city.

Fishable lakes, untamed rivers and untrammeled forests await intrepid visitors not put off by the slightly lower temperatures starting to creep into the late summer evenings.

“It’s a really distinctive part of New Mexico,” said John Bailey, Rio Grande Monument manager for the Bureau of Land Management. “It is part of the three-state Colorado Plateau, which includes the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and so forth. A lot of the same rock formations you would see in Utah you’ll find in the Los Brazos area. It makes for a very distinctive landscape for our state.”

Non-motorized boating at Heron Lake is an easy, good time. (SOURCE: The New Mexico State Parks)

Carving through the area, 24.6 miles of the Rio Chama ( in the area is a designated National Wild and Scenic River.

“A lot of the Chama is in a pretty nifty and quite beautiful canyon, which you can enjoy from the river and along the rim,” Bailey said. “And the Rio Chama is a very popular river to float. You pass a number of beautiful rock formations.”

After Labor Day, there is no boating limit. Earlier in the summer, boaters and floaters had to endure a lottery system to secure river passage.

The sun setting over El Vado Lake is a soothing sight. (SOURCE: The New Mexico State Parks)

“You no longer require advance reservations,” he said. “You just go to the put-in and fill out the permit form and pay the fee.”

In addition to non-motorized boating on the river, the area is rife with numerous trails, Bailey said.

“One of the most popular is the Navajo Peak Trail,” he said of the 7,451-foot mountain that is the most prominent in the area. “It can accessed from the river, but (you) can also get there from the rim.”

When it comes to the Chama River, fishing is a huge lure.

El Vado Ranch offers one of the best spots.

The Rio Arriba Courthouse, which turned 100 this year, was the scene of the Alianza Tijerina Raid. (SOURCE: Rio Arriba County)

“In and around El Vado Ranch (, rainbow and brown trout inhabit the many holes, pools and ripples of the nearby lakes and streams,” owner David Cooper said. “This part of the Rio Chama is spectacular, and it’s not uncommon to land an 18- to 20-inch trout.”

While something of a misnomer as a ranch — there are no cattle in sight — El Vado does have nine log cabins nestled within its 100 acres, he said.

The nearby El Vado and Heron lakes are also havens for the angler.

Heron Lake ( is a tranquil setting among the conifers. While motorized boating is permitted, they operate at no-wake speed, creating stellar boating for paddle craft and sailboats.

The hills surrounding El Vado Lake offer many areas for hiking and birding. (SOURCE: New Mexico State Parks (Courtesy of Rio Arriba County)

As for the fishing, record trout and kokanee salmon have been pulled from its waters, while along the shores both primitive and developed campsites are available.

About seven miles of developed hiking trails also ring the lake.

Just 5.5 miles as the Rio Chama flows, El Vado Lake ( is a birders’ paradise; American bald eagles are known to roost during the winter months.

Boating of all kinds is welcomed at the lake, and there are plenty of nooks and crannies along the shoreline to explore.

In Tierra Amarilla itself, the Rio Arriba County Courthouse owns a unique spot in New Mexico lore.

Celebrating its 100th year, the courthouse was the scene of the Alianza activist organization Tijerina Raid 50 years ago that featured a shootout on the premises. Reies Tijerina and his followers who were trying to highlight issues regarding land-grant heirs’ rights eventually escaped with two abductees.

The subsequent manhunt was one of the largest in New Mexico.

The courthouse itself, which was designed by noted architect Isaac Rapp, is on the National Register of Historic Places.