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Little known gems: State parks offer something for everyone — fishing, hiking, more

What could be better than kayaking around scenic Lake Maloya, swimming in the blue waters of Bottomless Lakes, cruising Navajo Lake in a houseboat or hiking through the high-elevation, forested Cimarron Canyon when the heat of summer strikes New Mexico?

Those destinations are among the New Mexico state parks’ little-known gems that offer mountain getaways, water adventures and more.

“We have a little bit of something for everybody’s interests,” says State Parks Director Christy Tafoya. She adds that with 34 parks and 19 lakes, “there’s so many great places that people can go.”

Among the best-kept secrets are Morphy Lake in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains northeast of Santa Fe and Villanueva State Park southwest of Las Vegas – both excellent summer destinations, says Beth Wojahn, spokeswoman for the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, which includes state parks.

Morphy Lake offers primitive camping on a first-come, first-served basis, and “the journey there is beautiful,” Wojahn says.

The lake, at 8,000 feet, is stocked with rainbow trout, and canoeing is popular. Nearby Coyote Creek is Morphy’s companion park. It is nestled along a mountain stream amid forest of spruce and pine.

“You can bring your family, go camping, go fishing along the stream,” Tafoya says. “It’s a darling little park.”

Tafoya says Villanueva also is a lovely park with great camping and hiking in a sandstone bluff-lined canyon along the Pecos River. The park is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Many parks offer special events and programs, including star parties, ranger-led hikes, fishing derbies, bird walks and even ukulele lessons at Heron Lake. Some parks will have Fourth of July fireworks, Tafoya says. A calendar listings all events is posted online.

More good bets

SUGARITE CANYON: Butting up against the Colorado border just east of Raton, this park has wildlife and wildflowers among lakes, creeks and meadows. Visitors can fish, boat, hike, hunt, camp and go horseback riding.

“That’s the wonderful thing about Sugarite – there are so many different aspects to the park,” says Interpretive Ranger Pat Walsh.

Visitors also can explore the remains of the historic Sugarite Coal Camp, which operated from 1912 to 1941. The visitor center, which is housed in the former postmistress’ house and office, features photos, tools and artifacts. A trail marked with interpretive signs leads to the mine level and a sandstone block building that served as the dynamite shed, Walsh says.

In all, the park offers 20 miles of trails, including a new four-mile trail from the visitor center to Lake Maloya and a hike to the top of Little Horse Mesa.

“The views are to die for,” Walsh says. “We have amazing hiking here.”

NAVAJO LAKE: The newly revamped marina at Navajo Lake is a destination in itself.

“We wanted to create a resort feel where it didn’t matter if you owned a boat or not,” says co-owner Jarrett Johnson, adding that families can spend a day enjoying the lake at a reasonable cost.

The $3 million renovation opened just last summer with about half an acre of floating platforms with a restaurant and patio, a new store, a fishing hole surrounded by railing and benches and a splash area where nine jets shoot water out of the deck. Those attractions all are free to the public.

New this year are eight bumper boats and an expanded boat rental operation that is now the largest in New Mexico, Johnson says.

“We have over 30 powered water craft, including two 48-foot houseboats that go up the lake,” he says. “We replaced our entire kayak and paddle boat fleet.”

Also part of the park is the scenic stretch of the San Juan River below the dam that is known as the “quality waters” and attracts fly fishermen from around the world.

HYDE MEMORIAL: Just minutes from the Santa Fe plaza, hikers and campers can enjoy temperatures about 7 to 10 degrees cooler than in town.

“It’s always cooler in Hyde Park than it is in Santa Fe,” says park Superintendent Eric Ytuarte. “If you’re looking to go hiking, the temperature is nicer.”

A trio of new yurts is giving overnight visitors another option to roughing it in a tent.

“If you don’t know how to camp, why don’t you just rent one of our yurts?” Wojahn says. “That’s a great new fun way to get out in the great outdoors.”

The yurts, which can be reserved at the introductory price of $40 a night through June, are 20 feet in diameter and furnished with six bunk-style cots and a clear dome in the roof for star gazing, Ytuarte says.

CLAYTON LAKE: Step back in history at this park in the rolling grasslands of northeastern New Mexico.

Visible from a boardwalk on the lake’s spillway are more than 500 fossilized footprints made by at least eight kinds of dinosaurs. The tracks were embedded in mud more than 100 million years ago when most of New Mexico was covered by a vast sea.

The park also offers boating, camping and hiking, and fishing is popular as well, Tafoya says.

HERON LAKE: Set among the tall pines of northern New Mexico, Heron is a “quiet” or no-wake lake, making it a good choice for paddle craft and sailing. It’s also popular with anglers who catch record-size trout and kokanee salmon in quiet coves. Several campgrounds line the shore.

Near the dam, a dramatic caprock stairway offers access to a 5.5-mile trail, which crosses the Chama River by suspension bridge and affords panoramic views.

“You can hike all the way to El Vado,” Wojahn says.

BOTTOMLESS LAKES: Near Roswell, this park has a lifeguard on duty during summer months, making it a good choice for family swimming.

“Swimming is always a good thing to do in New Mexico, but we want people to know that our lakes and the outdoors are different from a swimming pool,” Wojahn says. “We want people to be safe and wear a life vest.”

The unique lakes are sinkholes, ranging from 17 to 90 feet deep. They have the appearance of much greater depth thanks to the water’s greenish-blue color created by aquatic plants. Kayaking and canoeing, fishing and even scuba diving are popular.

CITY OF ROCKS: Although it doesn’t offer an escape from the summer heat, City of Rocks is a great place to be when the sun goes down. The park has an observatory with a roll-off roof that allows visitors to see distant galaxies and night sky objects on video monitors or through telescopes.

The geology of the park itself is stunning and fun to explore. A cluster of boulders standing as high as 40 feet rises up out of the surrounding plains and is dotted with small caves and huge, flat rocks that appear impossibly balanced. The rhyolite tuff formations were created by a volcanic eruption about 35 million years ago.

The park boasts a visitor center with a friendly staff and 7.5 miles of hiking and biking trails.

MESILLA VALLEY BOSQUE STATE PARK: Like the Rio Grande Nature Center in Albuquerque, Mesilla Valley Bosque is an urban park on the Rio Grande. Just a mile and a half from Mesilla near Las Cruces, it offers self-guided nature trails and a beautiful visitor center.

The park also is an Audubon-designated Important Birding Area and is part of the New Mexico Birding Trail.

BLUEWATER LAKE: Fishing for tiger muskie, which can reach 40 inches long, is a big attraction at this lake between Gallup and Grants.

“People come from all over the world to fish these tiger muskie,” Wojahn says. “They’re huge.”

The park also offers camping, hiking, birding and horseback riding.

MANZANO MOUNTAINS: Within two hours, campers can get from Albuquerque to a quiet campground nestled in wooded foothills and with great hiking trails.

“If you want to unplug and disconnect, Manzano Mountains is the place to go in the summer,” Wojahn says.

CAMPING: Hyde Memorial, Elephant Butte, Murphy Lake, Bluewater Lake, Heron Lake, Coyote Creek, Manzano Mountains

HIKING: Sugarite Canyon, Cerrillos Hills, Villanueva, Oliver Lee Memorial, Hyde Memorial

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NIGHT SKIES: City of Rocks, Clayton Lake, Leasburg Dam, Cerrillos Hills

FISHING: Navajo Lake, Bluewater Lake, Cimarron Canyon, Conchas, Ute Lake, Eagle Nest Lake, El Vado Lake, Fenton Lake, Heron Lake, Clayton Lake, Coyote Creek, Morphy Lake, Sugarite Canyon, Villanueva

BOATING: Navajo Lake, Elephant Butte, Bluewater Lake, Caballo Lake

SWIMMING: Bottomless Lakes, Heron Lake, Elephant Butte

ON THE NEW MEXICO BIRDING TRAIL: Pancho Villa, Rockhound, City of Rocks, Leasburg Dam, Percha Dam, Caballo Lake, Elephant Butte, Mesilla Valley Bosque