Travelog: North! To Heron! (And Away From The Smoke)

Elizabeth W. Hughes
5 min read
To the North Country
Share ::
When the hazy Albuquerque skyline started to look like a yellowed Polaroid print, I decided to head for cooler climes beneath the pines at Heron Lake State Park. I took I-25 to U.S. 84 and was fortunate to hit Abiquiú as the sun began to set.

To savor a truly surreal moment, I pulled over and took in the red rocks and the purple sky. My surroundings felt oddly familiar even though I had not been here before. It turns out I was not far from Ghost Ranch, the longtime home of Georgia O’Keeffe. The landscapes from her paintings surrounded me. I was stunned at how recognizable the hills were, though I had only seen them through the eyes of a painter who had lived and worked here many years before.

As I followed the Rio Chama, the iconic red rock formations of Ghost Ranch gave way to a lush valley and rolling hills. I climbed northward under a setting New Mexico sun.

The three-hour drive was such a beautiful way to unwind, I was almost sad for it to end. There’s not much in the way of provisions (beer, snacks) after Española, so plan accordingly. Some bait shops dot N.M. 95 on the way into the park, but none appeared open when I was passing through.

Manmade Heron Lake prohibits wake-generating watercraft, so it’s popular for fishing, canoeing and sailing. The lake is remote and has about 200 campsites in a variety of campgrounds in coves. The camping loops are small, and the sites fairly private.

It’s not hard to find a place nestled below the pine trees that looks right out on the lake. The layout of the park is so cool that even searching the loops for the perfect spot is an adventure. Just don’t forget to make your way back to the pay station and put your money in the box.

I stayed in a tent site off the Brushy Creek loop and had a campfire going by the time the last bit of sun dropped below the horizon. After the climb in altitude—it’s 7,200 feet up there—it’s good to plan on having a campfire (and as of press time, there were no fire restrictions at Heron). Lows in the 40s are possible even in July, according to the park’s website.

I saw some of the best slow-moving meteors I had ever seen on this crisp, clear New Mexico night. In the dark wilderness on the quiet peaceful lake, I was able to see entire galaxies reflected on the water’s smooth surface. If I ever make it back, I’ll be sure to invite a friend with a telescope.

In the morning, I was pleased that the air was chilly and warranted another campfire. I lazed about with some coffee until the sunshine warmed the air enough to go out and explore. A few miles up the park road I came to Heron Dam and got to check out the entire lake against the backdrop of some snowy peaks.

You can peer down into the lush Rio Chama Valley from the dam overlook. If you’re feeling industrious, you can hike the well-marked, well-traveled trail that takes you across the river on a suspension bridge to the neighboring El Vado Lake.

I didn’t make the entire five and a half miles. Still, I worked up enough hunger on my hike that I was glad to stumble across the Stone House Lodge a few miles deeper into the park past the dam.

Part bait shop, part diner, part convenience store, Stone House served me a delicious lunch of homemade fried chicken. I was still feeling adventurous once I was back in my truck, so I decided to explore further and drove into the Jicarilla Apache wilderness.

I covered some sketchy, desolate dirt roads. There were lots of “No Trespassing, Tribal Lands” signs and not much else. I had seen a few lakes on the map along this route. I drove deeper into the reservation, but I didn’t find anything that was as impressive as the clear blue waters of Heron Lake. Sadly, in spite of all my anticipation, Stinking Lake didn’t stink and was not much more than a shallow pond.

Once I hit paved road J-8, I turned toward Dulce and Chama to head home. I found more desolation on the reservation but also a few “improved” campgrounds with picnic shelters and not much else (Enbom Lake), as well as a lake populated by fishermen (Dulce).

Dulce is also a pretty small town that serves as the administrative center of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Chama is cute and anchors the Toltec & Cumbres Scenic Railroad. A train must have just dropped off flocks of hungry tourists, as every restaurant in the town was packed. I settled for a gas-station burrito and made my way back to the big city.

Get Out!: Playlist

“Five Years” • David Bowie • The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

“Javelina” • Pixies •

“Satellite” • Brian Jonestown Massacre •
Give it Back!

“Guitar Solo, No. 3” • Neil Young • Dead Man (soundtrack)

“Beer, Bait and Ammo” • Kevin Fowler •
Beer, Bait and Ammo

Elizabeth W. Hughes can usually be found speeding away from Albuquerque with her dog, Dixie Belle, windows down, music up, in search of hot springs, cold beer or both.

To the North Country

Heron Lake

Elizabeth W. Hughes

1 2 3 455