It’s a fine way to wile away a summer afternoon, sitting under the cool shade of a towering cottonwood, watching the clouds build up and waiting for a fish to bite.
And Santa Cruz Lake in the hills overlooking Española delivers in a big way.
Located just 35 miles north of Santa Fe, this Bureau of Land Management (BLM) operated recreation area provides camping and picnic shelters, a boat dock and floating fishing pier and some of the cleanest restrooms in the business.
“We’re well known for that,” Karen Martinez says with pride after she checks a visitor’s permit at the lake’s office one recent day.
In years past the lake might have been better known for its rowdy residents, auto break-ins, random thefts and trashed-out atmosphere.
But conditions have improved at the lake with regular patrols and oversight from hardworking locals like Martinez, 49, of Rio Chiquito.
“Because someone’s here all the time now, things have quieted down,” she says with guarded optimism. “We try different things to keep it that way.”
Martinez, a seasonal BLM worker, says local law enforcement officers also make it a habit to swing through the recreation area on a routine basis, especially on the weekends and evenings, to keep a lid on things.
Nonetheless, she cautions those who visit the remote lake located below the historic Spanish settlement of Cundiyo.
“I wouldn’t leave a generator sitting out while you go fishing all day,” she said. “It’s just common sense. Secure your valuables.”
And while the lake has always been a favorite spot for Española Valley locals, the high price of gas these days has made it even more popular.
“We’ve got people from Española bringing up their motor homes,” she says with a laugh.
That’s quite a feat considering the steep, narrow, twisty road that leads down to the lake’s recreation area and the limited number of campsites that can accommodate such vehicles.
The lake is well known among anglers for another reason.
It is the home of the state record rainbow trout held by Peter Romero of Santa Fe who in March 1999 while fishing with six-pound test line and a homemade jig is said to have hooked and landed a 31-pound, 33½-inch rainbow trout.
A battered picture of Romero holding the fish graces the bulletin board inside the BLM’s office at the lake.
The lake is popular with boaters and allows their use at trolling speed only. The facilities at the lake include a good ramp and a spacious parking lot.
Those who fish from the bank can find plenty of trails leading around the lake to prime fishing spots including a steep, tortuous trail from the overlook campground down to the north end of the lake where Santa Cruz creek enters.
The overlook campground features several campsites situated along the rim of a mesa high above the lake. It is a remote campground occasionally visited by locals and not as well patrolled as the lakeside recreation area.
The overlook campground offers greats views of the lake and Española Valley below and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the rear.
Martinez said what with the price of gas being what it is these days there seems to be more out-of-towners stopping by at the lake.
“We’re getting a lots of new folks asking for information,” she says.
Martinez notes that a season’s pass for admission to the lake and other BLM recreation areas in northern New Mexico like the Rio Grande at Pilar and at the Wild Rivers at Cerro is a bargain for only $20 a year.
The season pass allows unlimited day use at these areas while a one-day pass costs $5.
Martinez said visitors should know swimming isn’t allowed at the lake but waist deep wading is tolerated. Well-behaved and leashed dogs are welcome and alcohol consumption is not prohibited.
If You Go:
From Santa Fe take 84/285 north to the Nambe turnoff just north of Pojoaque. Take State Road 503 up through the village of Cundiyo and follow the sign down to Santa Cruz Lake. On the way, just past the turnoff to Chimayo, you will see the entrance to the Santa Cruz overlook; pull in here for a great view of the lake and surrounding valley. About 35 miles one-way. Last chance for gas and groceries in Pojoaque.
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