Sunday, July 17, 2022

Visit New Mexico's Plains During Summer Monsoon Rains


N.M. 72 between Raton and Folsom.

The summer monsoon season is a great time to visit New Mexico’s plains country as abundant rain prompts the prairie to green up and explode with colorful wildflowers.

And one of the best drives to enjoy the view is a 75-mile roundtrip from Raton over Johnson Mesa to the historic town of Folsom and on to Capulin Volcano and back.

But first you have to get out of Raton where the town’s Victorian architecture, downtown historic district and other attractions can draw and hold visitors.

The historic Shuler Theatre in downtown Raton.

During a recent visit to the area we stayed overnight at nearby Sugarite Canyon State Park where the hilltop Soda Pocket campground has good sites with great views. There’s also plenty of easy hiking trails and decent fishing at nearby Lakes Maloya, Alice and Dorothy.  For Outdoors New Mexico’s story about the Sugarite State Park  follow this link.

A campsite at Soda Pocket Campground in Sugarite Canyon State Park. 

But the road trip is why we came and it starts just off the road to the state park at the intersection of N.M. 72. This two-lane paved road winds its way up onto remote Johnson Mesa where miles of rolling grassland dominate the landscape.

At the turn of the last century the mesa top would have been dotted with 160-acre homesteads where hardy pioneers attempted to eke out a living. Despite ample rain and good soil, the cold, windy winters and lack of a steady water source conspired to drive off the many farmers that once lived there. Now cattle and horses are the primary residents of the lush fields and pastures.

Johnson Mesa.

Along the way visitors will find a sturdy, rock church by the roadside.  St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1897 and is listed on the state and national registers of historic places. It is well maintained by volunteers, still holds services and is frequently open for the public to visit.

Historic St. Johns Methodist Episcopal Church on Johnson Mesa.

Driving off the mesa and down towards the town of Folsom visitors could find a wall of wild flowers lining each side of the road.

A stop at the Folsom Museum will reveal plenty about why this sleepy little town has played such a big role in New Mexico history.

The Folsom Museum.

Among its many claims to fame is that it’s home to one of the most important archaeological discoveries in North America. Following an disasterous flood in 1908, a local black cowboy who also was a self-taught, amateur archaeologist and historian, George McJunkin, discovered an exposed trove of fossilized Bison bones protruding from a washed out arroyo. Upon further excavation by archaeologists years later numerous hunters’ spear points were found among the many bison skeletons. The discovery prompted the archaeology community to reevaluate their understanding of when humans first occupied North America, pushing back their estimates by at least 5,000 years to 12,000 years, according to published accounts.

McJunkin's hat and other items about him on display at the Folsom Museum.

Folsom once boasted several saloons, restaurants, hardware and merchandise stores, doctors and newspaper offices, schools and other establishments to serve the many farmers and ranchers from the surrounding area.

But recurring drought and other difficult economic conditions led many to leave the area and today Folsom is home to just 56 residents and some very old, historic buildings, according to the 2020 Census.

The old Folsom Hotel.

After exploring Folsom, visitors will find Capulin Volcano National Monument just down the road where they can drive two miles to the top of the 1,300 foot tall volcano and enjoy amazing views of the surrounding countryside. Pedestrians, bicyclists, trailers, towed vehicles and any vehicles over 26 feet long are not allowed on the steep, narrow road. 

A view from atop Capulin Volcano.

Visitors will find a strenuous hike at an elevation of over 8,100 feet if they wish to walk around the rim of the ancient volcano. Monument staff are typically on hand in the parking lot to provide information to inquisitive tourists.

To finish the roundtrip motorists drive 32 miles on U.S. 64 back to Raton.

The plains near Raton, N.M.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

Visit the Rio Chama below Abiquiu Lake for winter trout fishing

The Rio Chama below Abiquiu Lake.

Every winter it seems there’s a spell of warm sunny days in northern New Mexico where anglers just have to get out and go fishing.

And on days like that they may as well just head straight for the Rio Chama below the dam at Abiquiu Lake

Long considered a winter fishery the river is regularly stocked with trout by the state Department of Game and Fish.

The river boasts about five miles of public access from the base of the dam downstream to just outside the village of Barranca near Abiquiu.

And in recent years about two miles of river directly below the dam received habitat improvements and other upgrades that have significantly improved fishing and recreation conditions.

The river channel has been narrowed, deepened and boulders were installed to improve the fishing habitat.

The river is designated special trout water with a bag limit of two from the bridge crossing the river on U.S. Highway 84 at Abiquiu for about 7 miles upstream to the base of Abiquiu Dam. Standard bait and lures along with typical fly fishing fare works well on the many stocked rainbow trout found here. 

The author with a stocked rainbow trout.

But for some the beauty of this place isn’t so much the fishing as it is the scenery. This is Georgia O’Keeffe  country with plenty of colorful cliffs, snow covered hillsides and expansive blue skies to admire.

Along the river just below the dam visitors will find a parking and picnic area with several shelters and a sturdy vault toilet. Further downstream several other picnic and parking areas are carved out by the riverside. The surrounding land is rugged and remote and well suited for hiking. 

A day use area with picnic tables, shelters, parking and a vault toilet welcomes visitors to the recreational area.

After a few miles though the river and its dirt road part ways only to reconnect again on the other side of a steep mountain.

Two track trails crisscross the area with most leading into the thick brush and dense cottonwood stands found along the riverside. 

Those with the motive and means can now continue downstream and enjoy a whole’nother stretch of river, one where the hatchery truck doesn’t visit and the fish are fewer and farther between. The resident brown trout here are decidedly harder to find and catch than their upstream kin.

An angler tries his luck in one of the fishing holes found further downstream from the dam. 

The countryside here is vast, remote and worthy of exploration but the road eventually grows rutted and mean as it squeezes through a narrow, rocky canyon marking the end of the public land.

Emerging on the other side the road turns back to pavement and winds away from the river through the rural village of Barranca.  A last ditch shot at fishing lies ahead where a roadside/riverside picnic area has been carved out just before reaching the highway at Abiquiu.

The Rio Chama with Cerrito Blanco in the background at Abiquiu N.M.

















Friday, January 29, 2021

Free pass for military veterans at national parks, forests and more!


Military veterans have earned a free pass to enjoy all of the nation’s federally operated recreation sites including those run by the National Parks and U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Veterans can pick up a free, annual “America the Beautiful” pass at most locations by presenting an ID showing veteran status such as a state driver’s license or the Veterans Administration’s official veteran identification card. Veteran healthcare or Department of Defense ID cards will work too.

The pass allows the holder and guests in a single, private, non-commercial vehicle free entrance to federally operated recreation sites across the country.

The pass is good for the owner and three adults age 16 and older at sites where per person entrance fees are charged. No entry fees are charged for children 15 and under.

The pass is good for a year from the last day of the month it was it is issued. The free pass went into effect on Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, 2020.The pass typically costs $80 but the savings it can produce far outweigh that when considering entrances fees at sites in New Mexico.

For instance Bandelier National Monument charges $25 a carload while Carlsbad Caverns National Park charges $15 per person.

Veteran anglers armed with their free pass would no longer need to pay day-use fees to fish along the Rio Grande within the Wild Rivers Recreation Area or at places like Santa Cruz Dam. Veteran boaters also would gain free entrance to such sites such as Cochiti, Abiquiu and Conchas Lakes.  

Veterans can obtain an official VA Veterans ID card by applying online and submitted a copy of their DD Form 214, drivers’ license and a photo. Apply at

The VA card can be used to obtain veteran’s discounts at stores like Lowes while those veterans who apply for and obtain confirmation of their veteran’s status through the website can qualify for discounts such as 25-percent websites like Carhartt. Visit to apply.

Veteran anglers in New Mexico also enjoy a 50-percent discount on their annual state issued fishing license, motor vehicle registrations and property taxes. For more information visit

Links to federally operated outdoor recreation sites in New Mexico:

Bureau of Land Management

U.S. Forest Service:

National Park Service:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers







Sunday, August 23, 2020

Get Away From It All at Canjilon Lakes

Tucked away deep in the heart of Hispanic northern New Mexico is one of the state’s more secluded high country hideaways.

Canjilon Lakes boasts several small ponds stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout and is surrounded by lush mountain scenery and plenty of camp sites.

The lakes have long held a reputation for being a locals-only recreation area due to its remote location and cultural heritage.

Reports of vehicle break-ins, campground confrontations and hostile looks are bandied about by some in the angling community.

A vintage camper in one of the many U.S. Forest Service campsites at Canjilon Lakes.
But when it comes to fishing you’ve got to wonder if reports like these are real or just fabrications told by coy anglers trying to protect a favored fishing hole.

We ventured north to find out for ourselves on the Thursday before the start of the long Fourth of July holiday weekend.

The pleasant drive north on U.S. 84 took us through O’Keefe country past the striking red buttes overlooking Abiquiu Lake and the cathedral-like overhang at Echo Amphitheatre.

Echo Amphitheatre. Print available at
The turnoff to Canjilon comes before reaching Tierra Amarilla, the Rio Arriba County seat and site of the infamous 1967 court house raid by Chicano land grant activists.

Sign on private land outside Tierra Amarilla. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The raid and Canjilon’s association with it contribute to the lore of the lakes. For greater insight check out Russell Contreras of the Associated Press’ account of the historic incident at

Passing through the hamlet of Canjilon one can sense how this was once a thriving settlement where farming, ranching and living off the land was a way of life.

The U.S. Forest Service maintains a ranger station here where the controversial history of the land grants influences how the surrounding public lands are managed.

Photo courtesy of Russell Contreras.
Check out the following academic studies for more detailed information about the community, culture and history.

See: and

On the road to the lakes we pass piles of downed trees stacked by the roadside and littering the surrounding ground. These are some of the hundreds of trees that fell victim to insect infestation and drought that caused many to suddenly come down, forcing the Forest Service to close the area to the public for several years.

With many of the trees now cleared the area is open again and folks are able to find some relief from the daily grind of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

During our visit we found plenty of people at the upper two lakes and campground but didn’t see anyone throwing us “heƱos” (dirty looks). And everyone we met was friendly and helpful, too.

The upper lake at Canjilon Lakes. 
There were no anglers at the lower pond we passed on our way in so we returned there to get the place to ourselves. We spread out around the shoreline and found plenty of eager trout taking our Pistol Petes trolled below a bubble or rising to a grasshopper fly riding on the surface.

While fishing we watched as a steady flow of traffic rolled by headed for the upper lakes and campground. But we remained the sole anglers on the lower pond and enjoyed a very relaxing visit.

The only drama we encountered was on our return when we elected to take a forest service road over to El Rito rather than go back through Canjilon. We could have sworn the sign at the intersection said 15 miles, turns out it was more than twice that over a rough dirt road. We saw a lot of back country, very few other people and gained a much greater appreciation for the area’s vast remoteness.

A rare paved road leads to Canjilon Lakes.
Canjilon Lakes turned out to be a great place to visit and enjoy some good fishing, sweet scenery and the opportunity to learn more about the area’s interesting history.

As for it’s bad reputation?

Maybe that really is nothing more then a few shifty anglers trying to keep this jewel of a fishing spot under wraps.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Cabresto Lake a Great High Country Hideaway

Wanna get away from it all?

Try putting a couple miles of bad road behind you while climbing into the high country to stalk brook trout at a remote mountain lake.

Cabresto Lake above Questa in scenic northern New Mexico is hard to reach but well worth the effort.

The 15-acre lake at 9,500 feet is surrounded by towering mountaintops and provides a peaceful place to escape life’s challenges for a day.

With very limited camping and two miles of narrow, twisty, rocky road to negotiate, the lake sees far fewer visitors than its popular cousin in the valley below, Eagle Rock Lake.

But those willing to make the trip are greeted by a postcard picture scene amid the cool, lofty pines found on the outskirts of the nearby Latir Peak Wilderness.

Self-sustaining populations of colorful brook and cutthroat trout await anglers in the clear, deep waters of the impounded lake.

The steep slopes around the lake can make getting around difficult but like the rest of the venture here, it’s worth the effort.

Anglers equipped with a spin casting rig armed with a Pistol Pete, wooley booger or bead-head below a bubble can be very effective here. But casting a fly line to rising fish could be troublesome for some due to the cramped confines of the shoreline. The creek above and below the lake is far more suited for fly-fishing.

And while anglers love the place and account for most visits, many backpackers and day trippers use the trailhead to hike into the aspen groves and alpine meadows found in the surrounding wilderness.

The altitude here can leave some flatlanders breathless so taking a few days to acclimatize before visiting might be necessary.

A lone vault toilet stands in the lakeside parking lot and visitors can help keep it clean and usable by bringing one’s own toiletries and cleaning supplies.

There are a few hardscrabble, primitive campsites to be found near the parking lot and a few others are carved out on the cliffside overlooking over the dam and creek below.

 Those hardy enough to spend a night here should be extra mindful of keeping a clean campsite to avoid attracting wildlife. The surrounding wilderness is home to lots of bears, mountain lions, coyotes, skunks and raccoons. Pack out your trash to help keep it clean and usable for others.

Just getting to Questa is part of the journey with travelers apt to come across plenty of great scenery along the way.

Those heading north to Questa on N.M. 68 through the Rio Grande Gorge between Espanola and Taos will find many tempting spots to stop along the river.  

A great side trip along the way includes jumping off N.M. 68 at Pilar and following the river to the Taos Junction Bridge

The Rio Grande as seen from the Taos Junction Bridge.
After crossing the bridge the road turns to dirt and climbs to the top of the canyon wall. Low slung, passenger cars navigate this road all the time so don’t be afraid to continue. At the top the road returns to asphalt and then splits with one branch continuing to head north along the Rio Grande Gorge. Along the way there are plenty of pull-offs that lead down to the canyon’s edge where the views can be spectacular. Those lucky enough may spy a group of bighorn sheep climbing the canyon walls or resting among the bushes on top. 

Travelers continue down the road to its intersection with U.S. 64 where they can then get back to the other side of the river by crossing the Rio Grande Gorge bridge. 

Visitors can park at the well-kept rest area here and walk out onto the bridge for even more spectacular scenery before continuing on to Questa. Stepping out onto the 600-foot high bridge and looking over the railing at the river far below is not for the faint of heart. This side trip can be made either going to or coming back from Questa. Consult a map for more details.

The Rio Grande, 600 feet below as seen from the Gorge Bridge.

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