Saturday, April 28, 2012

Star Gazing Best at Clayton Lake State Park

The road to Clayton Lake State park.
If you’re looking to see stars, then forget Santa Fe’s Plaza and get out to Clayton Lake State Park where they throw parties for them all the time.

Boasting some of the best star-gazing conditions in the country the park is only one of four worldwide that is officially recognized for its incredibly dark skies.

“The conditions there are top notch,” says Scott Kardel, Director of Public Affairs for the International Dark Sky Association. “That puts them in a very exclusive club”

The Association bestowed its top honor upon the park in June 2010 for its efforts to preserve the dark skies, reduce surrounding light pollution and provide educational programs.
Photo courtesy of  Bosela & MorgueFile.
And that recognition couldn't have come without the support and assistance of the local community, says Peter Lipscomb, former Director of the New Mexico Heritage Alliance’s Dark Sky Program and now a Regional Interpretive Ranger for NM State Parks.

“It’s a real feather in their cap,” Lipscomb says of the 3,000 residents of Clayton and those of surrounding Union County who passed light pollution ordinances to help preserve the area’s dark skies.”That shows you just how supportive they are of that observatory.”

The state park is located about 12 miles outside of the neat, little town of Clayton where cattle ranching on the surrounding plains remains king and the cowboys are for real.
On the eastern plains of New Mexico cattle ranches dot the endless landscape.  
Charles Jordan, 51, has been manager of the park out on the plains for the last 19 years and he says the observatory is a great asset made all that much greater because of the volunteers from the local astronomy club.

“They’re a great group of people and we just couldn’t do it without them,” Jordan says.
Clayton State park Manager, Charles Jordan, shows off the park observatory's 12-inch Meade computer operated telescope. 
The club hosts regularly scheduled star parties each month on the first Friday of the new moon cycle while also providing impromptu parties for visitors when the park has plenty of overnight visitors.

Hundreds of local school children of all grades have also visited the observatory under a “No Child Left Inside” initiative between the park and local school district.

And numerous scouting groups, astronomy clubs and campers have all enjoyed the benefits of the observatory, says Art Grine, 49, president of the Clayton Astronomy Club and the town barber.

“We’ve got people coming from all over the country to do astronomy here now,” he says. “And we’ve all come to appreciate just how special our night skies really are.”
Pronghorn can frequently be seen roaming the plains of eastern New Mexico. 
Grine notes how great it is to see a young kid gush upon seeing the rings of Saturn through a telescope for the first time.

“It’s totally awesome to see,” he says.

It was the same for him when he first went out to the park on a field trip with his son and his junior high school class many years ago and saw Saturn through a telescope for the first time.

And now he’s the astronomy club’s president.

The park’s $75,000 Star Point Observatory opened in June 2006 and features a 12x16-foot building with a retractable roof that houses a 12-inch, computer operated telescope and remote television monitor which allows for group viewing.

The telescope and monitor is powered by a solar charged battery system.

The club also has several additional 8-inch telescopes that its volunteers set up on concrete pads outside the building which allows other guests to observe selected targets in the night sky too.
The Clayton Lake State Park observatory.
The observatory is NM State Park’s second to be constructed with the first having gone up several years earlier at City of the Rocks State Park in the southwestern corner of the state, according to Dave Gatterman, Bureau Chief of Design and Development for the state agency.

The agency would like to construct two more when finances become available, one in the northwest corner of the state at Heron Lake State Park and another at a yet to be determined location in the southeast quadrant of the state, Gatterman says.

Clayton Lake State Park and the local astronomy club will also entertain private groups. Anyone interested in making use of the observatory, camp sites or group shelters at the park can contact them by phone at 575-374-8808 or by email at

In addition to the observatory, the park is well known among anglers for producing record sized walleye as well as good sized bass, trout and bluefish.

The lake currently holds the state record for a walleye caught in 1989 by G.L. Peppers that weighed in at 16-lbs and 9-oz and measured over 32-inches in length.
Former NM Dept. of Game and Fish Conservation Officer, Kelly Dobbs, shows off a record breaking walleye discovered in Clayton lake State Park in 2010.
The park also enjoys a good reputation among bird and wildlife watchers and those interested in paleontology as a large set of dinosaur tracks were found and are now preserved in the earth that forms the dam’s spillway.

The park also features a new visitors’ center constructed of straw bale and recycled steel beams and while utilizing the latest in green energy techniques.

The visitor center also features an interpretive display inside which highlights the park and surrounding area’s history and other interesting information.
Clayton Lake State Park's state of the art, environmentally friendly, visitors center.
The park boasts over 30 campsites equipped with shelters, picnic table and fire rings.

There are seven sites with electric and water hookups and two large group shelters.

Showers are available inside the main restroom while numerous vault toilets are located throughout the park.

The park’s boat ramp is currently closed due to low water levels because of the ongoing drought but fishing from the bank is easy and good.

A ranger lives on site to help maintain the park’s family friendly atmosphere and camping this time of year is especially enjoyable with warm days, cool nights and only light breezes.
Clayton Lake State Park features great fishing and camping, fabulous scenery and spectacular night skies.
The park will also host its 12th annual Trout Derby the weekend of June 9 and 10th featuring a grand prize of a fully equipped fishing boat in addition to cash prizes for top catches.

Door prizes will be given away all weekend long too and there will be a hotdog eating contest, childrens’ sand dig and a horseshoe pitching contest.

The annual event attracts about 5,000 visitors and is fast becoming one of New Mexico’s best homegrown attractions.

For more information about the fishing derby contact the park or the Clayton Chamber of Commerce at 575-374-9253 or on their website at

If You Go: Take I-25 through Las Vegas and turnoff at Wagon Mound onto NM 120. Follow through Roy and continue on this remote and lonely stretch of two lane blacktop to the intersection of US 56. Head east on US 56 to Clayton. Take NM 370 north out of town to the turnoff to Clayton Lake State Park. About 250 miles one way.
NM 120 between Roy and the intersection of US 56.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Great Bass Fishing So Close to Santa Fe and Albuquerque it Should be Illegal

Leo Salcido, 30, of  Albuquerque, shows of a nice, fat, bigmouth bass he caught  at Shady Lakes recently.
For over 50 years Shady Lakes in Alameda has been providing anglers a lush retreat where the thrill of battling a big bass is only a cast away.

Within easy striking distance of Santa Fe or Albuquerque the lakes are located off State Road 313 in the picturesque Rio Grande Valley just south of Bernalillo.

The park offers largemouth bass, bluegill, channel catfish and trout fishing under the shade of great cottonwoods and in the shadow of the nearby Sandia Mountains.

Anglers will find the native population of bass a worthy challenge and feisty fighters when hooked.

And you won’t need a boat or have to drive a couple hundred miles to get into them.

Kids will find the “easy catch” pond a great place to learn the sport while pursuing pan sized trout.

Those seeking a bigger catch will find 16-inch trout or larger lurking in the next pond over.

Trout anglers must keep what they catch here paying 62-cents-per-inch for some tasty trout.

And although the bass ponds are generally catch and release, anglers who wish to keep a fish caught in them may do so for the same per-inch fee.
The ponds at Shady Lakes just south of Bernalillo are brimming with  largemouth bass lurking  in the shadows.
But in celebration of their 50-year anniversary the per-inch fee will be reduced to just 50 cents during the month of May for those customers who mention this article and wish staff a happy birthday.

The offer is restricted to one time use per customer.

Shady Lakes has been a family business and local institution since 1962 when Jim Phillips made a realtor an impromptu offer of $40,000 to buy what was an 11-acre, bait-fish farm, says youngest daughter Jan Phillips, who now manages the operation.

“I think he was having a mid-life crisis at the time,” she said of her father who was a newspaper advertising executive then. “We had a nice house in the Heights and my mother, Joanne, just about divorced him over it.”

But the Phillips’ stuck together, bought the farm and moved into a small, three bedroom, and adobe house on the property. They then all worked very hard for many years to transform the farm into the successful business it is today.

“And it worked mostly because of our cheap child labor,” says Phillips who along with her two sisters, Jean and Jill, and two brothers, John and Jay, worked many long days on the farm.

“But we had a ball growing up here too,” Phillips says of the rural, agricultural setting on the fringe of Albuquerque’s north valley.

The property is bordered by the Rio Grande and the towering cottonwoods of the surrounding Bosque while farm pastures dot the neighboring landscape.

Phillips, a graduate of West Mesa High School, fondly remembers climbing trees; building forts and playing hide and seek with her siblings on the sprawling grounds of the farm.

“I was a bit of a tom girl then,” says Phillips, a tall, single, athletic blonde with a big, bright smile and a laid-back demeanor.
Jan Phillips of Albuquerque operates her family's longstanding  business , Shady Lakes  just north of Albuquerque.
The family’s first job in taking over the farm back then was to drain the ponds and convert the facility from ditch water to well water.

“We had some awesome mud ball fights then,” Phillips recalls of cleaning out the ponds to rid them of carp and sucker fish.

The use of cold, clean groundwater then allowed them to plant game fish and water lilies and stock trout all summer long, Phillips says.

“We now get folks who’ll stop here just to catch a trout for dinner,” she says.

Phillips, 54, has been managing Shady Lakes since 1989 and hopes to continue doing so for many years to come.

“I just can’t imagine this not being open and available to the public,” she says.

But before taking over from her parents who have since passed on, Phillips spent many years working as a licensed practical nurse.

Like her brothers and sisters she too had left home to pursue her own career and life.

She quit work for a while to earn a degree in graphics design and illustration and even took an epic, summer long, cross-country road trip in a Volkswagen minibus.

“That may have been the best thing I’ve ever done,” she says of the trip which included a 10-day backcountry canoe voyage with an Outward Bound program in Minnesota.

“Now that was an experience,” she says with a touch of disbelief in her voice.

Then there was the time she found herself stranded in incredibly remote Glacier National Park of Montana with a burnt out wheel bearing on the bus.

And there was the engine fire while visiting Dinosaur National Monument outside of Vernal, Utah.

Luckily she was prepared with a fire extinguisher on hand.

“It got pretty hairy sometimes,” Phillips says. “But it was a great trip.”

Phillips says she regrettably sold the bus after blowing the engine but still finds herself seeking adventure, most recently having gone sky diving during a mountain biking vacation in Moab, Utah.

Daniel Hayden, 30, of Albuquerque says the key to success in fishing at Shady Lakes  is the taking a day off once in a while and just getting out there.

But it was while working once again as a nurse in Denver during the late 1980’s that Phillips kept having a recurring thought about the family farm.

Was there a market for the abundance of water lilies that they cultivated in the fishing ponds back home?

She made a few calls to local nurseries and discovered that supplies of aquatic plants were scarce while demand was great, and getting greater.

“They were asking me if I knew where they could get them,” she says.

Phillips had stumbled into the onset of what was fast becoming the residential garden pond craze.

So Phillips hustled back home to help her Mom who was managing the business since her Dad had returned to work with the state.

So Phillips set to work and ended up shipping water lilies all over the country and today she grows a variety of aquatic plants to supply the market.

Shady Lakes also stocks everything needed to construct and maintain a residential garden pond including liners, pumps, filters, ornamental fountains and even frogs, goldfish and koi fish.

And while the residential pond supply business has been instrumental in the operations’ success, it is the fishing that still gives her thrills.

“When those lilies bloom and you know those bass are hiding under there it can be pretty distracting,” she says.

Bass love that kind of cover and will hide under the lily pads where a well placed cast of an artificial frog might elicit a ferocious strike, she says.

The park store stocks basic fishing supplies but most serious bass anglers typically bring their own including the many different and unique varieties of soft plastic lures, spinners and top water flies developed for bass.
Carissa Malanowski,34, of Albuquerque who works at Shady Lakes where one of the perks is the fishing shows off her private stash of bass lures.
Shady Lakes makes for a great fishing destination due to its abundance of fish, its nearby location and spectacular ambiance and scenery.

And a state fishing license is not required on the private waters at Shady Lakes.

Private fishing permits at Shady Lakes are $7.50 for trout ($5.50 for kids and seniors) and $10.50 for bass, bluegill or catfish.

For more information go to or give them a call at (505) 898-2568.

Karl F. Moffatt is a longtime New Mexico journalist and avid outdoorsman who can be contacted through his blog at

If You Go: From Santa Fe one can take the Rail Runner train and get off at the Sandia station or elect to drive on I-25 south to the Tramway exit, head west toward the river and at the traffic circle turn north on NM 313 and follow to nearby Shady Lakes.

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