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.

Popular Posts