Dense and jagged clusters of mountains mark the landscape of northern New Mexico. The area is popular with bikers for its long, scenic backroads, and it is popular with RVers for its dry winters and cooler summer temps, especially when you get to the areas above 7,000 feet. Cimarron Canyon State Park is a long narrow park of eight miles that begins just east of Eagle Nest Lake. The Cimarron River has carved into the mountain and exposed millions of years of geology in steep rock cliffs that tower 400 feet over the roadway. The park is well-known by fly fishers who travel from all over the region to enjoy this thriving trout stream that provides ideal fishing conditions for shallow river wading and dry-fly fishing. The state also stocks the gravel pit lakes in the park, which are fishable right from some of the campsites. The wildlife viewing opportunities are significant with the Colin Neblett Wildlife Management Area surrounding the state park. Elk, deer, bobcat, mountain lions, and black bears have all been seen in the area. Local hunters utilize the park as a base camp during hunting season and hike into the wildlife area. Three small primitive campgrounds provide overnight accommodations in the canyon. Only a few of the sites are reservable online, so spontaneous adventurers may end up staying about 15 miles west in the nearby town of Cimarron if the first-come, first-served sites filled up in the summer. Visitors to the area love Cimarron, however, and often visit there for some Wild West fun. The town frequently has events throughout the summer, including rodeos, western music, and cowboy-themed entertainment. Several great hiking trails feature incredible views of the Cimarron River, waterfalls, and the unique geology of the canyon. This state park is a favorite with campers who are looking for peace and quiet. If you want to wake up to the natural sounds of the river and experience a relaxing retreat from civilization, staying at Cimarron Canyon State Park is a must.
The main road that leads through this lush state park, US Highway 64, is a mountain road that has many twists and turns and several altitude changes, making it somewhat tricky to navigate when driving a big rig or towing a trailer. There isn’t much of a shoulder, so you can only stop to see the sights at the day-use area pull-outs. Watch out for inattentive wildlife, particularly in the hours around dusk and dawn, as well as for fishers walking along the side of the road looking for the perfect fishing hole. The turnoffs to get into each of the campgrounds are easy to spot from the highway, and the roads inside the campgrounds remain both paved and narrow. The high elevation here means snow and freezing temperatures are common in the winter months. If you're exploring in the off-season, be prepared for changing and possibly treacherous weather conditions.
This campground is situated just to the east of Eagle Nest Lake and offers 11 campsites available for reservation that are suitable for RVs or trailers. Most of the campsites at Tolby Campground are relatively small in size, but the mature cottonwood trees that surround the campground give each site a little bit of privacy. There are no electrical, water, or sewer hookups at this campground but generators are allowed from 7 AM to 10 PM, and there are modern sinks and flush toilets available at either of the two restrooms that service Tolby Campground. If you have a larger RV or trailer, it is important to check the details of your campsite when making your reservations. Site 11 at this loop is the only one large enough for a vehicle up to 40 feet, with the remaining spots able to accommodate vehicles from 20 to 30 feet in length. The Visitor Center for Cimarron Canyon State Park is located near this campground.
Maverick Campground is located along the shore of the Cimarron River and boasts another 11 campsites available for reservations. Campers who enjoy viewing wildlife will like this campground because it is located in the center of the Colin Neblett Wildlife Management Area. Maverick Campground's campsites are a little smaller than the campsites at the other two campgrounds, with asphalt pads suitable only for somewhat smaller RVs and trailers, from 20 to 25 feet in length. There are no electrical, water, or sewer hookups at this campground; however, the campsites are equipped with campfire rings, hibachi-style grills, and picnic tables. Generators are allowed during daytime hours but must be silenced during the park’s quiet hours from 10 PM to 7 AM. There are two conveniently located bathroom facilities at the Maverick Campground with running water and flush toilets. All of the campgrounds at the park are pet-friendly, so your leashed canine companion can join you on your adventures, but remember, your pet must be attended at all times.
The Ponderosa Campground is just a short distance south of the Maverick Campground. There are just seven rustic campsites available for reservations, but adventurers with larger vehicles may want to check this site first as this is the only campground that boasts spots big enough for a 50-foot rig. The sites provide campers with a designated fire ring, hibachi-style grill, and a picnic table, but there are no electrical, water, or sewer hookups available. Generators are only permitted during the daytime and must be turned off during the park’s quiet hours, which run from 10 PM to 7 AM. There is one plumbed restroom available at the entrance to the campground.
Ninety-four sites are spread out across the three different campgrounds, and only 29 of these are reservable online; the remaining 65 primitive sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. All of the sites provide room for RVs and trailers between 20 and 35 feet in length. There are also a few sites available for larger rigs of 40 to 50 feet, with the largest concentration of these larger spaces at the Ponderosa Campground. Each of the campgrounds provides plumbed restrooms with sinks and flush toilets but no showers. All campsites come equipped with fire rings, hibachi-style grills, and picnic tables. The Visitor Center is at the Tolby campground. All of the campsites in this state park are technically open year-round, although the mountains see snow and freezing temperatures in winter, and the roads may become unpassable.
New Mexico doesn't have much water to boast about, so wherever it does appear, expect everyone to flock to it—even the birds. The state boasts over 500 species of local and migrating birds at different parts of the year. The areas around the river are well forested and provide great cover for bird watchers trying to catch a glimpse of birds near the water. Spring and fall see large populations of migrating birds, and because of all of the birds, you'll undoubtedly give your field guide a proper breaking-in from all of your entries.
Cimarron Canyon is right in the middle of the Colin Neblett Wildlife Management Area, which are prime hunting grounds for some of the biggest game in New Mexico. Camping at one of the sites in the state park and hiking into the Colin Neblett Wildlife Management Area is a good option as long as you're in good enough shape to pack in your gear and pack out your game. The terrain is steep and hilly, making the hunt challenging, but it can also make it very rewarding as well. Check with New Mexico Game & Fish for licenses and permits.
During the late spring, the Cimarron River, which originates at Eagles Nest Lake just west of the park, beckons fly-fishers from all over New Mexico. Brown trout run in numbers through the narrow river and go wild for caddis and stone dry flies in the spring to early summer. The setting and scenery are as lovely and peaceful as you could hope for, and if you aren't a fly-fisher, head over to the Maverick Campground where you can lake fish.
When there are no clouds in sight, and the summer sun pushes temperatures into the upper 80s or 90s during July and August, find yourself a slow, shallow section of the Cimarron River and sit right down. While most of the slow-moving waters and the deep holes in the river will be occupied with anglers, it's worth the search to find a pleasant spot to soak your feet in the river. It can be incredibly satisfying to feel the water moving through your toes while you relax with a cold drink in your hand. Don't forget the hat and sun screen.
Each year the old western town of Cimarron, just 15 miles west of the campgrounds, hosts a variety of fun events like rodeos, dancing, music festivals, and old-fashioned parades. August also brings the annual Cimarron Cowboy Music & Poetry Gathering to town. Singers, songwriters, musicians, and poets from all over come together for a rousing weekend of authentic western music and poetry. While you are there, look around. There are cowboy hats as far as the eye can see and hundreds of cowboy boots kicking up dust.
With water flowing year-round and elevations close to 8,000 feet, the park keeps things cool. Cimarron Canyon is an excellent destination for those looking to cool off from the New Mexico summer heat. The Clear Creek Trailhead, located at mile marker 292, which is three miles past Tolby, takes you on a three-mile out-and-back trail that crisscrosses the creek several times and leads to several pleasant waterfalls. The climbing parts of the trail are short, and most of the hike is level. The total elevation gain is only 775 feet.