Winter, spring, summer, or fall, scenic El Vado Lake State Park in scenic New Mexico is one of the best places in the Southwest to park your RV. There are lots of outdoor activities at this tranquil place, making it a great place to recharge and spend time with family and friends.
El Vado lake features a 17-story high earthen dam that’s almost 100 years old. This dam has undergone very few repairs or updates over this time, so it’s a testament to the craftsmanship and engineering of the time. More importantly for RV campers, the lake is full of trout and salmon for most of the year. Fish from shore or use one of the two boat launches to put out to open water. Power boating is popular at El Vado Lake State Park as well, since this huge lake has no boat speed restrictions. Other park highlights include a scenic hiking trail which goes over one of the world’s few foot suspension bridges.
The lake’s eastern shore has a number of RV campsites, including several that are on a sandy beach. Most of these motorhome parking spots are developed campsites with water and electrical hookups. A few sites even offer full hookups.
El Vado Lake State Park is rather isolated. It’s just off Highway 64 in northern New Mexico. That’s the main drag between the Bloomfield/Aztec/Farmington metro area in the west and Raton in the east. Neither of those spots are exactly bustling tourist attractions. But in this case, isolation is probably a good thing. The huge lake is usually not very busy, even on Memorial Day and other high-boating holidays. Additionally, Highway 84 is a wide and well-kept road, even in the winter. However, the road does wind through several national forests. So, watch your speed in an RV, since visibility is sometimes limited.
Inside the park, large vehicle parking is available near the visitors’ center, the boat launches, and the major trail heads. The topography here is pretty cool as well. The park itself is basically on a mile-and-a-half high plateau, and some of the tallest mountains in New Mexico are just to the west.
“Campground” is a relative term, as Elk Run only has two RV sites. So, this campground, which is just north of Grassy Point, has lots of privacy. Elk Run also has lots of amenities, including a restroom and shower area, full hookup sites, an RV dump station, and drinking water spigots.
Now we’re getting to the more developed RV campgrounds at El Vado Lake State Park. Grassy Point is adjacent to both the park office and the main boat launch. Some of its 10 sites have electric and sewer hookups; others are electric hookup only. Campground amenities include a restroom/shower area, RV dump station, drinking water spigots, and picnic tables.
This slightly-more-developed campground has seven designated RV and tent sites. It’s directly on the beach as well, and it’s also near the main boat launch. Each site has a drinking water spigot and picnic table, so it’s definitely more homey than Sands Cove. Flush toilets are available and beachside campfires are allowed.
As the name implies, this first-come, first-served RV campground is very primitive. But it’s also right on the beach and right next to the dam. There are a few amenities, such as flush toilets. Perhaps most importantly, beachside campfires are allowed on Sands Cove Primitive Campground. Have a cookout there or at one of the campground’s several picnic tables. This campground is basically an overflow beach campground.
At this altitude, and in this remote part of the Southwest, the skies are clear and dark on a moonless winter night. Lots of stargazing groups gather here, or you can just pick out a good spot and set up your telescope. WIth even a small scope, nearby celestial bodies, like the Moon and Mars, spring to life. With a larger telescope, you can see similar features on the faraway Gas Giants and interplanetary gas nebulae. All the while, comets and meteors streak across the sky. Altogether, it’s a very nice show.
Fall and winter is usually deer and other hunting season in El Vado Lake State Park. Both archery and firearms are allowed in designated areas. Check with park rangers about deer blinds. Waterfowl hunting is available in the northwest part of the lake, and pheasant hunting may be open elsewhere.
Get out of the campervan and onto the trail. The 5.5-mile Rio Chama Trail goes overland from El Vado Lake to Heron Lake. The trail is mostly rocky with some scraggly trees here and there. Hikers need special equipment, some experience, and lots of water and sunscreen. This trail is a great way to get up close to the fragile high desert ecosystem. During the winter, strap on your snowshoes and take on this trail or some of the shorter ones closer to El Vado Lake. There’s also a cross-country skiing course at this park, along with some very nice sledding hills with varying degrees of difficulty.
Much of the lake’s southeastern shore is one long sandy beach. Furthermore, just south of the Beach Campground, there’s a cool area where sand dunes mix with lake water. But the best swimming area is probably next to the Day Use Area. This part of the lake is near the aforementioned huge earthen dam. The Day Use Area includes restrooms, picnic tables with barbecue grills, and a nice open area for pickup athletic games or high-altitude kite flying. No lifeguard is on duty, but the lake current isn’t terribly strong. So swim with a buddy, and you should be fine. You can also try your luck at scuba diving. The lake is definitely deep enough.
El Vado Lake is an excellent cold water fishery so make sure you pack your rod and reel in your camper or trailer. At this altitude, the water is pretty chilly except in high summer. Most anglers catch lots of largemouth bass, brown trout, bluegill, rainbow trout, and lake trout in the spring and early summer. In the late summer and fall, the salmon fishing is pretty good. In the winter, ice fishing is usually available, as this lake usually freezes over. But it’s 170 feet deep in parts, so always check with rangers about ice thickness.
The main boat launch is near the park office. It’s next to a huge parking lot, so it hardly ever backs up. There are some docking facilities here as well. A smaller boat launch is near the mouth of the Rio Chama. It’s closed during the summer and other low-water periods. El Vado Lake is not as large as nearby Heron Lake, but it’s almost as large and, as mentioned, there are no speed restrictions. So, waterskiing and personal watercraft are very popular here, especially in the more wide-open southern part of the lake. Sailors and paddlers usually stick to the more finger-like northern reaches of the lake. The current is pretty solid and there is usually plenty of wind. More adventurous kayakers might try the whitewater in Rio Chama.