Fluttering white triangles of boat sails make their way towards shore across the glassy water of a large lake. An osprey takes flight from atop of a towering ponderosa pine, soaring smoothly over the water and searching for its next fishy meal. In the brush nearby, a horned lizard creates a rustle as it chases after an insect. As the sun sets, the distant, yet imposing Brazos Cliffs take on a subtle orange glow. Welcome to Heron Lake State Park!
Whether you’re hoping to pull some monster salmon out of the lake, looking to go on a quiet sail, or eager to explore the high deserts and forests of northern New Mexico, Heron Lake State Park will provide you with something to do or see. After a day of adventure, guests can enjoy a picturesque picnic or learn about the area’s natural history through the exhibits at the visitor center. If you are traveling through during winter, don’t fret, there’s still plenty to do, and the park remains open. Ice-fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing are just a few of the cold-weather activities which visitors can take part in.
There are over 60 RV spots available, and all are in scenic spots within a stone’s throw of Heron Lake’s shores. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance—make sure to do so, especially if you’re planning on arriving during the busy summer season.
Heron Lake is beset on several sides by mountainous country, so some of the roads visitors may take on their way to the park can be steep or windy in sections; however, most access points take place on major, paved roads, so driving is never precarious, even if you're navigating a large motorhome. NM-95 S runs straight through the park, and drivers can access that road from the east via Hwy 64/84, or from the west via NM-112 or NM-537. NM-95 S follows the eastern lakeshore, and campgrounds, trailheads, boat launches, and day-use areas are spread out along this shore, and they are all accessible via short spurs off of the main road.
Parking can be a bit tricky for large RVs and trailers, especially at the Brushy Point and Island View spurs, which are only meant to accommodate small rigs, but there are no extremely sharp turns or steep hills. Due to the spread-out nature of the campsites, visitors may need to head a mile or so up or down the park’s main road to reach boat launches, trailheads, or the Visitor Center.
The RV camping spots at Heron Lake State Park are spread along a series of lakeside loops; these loops branch off the main road, which runs through the park. All spots offer fantastic views of Heron Lake to the west and the Brazos Cliffs to the east. The Blanco and Willow Creek loops are located towards the northern end of the camping area near the Visitor Center. The Blanco Loop has 27 RV-suitable sites with electric hookups, but no water or sewage. The length of these sites accommodates RVs up to 50 feet. Neighboring Willow Creek Loop has two full-hookup sites and four primitive sites. The Willow Creek sites range from 30 to 45 feet in length. Just down the road from Blanco and Willow Creek, about a mile southwest along NM-95 S, you’ll find the entrance for the Brushy Point Spur. Located on a small peninsula jutting out into the lake, the Brushy Point Spur has 13 small, primitive, RV-suitable sites. No hookups are available at these, and the maximum site length is just 25 feet. Finally, just another half mile down the road is the Island View Spur, in which visitors can find an additional 15 RV sites. These spaces, like the ones at Brushy Point, are primitive and have lengths capped at 25 feet. A sanitary dump station is located between the Visitor Center and the Willow Creek Loop. Both modern restrooms with showers and vault toilets are spread throughout the camping loops. All sites at Heron Lake can be reserved up to six months in advance.
If all the sites at Heron Lake State Park have been spoken for, there are a handful of national forest and state parks that offer RV-friendly camping nearby. The nearest option is the neighboring El Vado Lake State Park. Carson National Forest sits further away to the southeast, and further yet you'll find Sante Fe National Forest and Cibola National Forest, located south of the park. If you don't mind crossing state lines, the Rio Grande National Forest lies just over the Colorado/New Mexico border to the north.
If you prefer to park the camper where glamping is made easy, there are several RV resorts located in the surrounding area. At the resorts, you will find top-notch amenities like full hookups, heated bathhouses, laundry facilities, Wi-Fi, and even dog parks.
Hiking and biking trails become stellar cross-country skiing routes once snow rolls across the landscape. Snap-on the skis and leave the campervan in the distance as you sail on drifts of freshly fallen powder. You can skirt around frozen Heron Lake on the five-mile Salmon Run Trail or head over to the shorter East Meadow Trail to explored snow-covered fields where deer and elk frequently browse. Winter visitors will be able to get away from the crowds and experience greater solitude; that being said, camping at the park is open year-round, so there’s no need to worry about making special accommodations.
Be sure to pack a camera in the Sprinter van if you're going to stay in this part of New Mexico. Heron Lake offers year-round opportunities for viewing a wide range of desert and mountain wildlife. Cougars and black bears are the area’s top predators. Elk, deer, coyotes, foxes, yellow-bellied marmots, roadrunners, and American dippers are also present, as are a wide variety of reptiles, such as rattlesnakes, fence lizards, collared lizards, and short-horned lizards. The lake and its copious stock of fish attract ospreys and bald eagles, and bald eagles winter at Heron Lake and the nearby El Vado Lake State Park in huge numbers.
Just because the dog days of summer are over doesn’t mean you can’t still reel in a keeper out of Heron Lake. At over a mile in elevation, the state park and the surrounding highlands experience cold, mountain weather during the winter. Heron Lake often accumulates a healthy layer of ice on its surface; when this layer gets thick enough, intrepid anglers can venture out onto the lake for some high-desert ice fishing. Patient anglers can hook hefty trout and salmon as they look out over the glimmering, snow-glad Brazos Cliffs.
From the moment you pull into Heron Lake State Park, you will be in awe of your surroundings. Photographers and families just trying to snap memories of their RV vacation will have plenty to capture. The white sails on Lake Heron with the peaks of the Brazos Cliffs in the background create a stunning backdrop. The Rio Chama Gorge can be viewed on a 5.5-mile trail and will take your breath away. A suspended pedestrian bridge runs along this route and is the best place to photograph the gorge, lake, and cliffs all in one shot. Once the crowds disperse in the off-season, you may have a chance to photograph some of the park's wildlife. If you tread lightly, you may spy black bears, fox, elk, or short-horned lizards. Keep your camera ready at the campground, as deer and osprey are known to make the occasional appearance in the early mornings. The evening presents a different kind of photo op, as the sun sets and casts a gold shadow over the Brazos Cliffs.
Bikers visiting Heron Lake and the surrounding areas can expect world-class mountain biking in an absolutely gorgeous setting. Connect the East Meadow Trail and the Salmon Run Trail to make a 12-plus mile out-and-back path. Mountain bikes are permitted on both of the trails. If you’re looking for a longer, steeper ride, use Heron Lake as a base from which to explore the nearby San Juan Mountains. Carson National Forest, which extends along the mountains and mesas to the east of the park, has dozens of miles of bike trails available. The park does not offer bike rentals, so you'll need to tote your own bikes along with you in the Airstream for this trip.
Lace-up the hiking boots, lock the pop-up, and see the park on your own two feet. Several miles of trails are available to eager hikers at Heron Lake. The Salmon Run Trail and the Eastern Meadow Trail (five and three miles, respectively) stick close to the lake, offering sweeping vistas and the chance to see ospreys dive into the water. The five and a half-mile Rio Chama Trail leads out of the park, carving a scenic route across desert, cliffs, and ponderosa forests which end at the nearby El Vado Lake State Park. Many more miles of hiking trails wind their way through nearby Carson National Forest, just a short drive to the east.
Boating is perhaps the most popular activity at Heron Lake, and it’s easy to see why. On watercraft, visitors can explore the far nooks and crannies of the lake, paddling or sailing along gently sloped, vegetated shorelines or sharp cliff lines. Anglers on the water have the chance to fish from a stock that has produced record-sized salmon and trout. Motorized boating is limited to no-wake activity, so conditions on the lake are almost always calm and quiet. Two conveniently placed boat launches provide easy access. If you're a frequent visitor to Heron Lake, boat storage is available. Make sure you check up with the park’s specific boating regulations before heading out.