By Susan Brown
As the weather starts to cool down, the New Mexican landscape of colors begins to change. Autumn brings with it a panoply of changing hues in the trees, the sky, and the desert. Plus, the heat of summer is gone, making camping much more enjoyable. Here are five spots that are simply stunning this time of year.
There is a lot to see here at any time of year, but fall brings with it dramatic color in the 800-foot deep canyon created by the Rio Grande River, as well as sightings of migrating mule deer, elk, and the occasional black bear. As part of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument, there are five developed campgrounds, 22 developed campsites along the Gorge Rim, and 16 designated primitive river campsites that you have to hike to. Trails take you through ancient piñon and juniper forests, some as old as 500 years and along the Rio Grande River.
The Gila Wilderness, more than 500,000 acres, was the world’s first designated wilderness in 1924. Quemado Lake, in the northern section of this area, sits in a piñon-juniper woodland dotted with ponderosa pine, aspen and fir. The fall colors are impressive. At an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, the crisp autumn air makes this a cool respite from the hot New Mexican summers. There are multiple campgrounds around the lake, including sites for RVs. Amenities include picnic tables, drinking water, and toilets. There’s a 14-day stay limit.
This smaller park, along the Rio Grande, is rural and remote—a quiet spot to sit under the dazzling colors of changing Cottonwood trees and drop a line in for some fishing and do a little bird watching. With grassy lawns and shady campsites, a kid’s playground, barbecue grills and hiking trails, it’s just the place for a weekend away. There are 50 campsites, some with shelters and some more primitive.
The high plains of Kiowa National Grasslands are a short grass prairie covered in native grasses like buffalo and blue grama. But all that ends as you approach the edge of Mills Canyon, cut by the Canadian River 1,000 feet below. The canyon is striking, covered in pine, oak, junipers, and cottonwoods, as well as remnants of old orchards planted by the first settler, Melvin Mills. The canyon is covered in history and full of areas to explore. The rim campground has six campsites and a view that you just won’t find anywhere else. It’s accessible to RVs and trailers. No fee and no permit necessary. Campsites are also found near the river at the bottom of the canyon.
As the weather starts to cool down, an overnight at Chaco Canyon is so much more enjoyable. With little shade or trees, it’s quite often too hot to really enjoy exploring the ruins, but temperatures drop dramatically in fall. The best part about Chaco, though, is that it’s an International Dark Sky Park, plus it has an observatory with ongoing programs that focus on as-tronomy and the Chacoan people. In fall, there’s special emphasis on the autumn equinox. This remote area has clear, dark skies with little light pollution. Stargazing is beyond belief. Daytime exploration of the ruins is remarkable, too.