The first time I camped in New Mexico, I pitched a borrowed tent near Chama between a small, man-made lake and the Colorado border. I spent my days wandering through ferns and aspen; my nights, stargazing while coyotes sang. At the lake, a boy proudly showed me the large rainbow trout he’d just caught, and I hiked on, admiring wildflowers while monsoon clouds gathered in the afternoon sky.
The forests held many surprises: I chanced upon a rafter of turkeys one day and an old hunting blind the next. Toasting marshmallows over the campfire to make s’mores, I decided to add a roasted green chile and found an instant favorite, decadent dessert. I was a teenager, new to camping, but Chama had me hooked.
I couldn’t wait until my next adventure sleeping under the Milky Way. New Mexico has so many places to explore — badlands, canyons, mesas, mountains, prairies, sand dunes, salt flats, valleys, and volcanic escarpments — you could plan a lifetime of weekend trips. In addition to situating yourself within a landscape of geologic masterpieces, camping here also places you in touch with history and the many cultures that live throughout the state.
I’ve stumbled upon fossils, ancient pottery sherds, and secret, hidden petroglyphs. Once, camping in the Gila, it was so cold that I shivered most of the night instead of sleeping. In the morning, I watched as my breath rose up in a little cloud, condensed, froze, and snowed back down on my face — I had created my own miniature weather system in my tent. This was such a beautiful moment, and I’d never seen or even imagined anything like it.
Another time, I was hiking out from my campsite at White Sands National Park when a storm started to blow in. The sky turned light gray, and wind lifted the sand. The sky grew indistinguishable from the dunes in these whiteout conditions; the world was white. But our long morning shadows persisted to show us the direction of the sun, and luckily the guideposts also remained visible. Again, I’d never seen anything like it.
That’s part of what draws me out time and time again: Wanting to share these experiences with others has fueled much of the research and writing of this book.
Perhaps that is why I’ve had such a difficult time answering the one question everyone asks after learning that I’m researching campgrounds: “What’s your favorite campground?” I have many favorite campgrounds for different kinds of camping experiences — some to admire the stars, to sleep under tall pines, to investigate archaeology sites, or wander trails.
People camp for many reasons; others might have their own campgrounds for preferred activities and settings. If you like trout fishing in a rushing river with your tent hidden behind low growth, a bustling campground where kids can make friends at the playground, or pitching a tent among eroded boulders of volcanic tuff that look like a setting from The Flintstones, you’ll find a great campground in this guide. You’ll also find lakeside campgrounds, secluded mountain campgrounds, and campgrounds close to hot springs and climbing routes. I’ve visited scores of campgrounds in New Mexico and tried to include a variety of the best in this guide.