Motorists cruising north on Interstate 25 about an hour’s drive from Las Cruces will see off to their right a shimmering body of water — an oasis in the arid Chihuahuan Desert. Caballo Lake and the state park that bears its name often play second fiddle to its larger sister reservoir, Elephant Butte Lake, both created by damming the Rio Grande near Truth or Consequences.
Early Spanish settlers named Caballo Lake for the wild horses (caballos) that once roamed the mountains, desert scrub, and woodlands (bosque) along the Rio Grande. The state park hugs the western lakeshore and riverside just below the dam. The more heavily vegetated Riverside Recreation Area, south of the dam, and the Lakeside Recreation Area, above the dam with campgrounds on the upper flats and a bluff overlooking the lake, comprise the park. Both areas offer solitude and recreational opportunities for anglers, boaters, campers, wildlife watchers, and equestrians.
The 5,300-acre state park opened in 1964 along this shallow lake 18 miles downriver from the larger and better-known Elephant Butte Lake State Park, which often attracts a more boisterous crowd. The ancient Caballo Mountains to the east frame the narrow and typically quiet reservoir and the natural river below Caballo Dam that looks much like it did a century ago. Each state park sports its own distinct personality.
“We are more family-oriented here,” says Vanessa Aguirre, Caballo Lake State Park administrator. “It’s much quieter here, not as loud or as crowded as Elephant Butte, which is known as more of a party lake. People coming to Caballo want a more secluded spot to enjoy the lake and the views.”
Vanessa says part of the $1.2 million park improvement project included construction of a new visitor center and the installation of solar panels just outside the building that provide power to two electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. The charging stations are seeing more use, she notes, as post-COVID-shutdown visitation picks up at the park. During the last nine months of 2021 after the park reopened, the number of Caballo Lake State Park visitors hit 185,000, according to Park Manager Abdon Aguirre.
The park’s extensive camping facilities can accommodate recreational vehicles requiring full hookups that include sewer ($18) and dozens of electric and water hookup sites ($14) at lakeside, as well as facilities for tent campers seeking a more primitive experience for $8 a night. The Riverside Campground offers 16 electric and water sites, five full-hookup sites, picnic shelters, and a Group Rally Site Pavilion popular with larger groups of RVers, four-wheel drive clubs, and those holding family reunions. The group pavilion, at which overnight camping is allowed, rents for $135 a day for up to 30 people or $180 for more than 30 guests.
Rally Site reservations can be made by calling the park office. Developed tent camping sites with a picnic table, fire pit, or grill run $10 a night and are on a first-come, first-served basis. Lakeside camping areas consist of three campgrounds on a bluff overlooking the boat ramp, offering breathtaking views of Caballo Lake and the Caballo Mountains. Palomino Campground offers seven full hookups, Appaloosa Campground has 23 electric/water sites, and Stallion Campground has 10 electric/water sites. Electric campsites are by reservation only through Reserve America at 1-877-664-7787 or online at reserveamerica.com. Primitive campsites are on a first-come basis with payment upon arrival.
Equestrians can also make reservations through Reserve America to stable their mounts in corrals at the state park. Primitive camping is permitted nearby. Horseback riders can access 10 to 15 miles of trails along a pipeline easement heading north and sandy beaches along the lakeshore as well.
Caballo Lake enjoys a stellar reputation as a birder’s paradise. The Christmas Bird Count conducted at Caballo and nearby Percha Dam State Park and Animas Creek typically records the highest number of species in New Mexico. The diversity of habitat — from open waters to chapparal and riparian woodlands shaded by willows and cottonwoods — attracts a diverse array of water birds, migrating warblers, and other songbirds in spring and fall, plus flycatchers, owls, woodpeckers, and various birds of prey, including the occasional bald eagle. Winter provides excellent viewing of a variety of ducks, geese, and other waterfowl, including sandhill cranes.
Caballo Lake and Percha Dam State Parks fall under the same management. Both are operated under a lease agreement between the State of New Mexico and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The smaller Percha Dam State Park may be lesser known, but is worth a visit.
Park Marine Ranger Cody Creager says during colder months Percha Dam State Park sports plentiful wildlife, such as mule deer, bighorn sheep, javelina, elk, and even an occasional mountain lion. When irrigation water is released from Caballo in the summer, the churning water below Percha Dam draws anglers trying to hook walleye swimming upstream toward colder water. Birding reigns supreme at the park, especially during spring and fall migration, and it is site 34 on the Southwestern New Mexico Birding Trail.
“Once the dam is opened in the summer,” Cody says, “it flows pretty good, creating some whitewater. It’s really awesome.” He says when the water’s flowing lots of folks will leave a vehicle at Percha Dam State Park, drive up the road to rent a tube or kayak just outside Caballo Lake State Park, and make the mile-long float down the Rio Grande to the takeout at Percha Dam.
Of course, many park visitors launch their boats, jet skis, and other watercraft at Caballo Lake State Park to enjoy a day on the placid waters. Anglers try their luck catching walleye, white and largemouth bass, catfish, and crappie.
All persons must be at least 13 years old to operate a sailboat, motorboat, or personal watercraft unless they are under direct onboard adult supervision. Those younger than 13 must have their Boater Education Certificate on board even when operating under direct supervision. The operator or vessel owner who gives permission to someone else to operate the vessel must check that the legally required equipment is on board. Information on boater safety courses and boat safety education materials can be found at boat-ed.com.
An Easter Day egg hunt draws a good crowd at Caballo’s biggest celebration. Park officials hope in the future to host night sky stargazing parties and perhaps host a luminaria event during Christmas holidays.
Regardless of when you visit Caballo Lake State Park, you won’t be disappointed. With 11,000 surface acres to boat and thousands of acres of parkland to explore, fun abounds.
And if you work up a hunger, head just down the road and across the interstate to try a breakfast burrito, green chile cheeseburger, or homestyle Mexican dish at the Arrey Café. If you’re visiting the park on the weekend, it’s just a short drive to Shattuck Vineyard to taste some locally produced wine. Happy travels!
Caballo Lake State Park is located on Highway 187 just a few miles off I-25 roughly 15 miles south of Truth or Consequences. The park is open year round, 24 hours a day. The daily entrance fee is $5 per vehicle. For more information, call 575-743-3942 or visit the website.
Written by and photography by Rob McCorkle
Additional photos courtesy Caballo Lake State Park
Originally published in Neighbors magazine.
Posted by LasCruces.com