Located north of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, lies a desert oasis. Elephant Butte is a lakeside town full of fun things to do. While it’s a reservoir and not a natural lake, it still provides all the joy and activities a lake can offer. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the city of Elephant Butte comes alive with summer vacationers who want to escape the heat and the hustle and bustle of daily life at a waterfront paradise. Rest, relaxation, and fun are the goals. Let’s explore!
Before the dam was built, the Rio Grande flowed through on its way to Mexico. In 1905, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation received approval from the United States Congress to construct Elephant Butte Dam and Spillway to provide flood control and irrigation downriver. Construction of the dam started in 1911 and was finished in 1915. Materials and supplies were brought in by rail and transported to the dam by a 300-horse-power electric-motor-powered cable system.
Upon completion, the dam had a 1,674-foot crest, a spillway, and a road running across the top. The channel and the downstream concrete-lined chute weren’t completed until 1922. In 1940, a 23,400-kilowatt hydroelectric power plant connected to the dam began operating. One year later, the spillway was used for the first time and then not used again until 1985 when the lake reached its record high. This is the Elephant Butte ingrained in the minds of many people who visited during this time.
The most common misconception visitors have of the lake is that the water levels have become dangerously low. However, even at its current level, water in the lake is up to 30 and even 60 feet deep.
“What people don’t realize is that in the late 1980s to mid-1990s the water levels were at their highest. It even flowed over the floodgates of the dam! Before then, while I was growing up, it looked just like this,” says Earl Greer, chairman of the Elephant Butte Chamber of Commerce and owner of Plaza Realty. Elephant Butte Reservoir is the largest body of water in New Mexico and even at its lowest levels can support boating, fishing, and many other types of aquatic fun!
FUN ON THE WATER
Speaking of fun, there is a lot to be had on the water. Bring your watercraft, whether it’s a houseboat, yacht, speed boat, fishing boat, rowboat, jet ski, kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. If you own a motor-powered boat, be sure you’ve registered it with the State of New Mexico.
Don’t have your own? Don’t worry! There are plenty of places to rent your toy of choice for a few hours, the day, or the whole weekend. You can rent basic pontoon, ski pontoon, and deck/slide pontoon boats by the hour at Marina del Sur (101 NM-195) in Elephant Butte State Park. The best perk is they are located right on the water, so you’ll be ready to set sail. Marina del Sur also offers covered and uncovered slip rentals with electricity and water hookups to house your personal watercraft, for the summer or year-round. For more information, visit marinadelsur.info.
Sit-on-top kayaks (single and tandem) and stand-up paddleboards are available for rent at Zia Kayak Outfitters (310 Rock Canyon Road) and come equipped with all the safety gear you need. If you are a novice, owners Edna and Russ Trager will give you a crash course on the basics.
“We show them everything they need to know, like how to get on and off the kayak, how to tie it down on top of their car, how to maneuver the kayak, and even how to get back on if you fall off,” says Edna. Zia Kayak is also the only Hobie Kayak dealer in New Mexico. Every accessory and upgrade you can think of to add to your Hobie, they have it.
Exploring the lake via jet ski is always popular. Capt. D’s JetSkis has jet skis available for rent for either a half or full day. “We are water people, which is why we do what we do,” says Shonna Masce, co-owner of Capt. D’s JetSkis. To inquire about renting or ask a question, message them on the Capt. D’s JetSkis Facebook page, and to make a reservation call 915-329-9239.
Fishing is another popular activity at the lake and a fishing license is required to cast your line. You can get one online at wildlife. state.nm.us for the day, five days, or the whole year, and it permits you to fish anywhere in New Mexico where fishing is allowed. You can get them in person at Zia Kayak Outfitters or Walmart in Truth or Consequences.
The lake is stocked with all kinds of fish, including four species of bass, catfish, carp, salmon, pike, walleye, and sunfish. Zia Kayak Outfitters is also a one-stop shop for all your fishing needs. They carry rods, reels, lines, hooks, and lures, some of which are handmade by a woman from Caballo Lake. For live bait, head over to Bud’s Bait Shop (1155 NM-195) where you can find shiner fish, water dogs, and worms. Bud’s also has frozen bait that includes shrimp, chicken liver, and pork. You can find lures and other fishing necessities at Bud’s as well.
The Elephant Butte General Store (900 NM Highway 195) has the essentials you will need for a day of fishing and fun out on the lake. They carry tubes, rafts, arm floaties, sunglasses, snacks, water shoes, and so much more. They even have a great selection of boats for sale and can give you the official fishing report.
There are fun landmarks to explore while out on the water like Kettle Top Mountain, which avid lake-goers use as a geographical reference. Pirate’s Cove is a great place to anchor, go for a swim, and mingle. Castle Rock is a popular . . . well . . . rock in the middle of the lake that people climb and jump off. And, most famous of all, the elephant: a volcanic core that looks like an elephant lying down. You’ve likely already guessed that’s how Elephant Butte acquired its name!
FUN ON LAND
Fun can also be had on land, like golfing at the Sierra del Rio Golf Course (101 Clubhouse Drive). This par 72, 18-hole high-desert course showcases 7,219 yards of lush greens and clear blue ponds with Turtleback Mountain as the backdrop. Sierra del Rio offers challenging play that is also enjoyable for players of all skill levels. Amenities include a putting green, practice range, pitching green, club rentals, carts, a pro shop, Turtleback Taphouse and Grill, and tournament services. Day rates, as well as monthly and annual passes, are available for individuals and couples. For more information, visit sdrgolf.com.
Off-roading the backcountry is another fun activity. The Elephant Butte Elks Club (915 NM-195) will host an ATV run this fall. “The first year we did it we expected maybe 50 people and 1,000 showed up. We had to act fast and cleared Walmart out of hamburgers and hot dogs! It was a great time,” says Bill Hickox, public relations manager for Lago Rico Inc. and president of the Elks Club. At the end of the run, there are food, drinks, and fun back at the Elks Lodge.
How about some lakeside hiking and nature observing? West Lakeshore Trail is a six-foot-wide hiking and biking trail with a gravel surface that spans 12 miles through the desert along the lake.
It can be accessed from six different trailheads including Overlook Trailhead and Sailboat Cove Trailhead by Rock Canyon Marina. Dirt Dam Trail is 1.5 miles of fully paved road that is closed to traffic, making it a safe spot for hiking with kids and pets. Use the restroom and pick up snacks first, as there are no facilities along the trail. The Paseo del Rio Interpretive Trail is a one-mile loop, half gravel and half paved, around the Paseo del Rio Campground. This trail features great views and restrooms at the trailhead and midway point of the loop.
The closest hiking trail to Marina del Sur is the Lucchini Trail, a sandy 1.5-mile loop that can be accessed near the Elephant Butte State Park Visitor Center and the Desert Cove Campground, where you will also find restrooms.
One of New Mexico’s most popular places to visit, Spaceport America is only a short 40-minute drive east on I-10 making Elephant Butte and Truth or Consequences the ideal places to stay when visiting Spaceport America.
WHERE TO EAT
After a day out on the lake, golfing, or exploring nature, you’re going to be in the mood for a big meal. Casa Taco (704 NM-195) is a cute cantina-style restaurant that serves delicious tacos and other Southern New Mexico fare like burritos and quesadillas. You must try their apple flautas for dessert!
If you don’t want to leave the lake, boat on over to Burgers n’ Buns, often called the “burger barge” by regulars, which is a floating restaurant anchored near Kettle Top Mountain. They serve burgers, veggie burgers, hot sandwiches, hot dogs, ice cream, and frozen treats. Be sure to check their hours of operation before you go!
WHERE TO STAY
There are lots of options for places to stay at Elephant Butte, such as camping at the state park which offers day and overnight passes. Day passes are $5 per car and $15 for a bus or tour van and $40 for an annual pass. Overnight camping passes for primitive sites are $8 per night and developed sites that include electricity and sewage hookups are $10 per night.
Primitive camping on the beach is a must. Be sure to bring a vehicle that is either a 4×4 or can handle soft sand. Firmer sections of shoreline are present, but you must be cautious. There is no other experience like falling asleep to the sound of waves on the shore and waking up to the sunrise mirroring off the undisturbed waters. Pitch a tent or make a cozy shelter in the bed of your truck.
The Damsite Historic District (55 Dam Site Road) has cabins, hotel rooms, and RV campsites available for rent. The hotel is the original administrative office building used during the construction of the dam and provides unique rooms that range in size and price. The best part is sitting out on the covered porch and enjoying the view of the lake and Damsite Marina. The hotel also serves as a meeting place for local community groups. Cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940 and renovated in 2019 are also available for rent. They are the perfect option if you are looking for something simple and private. The RV campsites are equipped with water and electricity hook-ups and Damsite Marina offers boat slips and jet ski ports. This area is full of rich history and is a unique place to stay! For more information, visit thedamsite.com.
If you have your own RV, there are many campgrounds and resorts from which to choose. Elephant Butte RV Resort (402 NM-195) offers 140 full hook-up sites, a pool, hot tub, basketball hoop, horseshoes, pickleball court, fitness room, covered patio with a grill, and more. Daily, weekly, and monthly rates are available. Get more details and rates at elephantbuttelakervresort.com.
Summer is the busiest time at the lake, but fun events happen all year. The 41st Annual Balloon Regatta is August 5 – 7, and this year the weekend-long event will be paired up with Turtleback Music Festival at Sierra del Rio Golf Course with Terry Bullard as the headliner. “We wanted to give visitors something to do after all the balloons go down for the night, rather than just going back home,” says Denise “Dee” Addie, Sierra County native and organizer of the Balloon Regatta. Thirty balloons are expected to take flight from Lions Beach, where there will also be vendors, food, and more. Tethered rides will be offered this year ($25 for adults and $20 for kids). “We are going big this year,” says Dee. Balloon sponsorships are available and close July 15. For more information on sponsorships, contact Dee at 602-738-0212 or Steve Buckley at 575-740-2794 or email [email protected] Visit turtlebackmountainmusicfestival.com for information about the music fest.
Elephant Butte Chamber of Commerce’s $10K Angler Challenge is going on until September 30. This year’s contest focuses on breaking the New Mexico record for smallmouth bass. The weight to beat is 7 pounds, 3 ounces, and the winner will get a $10,000 prize. If you catch a smallmouth bass that you think could be a contender, call 575-744-5427 and the official scales will be brought to you at Elephant Butte. It is strongly encouraged that all fish caught during the challenge are released with care.
Watching a fireworks display over the lake is the perfect way to celebrate the Fourth of July. In 2022, the show took place on June 25, but plan on making it out next year (2023) on July 1. Park fees will be waived after 6 p.m. on the day of the show. Fireworks will be launched from Rattlesnake Canyon and can be seen from pretty much anywhere on the lake. Don’t miss out on a spectacular fireworks show reflecting off the state’s largest body of water.
Other fun events include the Chile Challenge 4-Wheel Drive Trail Event (October 12 – 15, 2022), Elephant Butte Luminaria Beach Walk and Floating Lights Parade (December 10, 2022), the Kayak Fishing Tournament (May 19 – 31, 2023), and the Junior Open Fishing Tournament (June 17 – 18, 2023). For the latest event information, visit sierracountynewmexico.info/sierra-county-annual-events.
When it comes to the lake, opportunities for fun and enjoyment are endless. See you on the water, neighbor!
Story and photography by Olivia Belcher
Posted by LasCruces.com