Leasburg Dam State Park celebrates the ingenuity and determination of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation engineers who constructed the state’s first dam under the ambitious Rio Grande Project. It is one of the oldest diversion dams in New Mexico.
The 10-foot-high, 60-foot-long concrete dam constructed in 1908 replaced the earthen dam built three years earlier of twigs, poles, and stones. The structure diverts water from the Rio Grande into the Leasburg Canal, which flows southward to irrigate 31,000 acres of upper Mesilla Valley farmland. In 1919 its crest was raised a little over a foot.
The dam serves as the focal point of the 293-acre state park, which opened in 1971 between Fort Selden and Radium Springs. The historic but unoccupied dam keeper’s cottage perches on a bluff overlooking the dam and north picnic area and beach, which draws thousands of visitors during hot-weather months to picnic, swim, and paddle the cool waters. Fishing is restricted below the dam but is allowed several hundred yards downriver and in the shady, riverside south picnic area and beach. One can reach the picnic area via the handicap-accessible Lower Mogollon Trail or by taking a short drive on Leasburg Dam Road.
Before There Was a Dam
For more than 400 years, this “oasis” in the desert along the Rio Grande has drawn weary and parched travelers traversing the desiccated Jornada del Muerto, stopping at the Paraje de Robledo, or resting place, along the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro. In 1865, it proved an ideal location for the establishment of Fort Selden to help protect those travelers and early Mesilla Valley settlements. Fort Selden State Historic Site, located just west of Leasburg Dam State Park, is currently closed due to the pandemic.
History buffs will find plenty to like at this state park located 15 miles north of Las Cruces. Just inside the state park gates, visitors will see a Fort Selden Cemetery historic marker denoting the field where soldiers were buried until the fort was abandoned in 1891 and their remains reinterred in the National Cemetery in Santa Fe. Another historic marker pays tribute to Leasburg Dam, around which numerous park activities revolve.
“There’s lots to see and plenty of outdoor activities for families to enjoy,” says Park Manager Robert J. Gonzales. “We have history — from Native American to fort soldiers — and many ways to enjoy your day, such as fishing, grilling, hiking, picnicking, and swimming.”
Leasburg Dam State Park Activities
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the park’s popular special programs have been temporarily suspended. Once restrictions are lifted, visitors can once again enjoy ranger-led interpretive hikes, music under the stars, bird walks with a Mesilla Valley Audubon Society bird expert, and night sky programs hosted by the Las Cruces Astrological Society at the park observatory. If restrictions are eased in time, the annual winter solstice celebration that features Native American dancers, music, and bread making in the park’s horno will be held.
Visitors interested in making a river run from Leasburg Dam State Park by kayak, canoe, or raft can reserve a spot through Southwest Expeditions. The adventure outfitter offers 4-, 10-, 16- and 20-mile Rio Grande paddle treks on weekdays summers through early September. For information, visit swexpeditions.com or call 1-877-808-6877.
Although last-Saturday-of-the-month bird walks have been sidelined due to COVID-19, park visitors this fall should be on the lookout for dozens of species, including a number of water birds attracted to the park’s riparian environment. Watch for great blue herons, belted kingfishers, mallards, green-winged teal, and spotted sandpipers along the river, as well as a variety of songbirds, such as black phoebes and cactus wrens, inhabiting the desert thornscrub.
Robert touts the state park’s easy-to-access 2.2-mile loop of interconnecting trails as “people-friendly and relatively easy to hike.” The trails connect the three campgrounds — Cholla Loop, Cactus Patch, and Greasewood campgrounds — and north and south picnic areas and beaches. The .16-mile Cactus Garden Trail loops through a garden of native plants and shrubs to familiarize visitors with native sumac, creosote (greasewood), and other Chihuahuan Desert flora. Two picturesque footbridges span the historic Leasburg Canal that funnels water from the Rio Grande to farmlands in the upper Mesilla Valley.
Leasburg Dam State Park offers 29 campsites, two of which are occupied by park hosts. The 27 sites open to the public can be reserved through the New Mexico State Parks reservation system by calling 1-877-664-7787 or by going online to NMparks.com. The fee is $5 per vehicle.
Leasburg Dam State Park, 12712 State Park Road, Radium Springs is currently open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 575-524-4068 or visit: emnrd.state.nm.us/SPD/LeasburgDamStatePark.html.
Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
Originally published in Neighbors magazine
Posted by LasCruces.com