The Southwestern states in the US are often overlooked as exciting places to go camping. This is no doubt because of people assuming that there is nothing to the area besides deserts. Granted, there are quite a lot of deserts, but that is far from the only thing these states have to offer.
New Mexico, in particular, is full of hidden gems. There are plenty of not-so-hidden gems as well that come with surprisingly accessible and welcoming campgrounds. Of course, if you happen to be the sort of camper that loves roaming deserts, canyons, and gorges, then you have more options available than you’ll even know what to do with.
Think of this as a helpful starting guide for the campers that never considered New Mexico as a candidate for their next trip. Or, if you’re already a dedicated fan of camping in the Southwest US, consider it a few recommendations for exciting places to visit. Without further delay, here are some of the best camping sites for tents New Mexico has to offer.
1. Santa Fe National Forest.
For the fold that imagined New Mexico as a mostly barren desert, a National Forest being at the beginning of this list must come as a surprise. This isn’t a small, random cropping of trees though. Coming in at over 1.5 million acres, Santa Fe National Forest puts some wetter climate forests to shame.
There are twenty-seven developed campgrounds throughout the park, each one offering a different level of comfort. Some of the more developed ones have restroom facilities complete with hot showers, fire rings, picnic tables, and a range of RV sites with full hookups. Some of the more secluded ones are strict tent sites that require you to bring water and walk a fair distance for the nearest toilet. If you feel the need to be even more off the grid than that, the park allows for primitive camping just about anywhere on grounds, as long as it’s not in an explicitly forbidden area.
Since the park area is so big, there are considerable geographical differences in the campgrounds too. There are nearly 10,000 feet of varying elevations to pick from, and quite a handful of biomes. The most challenging of these campsites is Rio Chama.
The dirt road through the forest to this site is so rough, that not even ATV’s are permitted on it during poor weather. Those that make the journey are rewarded with an isolated camping experience surrounded by beautiful multi-colored cliffs. Further up the same road is an active Christain monastery that is open to visitors.
Santa Fe National Forest is a dream destination for hiking and mountain biking, with just over 1,000 miles of hiking trails. Several people spend their trips to the park backpacking from campsite to campsite to get the most out of the trails and see as much of the park as possible, such as Jemez Falls. If that sounds like a dream trip to you, but you’re worried about being able to handle such an intense journey, check out our guide on training for backpacking.
2. Carlsbad Cavern National Park
One of, if not, the most iconic destinations in all of New Mexico, can also be a fantastic camping destination. The question of where you’ll be camping when you come to Carlsbad is dependent on the experience you are looking for or are comfortable with.
The Park itself has no developed camping area of any kind. Your only option is primitive backcountry camping, which requires a permit from the visitors center when you arrive. The immediate area surrounding the park is part of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), so camping around there will be about the same story.
This is a great option for people that like to do isolated, backcountry camping. It’s tough, but it’s also rewarding. The views are gorgeous, the spaces are quiet, and you’ve got nothing to worry about but yourself. As a bonus, the permit to stay is free, so you could theoretically stay at Carlsbad at no extra cost besides supplies and transportation.
There are some developed camping spots not far off from the park, though, if you aren’t ready to go completely off the grid. The nearest RV park is much further than the tent camping sites though.
Having said all that, the park isn’t devoid of amenities. There is a visitor’s center that can help you out with any issues. The main area also has some fountains, restrooms, and picnic tables scattered throughout.
The namesake Carlsbad Caverns are why most people go here. There are some amenities in the caverns themselves, but they expressly forbid any food or drinks besides pure water anywhere outside the underground snack bar. No picnicking in the cavern, unfortunately.
But there are plenty of other fantastic attractions. The park has several hiking trails and offers many ranger-guided programs. Some of these programs are nighttime exclusive, like stargazing. During the appropriate season, you can even watch the bats fly in and out of the caverns they call home.
3. Cibola Nationa Forest
Located just east of Albuquerque, this National Forest is also enormous and offers a huge variety of campgrounds, depending on what you like most.
Like the idea of a forested mountain setting? Hit up Bear Trap campground. Interested in volcanic rock formations? Go to Luna Park campground. Want to seclude yourself in a ponderosa pine tree glen? Find Red Cloud campground.
Almost all of the campgrounds, and the park at large, is open year-round. However, a few of the higher altitude areas are cut-off during the winter due to extreme weather.
If outdoor recreation is the name of your game, you’ll be able to find it at Cibola. There are miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers. The Sandia Mountains region of the park gives rock climbers plenty of sites to pick from. During the warmer months, go kayaking through the lakes and rivers. When it gets colder, you can take a tram up to some killer skiing spots.
If you’re thinking about backpacking around to multiple camping areas to fully soak in the whole park, you need to be careful. Weather changes drastically and quickly in general in New Mexico. In areas like Cibola with varying elevation and generally low humidity, it’s even easier to be caught off-guard. Be sure to study the weather ahead of time, pack accordingly, and consider investing in a portable air conditioner, in case of emergencies.
The extreme proximity to Albuquerque is more than just convenience too. Straight through the city from Cibola is the Petroglyph National Monument, home to one of the largest preserved petroglyph sites in the US. The Forest Service has a headquarters in the city and helps maintain many of the surrounding parks.
4. Navajo Lake State Park
About twenty miles outside of Bloomfield, this is one of the largest lakes in the New Mexico State Parks system.
Navajo Lake has nearly three-hundred camping spots spread out across five campgrounds. Most of the campgrounds are located around the main bulk of the lake. Cottonwood campground is the only exception, as it is further west along the channel portion of the lake. Almost all of them are pet friendly, and many feature hookups ranging from just electrical to a few full hookup sites. All sites have access to drinking water, and there is at least one dump station per campground.
The campgrounds are fairly quiet, as most of Navajo Lake’s recreation area is centered around its two marinas. Everything from fishing guides to a playground to restaurants can be found on the marinas. These areas are also your only chance at something close to primitive camping, with opportunities for beach and boat camping.
The Lake is, of course, the main attraction. The wide-open waters mean that you can go boating in just about any vessel of your choice, be it a kayak or a speedboat. There are opportunities to go water skiing and even scuba diving. Navajo Lake State Park itself is ripe with fishing spots, but it also leads into the San Juan River, which is a favorite among fly fishers.
5. White Sands National Park
This location is home primarily to the White Sands National Monument, a 275 square mile desert of rolling white sand dunes. The sand gets that color from its heavy gypsum composition, and White Sands is the largest gypsum dune field in the world.
The camping situation at White Sands is similar to Carlsbad. The park has no formal campsites, but you are allowed to go backcountry camping just about anywhere on the grounds with a special permit. There are some private campgrounds not too far away towards the Lincoln National Forest. There are also some state parks over the mountains to the west that have developed campgrounds, but these are a much longer drive.
There is a visitor center with some restrooms, a picnic area, and basic supplies. There is also a picnic area and restrooms further into the park, in the section called the Heart of the Sands. Beyond that, this is a fairly hardcore primitive camping sight where you’ll be left to your own devices.
Those harsh conditions come with spectacular rewards, though. Sand dunes ripple across the park just like huge waves. Not only are the sights going to be breathtaking, but they’re also going to be unique. The nature of deserts is that they are constantly shifting, so the vista will look different every time you visit the park.
The shifting sands make for some lovely trails that provide a new challenge for any hiker that has never traversed heavy sand. The desert biome is home to many exotic plant and animal species, making it a fantastic place for nature watching. The wide-open hills in the recreation area are a dream for bikers, and they offer a great place to try dune sledding. For those that like to rev their engine, the park also has a dunes track — be sure to fill up before arriving though, the nearest gas is thirteen miles away from the park.
White Sands National Monument also features a historic district that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can learn about the lifestyles of the peoples that used to call the desert home. The park also has a great deal of military history, being close to both the White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Airforce Base, and the Trinity Site.
6. Red River
Like the National Forests mentioned on this list, Red River is more of the general location with several campsites to choose from. Red River is reminiscent of a resort town, though a bit less gimmicky than those you might’ve visited before. This will be the place to look for people who are more interested in an easygoing, vacation-style camping experience.
There are three private resorts meant for RV camping — though they allow for tent camping — and four campgrounds on Forest Service land through the canyon on the way into town. Whether you’re still looking to rough it or are looking for a full resort with a dog park and tennis court, the range of options promises something for every camper.
Red River‘s location is one of the most attractive things about it. It’s about twenty miles as the crow flies from the Colorado state border. It is situated in a canyon full of popular mountain destinations. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Taos, which is home to popular tourist spots like the Taos Art Museum and Kit Carson Park. You can be at the bank of the Rio Grande River in half an hour. And you aren’t terribly far from Carson National Forest, especially if you stay at one of the Forest Service campsites.
The city of Red River itself is home to many favorite outdoor activities. In the summer, enjoy everything from rafting, to mountain biking, ATV riding, and horseback riding. The winter months open up dozens of popular skiing and snowboarding resorts. Depending on the season and your certifications, you can even get some prime hunting in.
7. Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Unlike the other National Parks on this list, Chaco Culture has a formal campground. Gallo Campground is open year-round except for some holidays in the winter. The campsite is surrounded by cliffs, petroglyphs, fallen boulders, and high desert.
There is a strict limit of six people and two vehicles at each regular site, but there are group camping spots that can accommodate between ten and thirty people. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring, but you have to bring wood or charcoal as gathering wood from the park is strictly prohibited. The park has water and restrooms, but no food or shower facilities.
This park has a few trails and plenty of space for some simple recreation. There are also some gorgeous natural landmarks, such as buttes and harsh cliffsides. The wide-open park is ideal for stargazing at night, and the unique environment makes for some excellent wildlife spotting opportunities.
The park’s primary focus is the preservation of its historical sites and the education of the people that visit them. All the buildings are the remains of Ancestral Puebloan buildings. You are available to visit them at your leisure on self-guided tours, or you can schedule a tour with one of the rangers. The sites are sometimes as scarce as lone walls, or as hauntingly empty as complete ruins.
Chaco Culture occasionally hosts educational programs as well, for both adults and children. The park also has a few archeological sites, though campers typically aren’t allowed on them. These archeological efforts have produced a sizable collection of artifacts in the park’s collection that is available for visitors to browse.
Aside from the Chacoan culture, the park is also an interesting location for ancient historical buffs. The park is a hub for geological study, given its positioning in what was once the Western Interior Seaway. A few paleontological artifacts have been found at the park, and there are many educational resources about ancient wildlife available to visitors.
In many ways, New Mexico is the hot, dry, unforgiving environment that many people expect it to be. The camping destinations are rugged, isolated, and far from the relaxing retreat that many people are looking for. But that’s just part of the charm for some people. No doubt, many campers read this list hoping for the most challenging desert trip they could get their hands on.
It doesn’t have to be that way though. New Mexico has plenty of comfortable places to relax and enjoy nature without having to pack and plan everything. You can post up on a ski resort or spend your days relaxing on the beach if you wanted to. And there are more than enough options in between those two extremes. Whatever you’re after, New Mexico has much more to offer than you might have expected.
Bonus tip: Check out this video on White Sands National Park!