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Water Canyon Campground in New Mexico’s Magdalena Mountains

The Magdalena Mountains are in west central New Mexico, between Socorro and the Very Large Array. Part of the Cibola National Forest covers this mountain range, so there are about a half dozen National Forest campgrounds sprinkled around this largely undeveloped area.

This is a small fault-block range on the west side of the Rio Grande rift valley, maybe 20 miles north south and five miles east-west, but it’s as wild as it was back in the Apache’s day, which extended past 1900 around these parts. Mountain lions, bear, elk, and Mexican spotted owls live in peace here.

Snow in May! We're going to have to eat the sled dogs - Fiona was looking nervous,
Snow in May! We’re going to have to eat the sled dogs – Fiona was looking nervous.

We saw the sign and turned in here back in May 2008 a year or so after we first got our Roadtrek, and got snowed on for our troubles, so I always wanted to come back here after retirement and spend a little more time looking around now that we aren’t dashing around trying to see big chunks of the continent on a two-week vacation schedule.

I downloaded the map from the Cibola NF website and headed up from the Chihuahuan desert, which was warming rapidly in late March.  We had been at 4400 feet altitude, and needed to go up around 7000 feet to get back to our preferred 70 daytime/40 nighttime temperature range.

The road to the campground. No Class As up here, I bet.
The road to the campground. No Class As up here, I bet.

We drove up the Rio Grande valley on I-25 and then headed west on US 60 at Socorro.  Ten miles of steady climbing, during which my fuel economy suffered and the air temperature dropped from 80 to 70, and there was the brown Forest Service sign again – Water Canyon Campground.

I remember a relatively flat campground near the picnic area, but maybe they have changed it or there are two campgrounds, because we climbed this precarious graded road for a few hundred yards past the turnoff for the picnic area, and arrived.

Site ??? at Water Canyon Campground. We're somewhere between number 8 and number 12.
Site ??? at Water Canyon Campground. We’re somewhere between number 8 and number 12.

There are about a dozen spots, each with a genuine Forest Service issue picnic table and fire ring, plus some non-flush toilets and bear-proof garbage cans.  There’s no water up here for campers, or electricity, or an RV dump, but we had filled up in town, and planned to stay only a few days.

I think they collect the $5 later in the season, but right now it’s all free. Good thing I didn’t have to register – some of the campsites, including mine, were missing their numbered signposts, so I would have had a hard time filling out the paperwork.  Normal fees are $5, half that for seniors, more of a nuisance than an actual cost.

Pinon pine, one of the larger ones in the area.
Pinon pine, one of the larger ones in the area.

We were glad to see the trees start as we crossed the last of the grassland to the foothills of the mountain – we have pinion pine and juniper, none really too tall but pretty impressive by New Mexico standards. There’s cholla and prickly pear in the undergrowth, so we’re definitely still in the desert.

I just like the smell – clean pine-scented mountain air after a couple of weeks of dusty basin down by Deming. Not many signs of spring up here yet, no wildflowers or new growth on the existing vegetation, and very few birds.

No elk, but they have definitely been here, so watch your step as you explore the area. The campground appears to be on some glacial rubble with a thin red soil and grass in addition to the trees, with many large and small water-rounded rocks strewn around.

The view up Water Canyon from the campground.
The view up Water Canyon from the campground.

If you look further up Water Canyon the remaining snow at 9,000 plus feet on North Baldy is still easily visible, and the cool temperatures serve as a reminder that it’s still very early in the season.

That’s the nice part, though, there are only one or two other campers up here, so everyone can spread out without crowding each other, and listen to the wind in the trees, enjoy the warm sun, and just get away from it all for a few days.

National Forest campgrounds are primitive in amenities, but as far as ambiance they’re very advanced.


2 Responses to “Water Canyon Campground in New Mexico’s Magdalena Mountains”

April 06, 2015at7:50 pm, exbioman said:

Thanks for this article. The end of the month I’ll be heading for SW New Mexico.Hearing that there are stars in the night sky is great! And thanks for the lowdown on the annual pass cost. Az is the same after a search.

April 06, 2015at3:47 pm, gd540 said:

We’re planning to head to the VLA in the next few weeks and this could make our itinerary. Do I understand you to say it’s only a couple hundred yards off US60? Decent surface on the non-paved portion?

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