The Pecos River

May 5-11, 2023

In 2017 on a camping trip in southeastern New Mexico, I fell off the camper steps and broke my hip. While recovering from surgery at a hospital in Carlsbad, I became aware of the Pecos River, a shocking clear green ribbon that winds through the featureless desert near Carlsbad. Though it gets far less press than the Gila, the Rio Grande or the San Juan, the Pecos is nevertheless one of New Mexico's most important rivers, flowing 926 miles from north central New Mexico to the Rio Grande near Del Rio, Texas. The purpose of this trip was to follow the Pecos north from Bottomless Lakes to Villanueva, enjoying our New Mexico State Parks pass along the way.

photo of us against the setting sun

Quite by accident, we discovered that the day we left Silver City was one of the very few per year when visitors are free to wander among the dunes at White Sands National Monument under a full moon until 11 pm. Lovely photo taken by Rosalinda Arzola, whom we met on the trail.

sand dunes at sunset

We started with a large group, but quickly peeled off for some sunset and moon rise photography.

Dennis setting up his camera

Dennis setting up for the moon rise.

me walking toward the setting sun

It was hallucinatory, relying mostly on our feet to gauge angles and surface depths as we made our way along the tops of the dunes, avoiding the edges where the winds had whipped the gypsum into knife-edge peaks.

sunset at the dunes a sliver of orange moon behind the mountains

Here it comes!

me taking photos with the setting sun behind me

We camped that night at Oliver Lee State Park, then wandered over the mountains through Cloudcroft and then down through the rolling hills along the Rio Peñasco, which was tumbling exuberantly downstream with meltwater from this winter's record snowfall.

the Llano Estacado

We left the river valley behind and rolled onto the entirely features Llano Estacado, which covers about 30,000 square miles in eastern New Mexico and northwestern Texas. Francisco Coronado described it as follows:

"I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues ... with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea ... there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by."

sign at coffee shop in Roswell

Something very strange happens near Roswell, New Mexico — something far stranger than an alien landing.

Bottomless Lakes State Park

Water flowing from the Sacramento Mountains to the west slowly dissolves gypsum, halite, and limestone, forming underground caves and caverns. The saturated rocks eventually collapse from their own weight, creating sinkholes or "cenotes".

Inkwell Lake

The lakes are actually topless, not bottomless, but I guess naming New Mexico's first state park "Topless Lakes" might give the wrong impression.

Mirror Lake

Mirror Lake, comprised of three sinkholes, 33-40 feet deep. The water is warm and very salty!

Lazy Lagoon

Lazy Lagoon, composed of three distinct sinkholes. Maximum depth: 90 feet!


Killdeer seen on a walk through a wetlands that we later learned is a cenote that is expected to collapse. Cool!!

stone tower at Bottomless Lakes

The water tower at Bottomless Lakes was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Lavenderleaf Sundrops

Lavenderleaf Sundrops and Friend. We traveled all day on a narrow, crowned road, with weeds poking through the pavement, harried by too many careless drivers with Texas plates. The Pecos here is a muddy trickle, outlined by brilliant green cottonwoods. Now I know why some people call this part of New Mexico "West West Texas".

Santa Rosa Lake

We camped that night Santa Rosa Lake — one of a chain of reservoirs that siphon off water from the Pecos for large-scale desert farms and ranches. It's is a sizable reservoir with three modern campgrounds, but felt oddly deserted. There wasn't a single boat on the lake.


Pronghorn near Santa Rosa Lake.

The Blue Hole

The Blue Hole has been on my bucket list for more than 20 years. It is extremely odd, even by New Mexican standards. Similar to Bottomless Lakes, it's a collapsed cave with a depth of more than 80 feet and a constant inflow of 3,000 US gallons per minute. While the surface is only 80 feet in diameter, it expands to a diameter of 130 feet at the bottom. At the bottom are large boulders, rubble, bones, masks, a crucifix, and other objects, and the entrance to a labyrinth of cave passages and rooms. The caves extend down to 194 feet, where they end in a cavern with a rubble-choked floor. Since 1976, the cave passages have been sealed off to the public by a metal grate installed by the city to prevent access by inexperienced divers. (From Wikipedia)

Puerto de Luna

We took a short side trip to Puerto de Luna, a very scenic village along the Pecos south of Santa Rosa that may have inspired Rudolfo Anaya's "Bless Me Ultima".

Pecos River near Puerto de Luna

A cluster of cenotes near Santa Rosa including the famous Blue Hole, pump fresh life into the Pecos, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the river's natural state.

Church of Nuestra Senora del Refugio

Church of Nuestra Senora del Refugio, in Puerto de Luna.

our friends' garden

By the time we reached lovely Villanueva State Park, I was suffering from an ear infection. Instead of camping, we made a mad dash to urgent care on the east end of Albuquerque, and then took refuge at friends' home near Edgewood. Antibiotics took the edge off the pain, and there were good times relaxing on the porch with our friends and enjoying their lovely garden.


We took two days to return home to Silver City, unfortunately including a full day of driving all day in extremely high wind, with gusts over 50 mph. We tucked in for the night at a rough camping spot east of the VLA. The air was white with dust, and we bobbed like a skiff on the open ocean, while overnight temperatures dropped to the upper 30s. Maybe May is not the best month to take a road trip in New Mexico!