New Mexico is a colorful and dramatic state of deserts and mountains. Water is a precious commodity. Which lead to the authorization of the Rio Grande Project back in 1905. This program to provide power and irrigation to New Mexico and Texas led to the erection of several dams along the Rio Grande, including the Elephant Butte Dam just north of Truth or Consequences. The resulting Elephant Butte Reservoir, however, is more than just a holding tank for farmer’s fields. It has become a recreation hotspot as Elephant Butte Lake State Park.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park
Elephant Butte is New Mexico’s largest state park. It is home to extensive camping options around the Elephant Butte Reservoir from established campgrounds with electrical and water hookups to dispersed beach camping. Being a lake, it is also an opportunity for a wide range of water sports from boating to fishing. And of course, the park includes a network of hiking trails and roads where we can bike.
Elephant Butte Reservior & Dam
Elephant Butte Lake, as noted earlier, is not a natural lake. Instead, the Elephant Butte Dam was constructed between 1911 and 1916, spanning 1,674 feet long and reaching 301 feet tall. The resulting Elephant Butte Reservoir is the largest reservoir of the Rio Grande Project, with a 2,109,423 acre-feet holding capacity.
Of course, just because Elephant Butte Reservoir can hold that much water, that doesn’t mean it does. Recent years of drought have the Reservior at record lows. When we visit the park, we see evidence of the much higher historic waterlines high above our heads as we explore a small fraction of the reservoirs over 200-miles of shoreline.
Campgrounds, Boondocking, & Beach Camping
Elephant Butte State Park hosts several developed campgrounds along with dispersed camping throughout the park. The developed campground sites are reserved online but a dispersed camping pass can be bought at the entry kiosk. Though there are spaces at the developed campground when we first arrived, we came for the boondocking.
Dispersed camping in the park isn’t free but it is cheap at only $8 at the entry kiosk. The park’s terrain is riddled with dirt and sand trails to cleared dispersed camping sites with fire rings. We see evidence of the extreme capacity of the park during the high season. And that doesn’t count the beach camping where the constantly shifting sand obscures past campsites.
While historic droughts have left the reservoir extremely low, it means that there is an extensive beach for camping, providing that you can access it. The loose sand is easy to get stuck in, but there are many well-packed areas that make for relatively easy access. Be sure to have 4-wheel drive, air down your tires, and scout ahead for driveable routes. For more beach driving tips, check out my article How To Drive on Sand.
The southerly beach of Elephant Butte is relatively well packed. The further north one travels in the park, the looser the sand gets. Past Ridge Road, we wouldn’t advise unseasoned beach campers to risk. It’s easy to get stuck and tow trucks are extremely pricey when on the beach.
We have camped on our share of beaches, including Lone Rock Beach and South Padre Island. But we opt for the elevated views by camping on the hillside south of Marina del Sur. The views are phenomenal and we don’t have to worry about getting stuck. Though it does take some extra effort to level the truck camper.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park also offers a wide range of developed campgrounds. There are three campgrounds in the main hub of the park just outside Truth or Consequences, with easy access to the boat launch, marina, and visitors center. Lions Beach, Quails Run, and Desert Cove all have large flat campsites for RVs with hookups. Lions Beach has the best views but only 30 amp connections. RVs that need larger spots and high amp connections should fall back on Quails Run and Desert Cove further inland.
South Monticello Campground is an outlier on the northern end of Elephant Butte Lake State Park. This campground also has 50 amp hookups but it is located an additional 10-mile drive north on Rock Canyon Road. At this point, the campground is not technically on Elephant Butte Lake. It is in the park but along the Rio Grande just before it feeds into the reservoir.
We came to the park for the boondocking but stick around for the cheap hookups when the weather turns and the clouds severely limit our solar power generation. Fortunately, many excellent sites are available at the campground for a Sunday night in winter. Granted, the raised rows of Lion’s Beach campground mean that most sites have a view of the reservoir. All include 30amp and water hookups along with a covered table, fire ring, and a flat pull-in site. The grounds also host two locations for vaulted toilets. Better yet, the access road to the campground continues down to the beach, making for a short walk for beach access.
Day Use Areas
While we were focused on campgrounds, we couldn’t help but notice the enticing day-use areas along Ridge Road. These sites are perched on the edge of the ridge, with unobstructed views of the lake, but are also immediately off ridge Road, the main artery through the park. While traffic is relatively constant through the day, the road does quiet down in the evening. And these sites, while they do not include hookups, do boast impressive covered shelters for relaxing and enjoying the park. There are only a few of these sites, however, and they are some of the first to go, even in the winter off-season.