Abiquiú's Glassy Lake in the Desert
Abiquiú Lake: New Mexico's Seventh Largest Lake
We credit Abiquiú Lake with our move to Abiquiú – once we saw the still and calm lake, reflecting the red cliffs and Cerro Pedernal, we knew this was a very special place. It was the beauty, the glassy water, the absence of people and traffic, and the history and culture of the area…and also the energy. While many people flock to Abiquiú to visit O'Keeffe's home and studio and/or Ghostranch, they inadvertantly pass by the lake. It is not to be missed!
Swim, float or fish – Abiquiú Lake must be experienced when you visit the area.
From River to Lake…or Reservoir
Abiquiú Lake is actually a reservoir managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nationally, the Corps manages nearly 600 dams and lakes in the United States. Abiquiú Lake was not always a lake…or a reservoir. Before the earthen dam was built, the Chama River flowed through the beautiful canyon, lined with colorful rocks and cottonwood trees. This all changed with the approval to construct a dam at the far south end of the canyon in order to create a reservoir.
In 1956, construction of the dam began, turning the Chama River into a 5,200-surface-acre made-made reservoir. The dam - 1,800 feet high and 340 feet long - was completed in 1963 at a cost of $21.2 million.
Not everyone was happy about the creation of the lake where the Chama River once ran. To create the lake, the US Army Corps of Engineers, with approval from Congress, needed more land to create the lake. Thousands of acres of privately held land around the lake, including land once held by Ghost Ranch, were usurped or forcibly purchased. The water pool covered what was once a cottonwood bosque, it destroyed animal habitations (including the winter habitats for the bald eagle), and flooded and covered the ancient sites of the indigenous peoples who had lived in the area for centuries. Under the lake are over 340 stone-walled structures, dating from 1640-1710, that were once the homes to the Tewa, Navajo and Spanish. Progress can be difficult.
About Abiquiú Lake
Abiquiú Lake is the seventh largest lake in New Mexico at 5,200 acres. The lake is over 12 miles long and lies at an elevation of 6,200 feet. The water is deepest in the original river channel, which runs close to the middle of the lake, and is about 20 feet deep on the north end and over 100 feet deep in front of the dam.
The Army Corp of Engineers manage the water releases from the reservoir, focusing on flood control and water right obligations. Changing lake levels are to be expected, and is a sign of the lake doing its job. The amount of water released is based on conditions throughout the region and the purpose of the lake. As water is released, the lake level may drop. As water flows into the lake, the water is replaced and the lake level rises.
Water is released from the lake through the dam on a daily basis and releases range from 50 cfs (cubic feet per second) when water needs below the dam are minimal, all the way up to spring releases which can be 1500 cfs. Water flows are heaviest in the spring months, especially on weekends to promote recreational use (ie: rafting.)
You may notice there is an absence of businesses, docks, marinas and other enterprise on Abiquiú Lake. There is a stark difference, as an example, between Navajo Lake, which is managed by the Bureau of Reclamation and bustles with activity, marinas, restaurants and more, and quiet Abiquiú Lake. This is because Corps land use policies limit public development and private ownership use along the shoreline.
Abiquiú Lake is surrounded by national forests, colorful rock formations, red cliffs, and Cerro Pedernal. The red and yellow rocks are sedimentary rocks of the Permian Cutler Group and the Triassic Chinle Group, both which were formed by flowing water and rivers about 250 million years ago.
The rocks on the canyon walls are home to hoodoos…tall, thin rock spires with heavy rock caps. They are formed over centuries by weathering forces where the soft rock beneath the cap is eroded by rain or wind.
Dinosaur, wooly mammoth and other reptile fossils that are over 200 million years old have been discovered in the land around the lake.
Standing guard over Abiquiú Lake is Cerro Pedernal, a popular local mountain which rises up 9,862 feet. Pedernal is a Spanish name meaning “flint hill” because it is the source of chert. Chert is a hard rock, often called flint, that is located around the base of Pedernal. Indigenous peoples used chert to make arrowheads, spear points, and scrapers. Georgia O’Keeffe painted this mountain many times and gave it its nickname, “Old Flat Top”. The distinctive flat top is capped with materials from the Jemez Mountain volcanic field about 8 million years ago. People love to hike to the top of Pedernal – once there look for a book you can sign to prove you were there!
Lake with a Purpose
Army Corps managed lakes have specific, designated purposes. Abiquiú Lake is the storage location for the city of Albuquerque’s drinking water. The water is also used by Santa Fe, downstream acequias, and to feed the Rio Grande. Another important function is flood control for villages and farmland downstream. The lake serves as a critical storage reservoir while the Southwest manages a decades-long, severe drought. With that being said, Abiquiú Lake is one of the fullest reservoirs in the state.
The Corps also focus on maintaining a natural environment for fish and wildlife. To this end, they coordinate with federal fish and wildlife agencies.
The Abiquiú dam is home to the Abiquiú hydroelectric facility which generates efficient, renewable energy. Hydropower plants contribute to cleaner air because they do not burn fossil fuels like coal and oil, but rather use the force of the water to generate electricity. The facility is operated by Los Alamos County and is a publically owned utility. Water released from the dam is channeled into the Abiquiú hydroelectric facility, and as the water turns the blades of the turbines, it spins a shaft connected to a generator – and electricity is produced. The average annual net hydropower generation is 32,087.2 mWH. After water flows through the hydroelectric facility, it continues down the Rio Chama with no water loss.
Recreational Activities One of the purposes of Abiquiú Lake is recreation, and the lake serves as an important source of recreational activities in the area. Stop by the Visitor’s Center at the dam to learn more about the lake and the area. There are hiking and closed-loop biking trails that start behind the Visitor’s Center. There is a public boat launch, a beach area and camping facilities nearby, and a recreation area on the back side of the dam.
Abiquiú Lake and Rio Chama below the dam offer some of the best fishing in northern New Mexico. In fact, the state record for the largest brown trout catch was from the Chama River below Abiquiú Lake in 1946 – the trout weighed 20 lbs 4 oz and was 34.5” long!
Birds and animals are also drawn to the water, making the lake a prime spot for birding and wildlife watching.
On the backside of the dam in the recreation area, the Army Corps of Engineers created a Class II surf wave while completing a restoration project. The wave is surfable when water is released above 500cfs. Bring your boogie boards, short and medium surf boards and play-boats! Because the water comes from the bottom of the lake, under the dam, it is cold year-round…wet suits, personal flotation devices and helmets recommended.
For those of you looking to get out on the lake, you can launch your own watercraft at the public launch near the dam. If you don’t have a boat, SUP or kayaks, reach out to Ghostranch (www.ghostranch.org) to inquire about guided kayak and canoe tours. Sorry, there are no boat or kayak rentals on the lake.
If you want to stay in luxury on a mesa top overlooking the lake, check out The Grand Hacienda Inn…a wonderful experience overlooking the lake and Ghostranch.
For campers, Riana Campground on Abiquiú Lake provides 54 tent and RV sites. The sites are beautiful – located about 150 ft up from the water on a bluff. The campground has electric and water hook-ups, toilets and showers, picnic shelters, grills, a playground and a dump station.
Land for Sale If you are interested in purchasing a beautiful lot on the lake - check out this lot for sale!
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