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Tucked away in the Jemez Mountains of Northwest New Mexico, little Fenton Lake carries a large part of the recreational opportunities in the area. Less than 40 acres in size, Fenton Lake is known by lucky New Mexico campers and anglers who come here to camp, fish, mountain bike, hike and enjoy the wildlife. Located only 70 miles northwest of Albuquerque, Fenton Lake is a haven for kayakers and birdwatchers within a couple of hours of home. As with many outdoor destinations, getting there is at least half the fun; it's a great excuse to take the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway!
For a small man-made lake, Fenton Lake has a lot of desirable activity surrounding it. The lake is stocked regularly with rainbow trout, while catchable-size native brown trout also end up in the lake from Rio Cebolla. The nearby Seven Springs Fish Hatchery also stocks the lake with Rio Grande cutthroat trout on occasion. Bank fishing is easy, and handicap-accessible fishing piers also enhance the angling opportunities. A small boat launch ramp is provided, but only electric trolling motors are allowed on the lake. Most fishermen find it just as easy to fish from canoe or kayak, or even float-tube. The official State Park website states that ice fishing is prohibited.
Shaded by Ponderosa pine, the campground at Fenton Lake State Park is rustic, spacious and serene. Containing 28 campsites, only five have electricity. Drinking water can be hand-pumped near the lakeshore, and several vault toilets are located around the campground. Picnic tables, campfire rings, grills and a playground round out the amenities. Several times a year, scheduled public activities bring extra visitors to the state park for adventure races, summer camps and National Hunting and Fishing Day. The rest of the year, the campground is refuge to nature lovers who enjoy the interpretive trails, hiking trails and wildlife in the park.
When snow covers the ground, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing take place on the trails. Starting near the campground, the Hall Baxter Trail travels west of the lake and intersects a camp road for the return trip, a distance of nearly two-and-a-half miles. Other trails in the area travel toward nearby peaks and offer exciting glimpses of wildlife such as elk, deer, turkey, muskrat and waterfowl. The entire park showcases a large population of songbirds, waterfowl and birds of prey. The campground's gravel roads encourage slow traffic and are ideal for mountain biking. Campground stays of several days often require a reservation as the few campsites fill up quickly.
Fenton Lake is strategically located on the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway. Well-known for its great scenery, particularly in autumn when the aspens turn to hues of gold, the Byway touches many of the most spectacular and unusual geologic features of this ancient post-volcanic area. The Byway passes several natural hot springs, the Gilman tunnels, bored to facilitate logging many years ago; Soda Dam, not an actual dam but a formation of minerals resulting from hot springs deposits that block the Jemez River; the Seven Springs Fish Hatchery where even the kids can catch a trout; and Battleship Rock, a sheer cliff that looks like the prow of a ship. The byway passes Jemez Pueblo and Red Rocks with the tiny settlement of Walatowa where the 3400+ inhabitants of this small indigenous nation sell fry bread, Indian tacos and native handicrafts. Other points of interest include Jemez Springs and Bath House, Tent Rocks National Monument, Bandelier National Monument and Valles Caldera National Preserve. All along the byway, lovely scenery displays the Jemez Mountains and its geological formations in stunning color.
It is unclear when Fenton Lake was created. Named for a former rancher-owner of the property, a dam on the Rio Cebolla created the lake. First purchased by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish as a nesting and resting area for migratory birds, the entire area falls within the boundaries of the 1.6 million-acre Santa Fe National Forest. Over 700 acres of the area surrounding the lake were later assigned to become the Fenton Lake State Park,. Now Fenton Lake is owned by the US Forest Service and Department of Game and Fish but managed by the New Mexico State Parks Division. In recent years, it was discovered that sediments were slowly filling in the lake and decreasing the water volume. A 1989 legislative action allowed for dredging of the little lake, but studies showed that the dredging itself would be harmful to the lake's health. Instead, the dam was raised two feet to replace the lost depth. A 2014 forest fire in the area surrounding the lake resulted in increasing siltation once again. It isn't yet clear how this problem will be solved, but there is every intention of working to save the lake once again.
There are no lodgings on the lake or in the surrounding park other than the campground. Other campgrounds are available in the area, both public and commercial. Backpack camping is also available within many areas of the Santa Fe National Forest. Several commercial lodges and guest cabin resorts exist on the main roads surrounding Fenton Lake, and a few of the private homes in the area rent their properties by the week. Real estate is available on the privately-held lands between public holdings. Bigger cities such as San Ysidro, Bernalillo, White Rock, Los Alamos and Jemez Springs have hotels, motels and bed & breakfasts, along with a variety of restaurants and specialty shops. Some of the commercial hot springs function as spas, offering a variety of services. So whether you take up residence in town and visit Fenton Lake for the day or vice-versa, you can take advantage of all Fenton Lake and the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway have to offer. Meanwhile, there are trout awaiting your cast.
*The several sources of statistics vary in their figures. We have used the most official from the EMNRD Lake Surveys.
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