Set in the lower Rio Grande Valley of south central New Mexico, Elephant Butte Lake State Park is the largest and most popular state park. Affectionately known as "The Butte", this 40 mile-long reservoir serves as the state's main water sports destination, offering opportunities for just about every form of water based recreation, including boating, water-skiing, fishing, scuba diving, and canoeing. It has sandy beaches, quiet little coves, full-service marinas, and enough open water for cabin cruisers and houseboats.
Elephant Butte Lake State Park first opened in 1965. Warm waters, abundant camping, picnicking, boating facilities and easy access off I-25 at Truth or Consequences, attract visitors from all over.
Mild Climates create a haven for campers from cooler northern climates during the winter months. Traditionally, Memorial Day Weekend kicks off the high season at the Butte for many visitors coming from Albuquerque and El Paso. Visitation approaches 100,000 during the holiday, which if the park was a city, would be New Mexico's second largest.
The park has numerous camping and picnicking areas, with more than 200 developed campsites and 100 electrical hook-ups for RVs and trailers. Many campsites have shelters and grills. When lake water levels are low, large beach areas attract lake-side campers. Comfort stations with showers, nature trails, dump stations, playgrounds, boat ramps, and concession-run marinas provide comfort, convenience, and a wide array of recreation activities for park visitors. The visitor center contains interpretive exhibits of the geology, history, and ecology of the area.
Efforts to dam the Rio Grande to provide a reliable source of water for area farms began in the 1890s. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began construction of Elephant Butte Dam in 1911. When it was completed in 1916, it was the largest structure built in the United States to impound water, creating the world's largest man made reservoir at the time. The dam is 306 feet high and 1.674 feet long, and retains a reservoir that covers approximately 36,000 acres.
More than 100 million years ago, the area was part of a vast shallow ocean. Ancient ammonites, extinct relatives of today's nautilus, have been found. After oceans covering much of New Mexico receded, the area became the warm, humid hunting ground of the tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur. This fierce creature roamed the area more than 60 million years ago. It was the largest land dwelling predator of all time, weighing more than 7 tons and reaching a length of 40 feet. Fossils of this formidable reptile, along with those of an ankylosaur, or armored dinosaur, and a ceratopsian, or horned dinosaur, have been discovered in area rock formations.
The lake is named for a rock formation that resembles an elephant, at least to some observers who see the left side of it's head, with a prominent ear, and it's trunk curled by a foot. The formation, which is actually the eroded core of an ancient volcano, is an island in the lake, just northeast of the dam. Although not known when the rock formation and lake were named, this area once was home to real elephants. Fossils of a primitive ancestor of today's elephants, the stegomastadon, have been found just west of the lake. The animal was about 7 feet tall and stocky, with a short skull and long upper tusks.
The region has been an important center of settlement for thousands of years. Until 1000 A.D., the area was occupied by indian groups, who appear to have lived primarily by hunting and gathering the abundant native wildlife and plants of the surrounding valleys and mountains. Over time, different groups lived and then faded from the area.
During the massive migration of European settlers into the West in the early 19th century, the threat of Indian attacks along the Rio Grande Valley made European settlers reluctant to put down roots in the area. The U.S. Military established Fort Conrad, Fort Craig, and Fort McRae in the mid-1800s to protect settlers. Numerous Hispanic agricultural villages sprang up during this time. The construction of Elephant Butte Dam led to condemnation of many of these settlements, which now lay beneth the waters of the reservoir. A few adobe ruins of old Fort McRae remain on the east side of the reservoir.
Courtesy of New Mexico State Parks Division
Elephant Butte Lake State Park
P.O. Box 13 Elephant Butte, NM 87935
Office: 505 744-5421
Fax: 505 744-9144
Also available at Elephant Butte State Park are camping facilities for the self-contained camper, and the camper needing electricity. There are picnic spots with grills and water located in several areas overlooking the lake. Four-wheel drives have access to the sandy beaches lining the shore. You will also find small portable restrooms in the beach areas. Drinking fountains, modern restrooms and showers are strategically placed throughout the main camping areas. Several parking loops for trailers and campers are located in the park with electricity available. A concrete boat launching ramp is located at the Elephant Butte Resort Marina, a short distance from the State Park office.
Other launching areas are located at Hot Springs Landing, Rock canyon and at the Dam site Recreation Area, located three miles east of the State Park office. Boats, fishing gear and skiing equipment are available for rent and sale at the marinas. Camping fees are charged within the State Park, and New Mexico fishing licenses are required.
The Paseo Del Rio State Park is located in the former national fish hatchery below Elephant Butte Dam and has been converted into a picnic area on the banks of the Rio Grande under willow and cottonwood trees. Sheltered picnic tables with grills are placed throughout the park. Trout fishing in season, and catfish year around is enjoyed. Recreational supplies, fishing supplies and groceries may be found in area businesses located in the Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte area.
For more information, see http://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/prd/elephant.htm