Swimming in Five New Mexico Lakes by Terry Wilson



After our beautiful cat Sylvester’s recent death, I needed something to make me happy again. It seemed like nature was the only thing that could comfort me and being a Scorpio, that meant being in the water. Swimming reminds me of the best parts of my childhood—walking into Lake Erie on that soft sand and feeling those tiny crests in it, just like the auburn waves in my father’s hair. I stayed in the water longer than everyone else till I got yelled at to come out–I could never get enough of being held up by water.

I traveled to Abiquiu Lake in early June and as soon as I saw the shining jewel of water after the sign for the Piedre Lumbre Land Grant, I could take a deep breath again. I drove to the turnoff to the lake and then walked over the boulders to get to my favorite spot where the biggest and most flat rocks are. It was a blustery day so there were whitecaps but I didn’t care. Somehow being in that lake harmonizes my spirit and smooths out the bumpy parts. There’s no room to be depressed when I’m swimming. Though getting in that day was a challenge since I was cold. There were not many people, and I knew the water temperature was about 60 degrees, but then I saw a guy over on the next ridge diving in and he was naked. I knew I had no excuse then! Plus, I was wearing a shortie wetsuit, so I made my way across the slippery rocks and slid down into the deep. Damn, it was icy! And each time I turned my head to grab some air as I swam, I got a mouthful of water. When I emerged dripping a little while later, I was shivering and the wind made my hair stand on end, but I was no longer sad.


There is no way to get more “into nature” than having your whole body immersed in water: water in your ears, in your mouth, up your nose. You just can’t beat getting wet on a hot day!

I’ve lived here for 22 years, and if a body of water is within two hours of Santa Fe, I’ve taken a dip in it. If you don’t mind cold water, here is a guide for you, starting from my most favorite to my least.

1. Abiquiu Lake—As I mentioned above, this has become the place I’d most like to be on a sweltering June, July, or August day. Not only is the drive from Santa Fe spectacular in terms of scenery, but after you swim, you can stop first at Bode’s, a very eclectic neighborhood store that sells worms for fishing, cast iron frying pans and refrigerator magnets in the shape of farm animals’ butts. After Bode’s, the Abiquiu Inn is on the way home, so why not visit and get a lamb burger and salad or try on some jewelry in the gift shop if you’re feeling flush?

Back to swimming though—Abiquiu Lake is generally more full of water than, say, Heron Lake. Even in this multi-year drought, Abiquiu Lake has not receded much though many gallons of water were used from the reservoir to douse a fire in early July. Pulling off Hwy. 84 into the turnoff, I take the road away from the boat dock, though most of the shore is rough. The boulders are my diving boards. Swimming in June is a bit of a trial since the water can make your teeth chatter, so at least try to go on a calm day when the water is still and shining like a mirror. Though if that older guy is there in his birthday suit, he will inspire you to go in, no matter what the temperature!

In general, and especially during July and August, you will not be able to resist that bright turquoise lake, white puffy clouds and flat, toasty rocks to lie on after getting out.

2. Heron Lake–this used to be my top spot for arid summer days because of its cleanliness, azure beauty, and (unlike Abiquiu Lake), no speed boats. But three years ago, while swimming to the middle of the lake, the Los Conchas fire had just begun and when I looked up, there was a gigantic , smoky, mushroom cloud in the air. Sobering, but that wasn’t Heron Lake’s fault. (There was also that small, drug running plane that crashed into Heron Lake a few years ago, leaving its store of cocaine in the middle of the lake. After that, Heron Lake became a lot more populated, and not just by the osprey.) Last year, though, was the clincher because when I went to take my plunge there, because of the drought, the lake had withdrawn (and this was early August) by 85 feet! So getting in there can be tricky unless you appreciate foot sucking mud up to your knees for several minutes before you actually reach water. Once swimming though, the lake is gorgeous. Again, cold, but August into September is perfect. By then the water temperature is close to 70 degrees, and the no-see-ums are gone by July 4th. After you swim, you can either have dinner in Chama (just about 10 miles away) or, if it’s getting close to twilight, you may see a mule deer or two in the woods around the lake. Your other choice for seeing mule deer that you can actually feed is to drive back toward Santa Fe on Hwy. 84 about 10 miles to Los Brazos, a mountainous area that has been privately developed (though there is an excellent restaurant there). On the way up the forested road at dusk, mule deer come out from behind the trees for food! Drive slowly! And bring oats for them to eat if you can, but they have been known to eat graham crackers and small pieces of fruit out of your hands. Sometimes they even pose for photos!


3. Cochiti Lake–I don’t know if this is really my third favorite, but lakes to swim in around Santa Fe are few and far between, and Cochiti is the closest, only about 45 minutes of driving from Eldorado, where I live. Abiquiu Lake takes 90 minutes, and Heron Lake about two hours and 15 minutes, though driving past Ghost Ranch and Cathedral Rock is not exactly punishment. Still, Cochiti has gotten some bad press in the past 10 years. Apparently dead bodies have been found in the water there. I also saw a young man drown in Cochiti one sunny day while his wife and children were on shore. I helped dive for him along with several other people and he soon was found, but it was too late. Those were the days when the swim area was near the boat dock and there was a 20 foot drop off. There is a ranger but no life guard which is true of all the NM lakes I have gone swimming in: it’s the Wild West. I received my pollywog badge when I was 5 or 6, but since NM is mostly desert, many residents never learned to swim. Sometimes young people used to party during the night at Cochiti and then after drinking several beers, decided to jump in the water. In past years, there was a steel flip chart on the road into the lake which showed how many people had drowned there since 1974 when Cochiti Dam was built, but that seems to be gone now. And the beach is better; it started with no sand, just sizeable boulders, but now it’s sandy and bigger and has been moved down to an area away from that 20 foot drop off, so many children play on the shore and in the water and it’s safe. There is an actual area roped off for children. It’s a friendly neighborhood beach now and even though I hadn’t gone there since the fires and floods of a few years ago because I heard there was a lot of the ashy runoff in the lake, now it’s cleaned up. In late June, I had a refreshing swim there; the water was already about 69 degrees. It’s not crystal clean but it’s no more dirty than the Rio Grande. It was calm and I swam out almost to the breakwall and got nearly run over by only one boat. Cochiti, like Heron Lake, is a no-wake lake which means boats have to travel very slowly and they don’t really bother swimmers. I ended up having conversations with several New Mexicans that afternoon, one a Native American man who worked for the state and promised to come back that Friday to show me some of his jewelry.

4. Santa Cruz Lake–this lake is near Chimayo and like many others (except Cochiti) is in a wooded area. I used to swim there quite regularly, but then a new sign showed up which said, “No Swimming, only Wading.”

“That’s no good,” I thought, and proceeded to swim across the lake which barely tired me out. I’m not a fast swimmer, but I’m dogged. Anyway, I was so proud of myself for going all that way and decided to rest on shore for 10 minutes before I started back. But no sooner had I gone about 1/8 of the way back when the ranger showed up in his little boat and told me I had to get in or he would fine me $200. I was not happy about it, but I did as told. He admonished me for swimming (instead of wading) and then motored us back to a dock near the shore where I’d gone in. Except someone had broken a coke bottle on the ramp to the dock, so when I got out of the boat, I cut my foot pretty badly. I would have done much better just swimming back on my own! I have not gone back since because wading is frustrating (plus the shore there can get very muddy and attract mosquitos). I decided that if I did go back to Santa Cruz Lake, I would go in disguise and then make my way across the lake again. I do have an old nun outfit I have not used in awhile, and no one in New Mexico is going to yell at a nun, even if she hates wading.

5. Storey Lake–I’ve only been swimming here once and I don’t recommend it. It’s near Las Vegas, NM which is a long drive. And not only is it very muddy, but it’s super shallow! I trudged through the muck to the middle of the lake, hoping for more depth, but it wasn’t even up to my waist! It was also quite windy, so much so that people were wind surfing. But I’ve heard that some valiant souls do the Polar Bear Swim here on New Year’s Day, so it’s possible the lack of deep water makes the surface a bit warmer than other lakes would be. At least that’s what I will tell myself if I show up on January 1st, 2015!


Even though I swam in the neighborhood pool every summer day in Buffalo when I was a kid, I don’t like pools so much now because I have that thin Irish skin that chlorine dries out, especially now that my 50’s are only a memory! Plus, if I ruin my hair color, Hector, the high priest of hair, will never forgive me. But there are still warm days left to dive into a lake, and I’m going again today to Abiquiu. If the weather holds, I figure I can swim outdoors till early October!

9 thoughts on “Swimming in Five New Mexico Lakes by Terry Wilson

  1. Wonderful piece, Terry! I could just see and feel those marvelous lakes! I love the way you take readers right into the experience with you. I hope to be able to read another book by Terry Wilson very soon!

  2. Thanks so much, you all! Susan, I wish you were here to go swimming with me! (I am also working on another book–I will keep you posted!) Penelope, we have to meet at Heron Lake or in Abiquiu soon! And Mark, thank you. I also have been a fan of yours for 15 years! 😉

  3. It’s been a long time since I have done any lake swimming.
    I lived on a Putnam Lake in New York for years and I miss it very much.
    From reading your story I got to live vicariously through you. The wading through mud sounds yuck, but the rewards seem worth it. I would love for you to wear your nun costume swimming at Cochiti Lake and report back to us. Thanks for a visual and funny read. I wish I was brave enough to take on a lake or two here in New Mexico.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story, Terry! You are a daring lady who never fails to amaze me! Congratulations on this wonderful piece on swimming in lakes — makes one want to cool off in summer for sure.

  5. Thanks so much for your comments, Lori and Bonnie! I will let you know if I wear my nun outfit at Cochiti or Santa Cruz Lake–I can take a selfie! 😉 Wish I could swim with all of you! Every time I take a brisk swim, that memory cools me off on the next hot day!

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