Answers to Go with Susan Smith
Q. We visit family in New Mexico often. We used to drive on Interstate Highway 10 and stop at Balmorhea State Park for a walk or a swim. Lately we’ve taken a more northern route through San Angelo, Big Spring and Roswell. In that area, is there any good place to take a break and hike in the fall or swim in the summer?
A. Bottomless Lakes State Park in eastern New Mexico should offer this family year-round options. They’ll see the state park sign 10 miles east of Roswell where they will turn from US 380 on to NM 409 South. The park entrance is only 3 or 4 miles down that road. The map on the park website shows trails for both hikers and mountain bike riders near this entrance.
During swimming season, they can drive another 3 miles to park headquarters at Lea Lake. There are seven "lakes" in the park, but you can only swim in Lea Lake.
We found more detailed park information in “Arizona, Utah and New Mexico Parks Guide” by Barbara Sinotte. She writes: “The beautiful and unique area known as Bottomless Lakes State Park comes as a complete surprise after the flat country surrounding Roswell, New Mexico. Dropping down from the bluffs, the access road loops around seven lakes.
“These lakes, actually sinkholes ranging in depth from 17 feet to 90 feet, were formed when circulating underground water dissolved salt and gypsum deposits to form subterranean caverns. When the roofs of the caverns collapsed from their own weight, sinkholes resulted and soon filled with water. The illusion of great depth and the greenish-blue color are created by algae and other aquatic plants covering the lake bottoms.
“In the 1800s, the lakes were a stopover for cowboys herding cattle through the New Mexico territory on the Goodnight-Loving Trail. After they tried without success to find the bottom of the lakes with their lariats tied together, they dubbed the lakes 'bottomless.' The lariats were actually swept aside by underwater currents.
“Bottomless Lakes State Park was dedicated in 1933, the first area set aside as a state park in New Mexico. The original stone structure at Lea Lake was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 and 1935. The park offers a variety of sports, including hiking, swimming, fishing and scuba diving. This area is also known for "Pecos Diamonds," which are actually quartz crystals formed inside gypsum. The soft gypsum sometimes crumbles away exposing the 'diamonds.'"
Sinotte offers more detailed information on several of the seven lakes. We’ll start with first lake near the entrance off US 380: “Lazy Lagoon looks deceptively shallow but is actually 90 feet deep. In the fall, winter, and spring, flocks of waterfowl are often seen here. It is surrounded by treacherous alkaline mud flats. The crust covers deep, unpleasant smelling mud. Visitors should not attempt to walk or drive near this muddy area.”
Swimmers will head for Lea Lake. Sinotte writes: “It is 90 feet deep and the largest of the Bottomless Lakes. It is the only lake in which swimming is allowed. During the summer months, the park operates a concession stand where pedal cruisers and paddleboards are available for a nominal fee. A bath house with hot showers and flush toilets is near the concession area. The lake is spring fed with almost 214 million gallons of water flowing through it daily. Due to the clarity of the water in Lea Lake, scuba diving has become very popular.
“Mirror Lake is 50 feet deep and was, until recently, two ponds separated by a narrow strip of land. The northern pond of Mirror Lake was too salty for game fish while the smaller southern pond was less alkaline and able to support fish. Today, the two ponds form a single lake which is stocked with rainbow trout. It is aptly named for its beautiful reflection of the surrounding red bluffs.
“Pasture Lake, at 17 feet deep, is the shallowest of the lakes. Nearby Picnic Dell is a dry sinkhole that illustrates how the lakes were formed.”
It would be hard to outshine Balmorhea, the beloved West Texas oasis, but this New Mexico park sounds appealing, too.