Clayton Lake State Park

Days 1 to 3 (July 30-August 1)
Flower Mound, TX to Clayton Lake State Park, NM

My ears fresh from the city and not yet in tune with nature sounds, I do not immediately discern what makes the sound. Perhaps a child? A moment later, a cacophony of yelps and howls tells me it is a pack of coyotes. Aside from the wind, the birds, and the chorus of grasshoppers, these are the only sounds we hear from our campsite during our stay. We are, however, delighted with frequent visits from not-so-shy rabbits.

Clayton Lake State Park is the kind of beautiful that isn’t easy to capture in pictures. A last minute addition to our itinerary, we decide to make our first camp of the trip here because it is be the first stop in New Mexico, less than an 8-hour drive, and brings cooler days than the 100-110 temps we have experienced in Texas the past ten days.

The drive into the park provides stunning New Mexico scenery: Green grassy hills with a few equally green gentle mountains (“Rabbit Ears”) and buttes rising from the earth.

Rabbit Ears Near Clayton Lake State Park New Mexico
Rabbit Ears in Clayton New Mexico

We are greeted at the visitor center by a friendly ranger. We luck out on our timing, as the park is mostly empty on this Monday and Tuesday and is unseasonably cool for the end of July.

Clayton Lake State Park Sign

In a park visited mostly for fishing, weekends must have a completely different vibe. We see no boats on the lake while we are there. Our site is huge and private, with direct access to the lake via a short path.  We have no kayaks to launch, bummer.

Clayton Lake Campsite

The campsites here are arranged in a manner that I’ve never before seen, making for spectacular tent camping. While RV campsites with hookups are uninspiring with little privacy, the tent sites are arranged hillside around the lake in small loops, with no more than a few sites per loop.

Rock Garden Loop Campground at Clayton Lake
Rock Garden Loop

I do recommend a high clearance vehicle to access some sites, and Rock Garden – the coolest loop – really requires 4WD. While scoping out sites there, we have to back up, turn around, and barely make it up the hill from the loop in our AWD Subaru Outback.

Rock Garden at Clayton Lake State Park
Rock Garden

The park does have bath houses with showers, but we find them to be dirty and long-in-the-tooth and are the park’s weakness. Nonetheless, we love the time we spend in this park.

REI Grand Hut 4 Tent
REI Grand Hut 4 Tent

The wind is picking up now, and I put on a fleece. A storm moves in and the temperature drops 20 degrees in 5 minutes, but stays just east of our camp. It is monsoon season in NM, and although we enjoy watching the storm move through and across the plains, the rain misses us.

Storm moving in over Clayton Lake New Mexico

The line of the storms breaks into rainbow & blue skies.

rainbow & rainstorm over clayton lake

In an hour the warmth of the high desert sun has me shedding clothes.

Clayton Lake State Park
Along the trail in Clayton Lake State Park

We hike the entire park, and head to the dinosaur trackway for leisurely observation.

Dinosaur Trackway at Clayton Lake State Park
Dinosaur Trackway at Clayton Lake State Park

The trackway was a surprising discovery after the man-made lake’s spillway flooded in the 1980’s.

Dinosaur Trackway at Clayton Lake State Park New Mexico
Dinosaur Trackway at Clayton Lake State Park

Clayton Lake is a dark skies park, and provides for fantastic stargazing. Night one we leave the rain fly off the tent and fall asleep under a stunning star-filled sky. Night two we can see four planets! There is even an observatory within the park, although I do not notice it being open while we are here.

Clayton Lake State Park

The small town of Clayton is worth a stop for supplies or just to walk around a bit.

Luna Theater Clayton Lake New Mexico
Luna Theater

This is my favorite kind of place for shooting film photographs. There are faded store fronts with original signage from the 1930’s-1960’s, but the town gems of the Luna movie theater and the Eklund Hotel have been either maintained or restored.


I shoot half a roll of 35mm here and kick myself for conserving frames.

Eklund Hotel Clayton New Mexico
Eklund Hotel

Speaking of film photographs, we shoot a few Instax Wide photos at camp. I’m looking pretty pale here in my “indoor skin”.


The creepy little guy next to me – a 70’s era toy – is Hugo (Man of a Thousand Faces). You’ll see more of him along the way.

Hugo Man of a Thousand Faces REI Grand Hut
Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces

There is no more fitting a New Mexico beer to kick off our trip than Santa Fe Brewing’s Happy Camper IPA. Our epic road trip is off to a great start!

Instax Photo Santa Fe Brewing Happy Camper IPA

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