Day 1-2 (August 2019)
Suburban Dallas, TX to Conchas Lake State Park, NM
Kitschy Roadside Attractions
An easily entertained traveler (like me!) will find a plethora of kitschy things to photograph on the road from Dallas to Tucumcari. I cruise north on US Hwy 287 past the Texas Motor Speedway’s giant beer can, through wildflower-covered hills, past taxidermy shacks and a rural nudie bar with ATM out front, past drive-through beer at the Fill ‘N’ Chill in Wichita Falls, and eventually slow down as the highway becomes the main drag through some colorful small Texas towns.
With Juniper along, the heat does not allow for any real photo walks, though I do stop a few times for pictures. The Turquoise Coffee Stop in Chillicothe, Texas is closed today, so I cannot get my caffeine fix, but am happy to settle for pictures of the cafe’s colorful exterior and giant Rubik’s Cube.
When I drove this route a couple of years ago, I found some great subject matter for film photography (my favorite subject being abandoned structures). This building in Memphis, Texas appears relatively unchanged since I shot it on 35mm a couple of years ago, down to the yellow truck still parked out front.
From Amarillo I turn westbound on I-40, paralleling Route 66. I have seen a lot of the Route 66 ruins and attractions on the Texas stretch of road before, but had hoped to stop at Cadillac Ranch for the first time. I miss the exit yet again! The crush of people around the roadside attraction would not have allowed for good pictures today anyway. From here I focus on making good time to Tucumcari.
New Mexico welcomes me with me a hot and windy hello. This is my sixth trip to the Land of Enchantment in three years, yet I still get excited to stop at the state line sign.
An I-40 construction mess discouraged me from exiting for Route 66 photos in Amarillo, but Tucumcari is always a reliable stop for photos of the Mother Road. That said, the light is terrible for picture-taking and Juniper is restless, so I just make a couple of quick pics in Tucumcari and move on. My Route 66 pictures from further west will prove to be more interesting, and I will dedicate an entire post to Route 66 later.
Conchas Lake State Park
The drive from Tucumcari to Conchas Lake State Park (elevation 4253 ft) is a lonely but beautiful one via NM Highway 104. I have driven Hwy 104 before, however this is my first visit to Conchas Lake State Park. Conchas Lake is still quite large in spite of the low water level caused by years of drought. Heavy winter snowfall and this year’s higher-than-average rainfall has helped to reverse that, the first signs of (hopefully) a recovery phase. As I look upon the landscape surrounding the lake, I realize that I have never seen New Mexico this green.
Just across the dam, the Army Corps of Engineers manages a nice shady picnic area and pretty adobe visitor center (already closed when I arrived). I continue down the road a couple more miles to reach the state park and its small visitor center (also already closed).
There is a lot to love about New Mexico’s state parks, and they are a true camping bargain. Every NM state park charges $14 for a site with electric and water hookups, and $10 for no hookup sites. I arrive at Conchas Lake excited find at least half of the campsites unoccupied, including a number of fantastic sites overlooking the lake.
My excitement is short-lived when I become aware of the park’s confusing site reservation system. As I drive the two non-primitive loops, I notice that all but three campsites have a permanent “reservation site” plaque attached to their adobe shelters. So unless an RV or tent is present, there is no indication of whether or not the site is currently occupied or reserved for the night. And with the park office already closed, I have no way of finding out which sites are actually available for tonight.
Rather than risk taking an already-booked site and having to move after dark, I choose the best first-come-first-serve site, which does not have a lake view but is quite pretty. An added benefit: My campsite is within sight of the bathhouse, so Juniper will know exactly where I am. Juni has not shown any real signs of separation anxiety, but I am still quite sensitive to her fears because she is new to travel, and as rescue dog there has been so much uncertainty in her short life.
I take Juniper on a walk, then kick back in my camp chair with a beer in an attempt to cool off. At 6pm the temperature is 97, with no breeze. Even in the shade Juni is uncomfortably hot, and I begin to wish I had gotten an earlier start and driven the additional 80 miles (and 2200 feet elevation higher) to Storrie Lake State Park in Las Vegas.
Forcing myself out of my chair, I rearrange the car-full of stuff to get the Subie ready for sleeping, then we take a sunset walk around the campground, lingering at one of the vacant lakefront campsites to watch the light slip from the sky. Juniper nearly dislocates my shoulder trying to chase a desert cottontail. Aside from when we are walking, she is pretty unhappy here. Juni had settled into the suburban lifestyle quite easily. She is already missing a giant fenced yard, sleeping in a king-sized bed, her buddy Winston, and (most of all) an air conditioned place to nap.
Even after the sun sets, it is still hot. Really, really hot. Neither of us gets much sleep. The fat toads hanging out by the restroom provide some comic relief, particularly when one bounces off of my leg as I exit the bathhouse.
Rising before the sun, I take a quick shower and Juni and I have a leisurely walk around the campground in the early morning light.
Conchas Lake is gorgeous this time of day. I take the photo below behind one of the campsites overlooking the lake. From this site and two adjacent sites, it appears one could boulder hop all the way down to the shore through juniper trees and sage.
The hills, native landscaping, and more-than-adequate spacing between most of the campsites makes for a very scenic and unique campground. Each of the three campground loops is different from the next, the Bell Point Loop (where I stay) being the most scenic, offering more private sites and attractive 3-sided adobe shade pavilions at each site. I only photograph the Bell Point Loop, which – based on occupancy – appears to be the most popular.
See all of that open acreage behind my site? Nice! Not so nice: Mopey Juni, patiently waiting for me to finish writing and breakfast cleanup and hit the road. At 8am the sun is already baking hot.
Were temperatures cooler, I would enjoy spending more time at Conchas Lake. The park’s most popular activity is boating (motorized or non). I do not see any real hiking trails in the park, though the campground loops are great for walking or just hanging out at camp, and the park has nice facilities including clean bathrooms with flush toilets and showers. I am eager to return to hunt for area petroglyphs, whose existence I was unaware of until just before publishing this post. The Corps of Engineers Recreation Area is nice too. I will definitely come back to Conchas Lake one day, though in an RV or in cooler weather. Next time we will bring kayaks along, and plan far enough ahead to reserve a primo site overlooking the lake.
On Day 2 of my southwest road trip with Juniper, we resume our scenic drive on NM 104 under the bright desert sun, without an inkling that we will eventually end up in rainy Taos via a roundabout course of wandering…
Curious where else we’ve been? Click here to check out the list of parks we’ve visited.