Hiking the Enchanted Circle: Cimarron Canyon State Park - Clear Creek Trail

Hike in Cimarron Canyon State Park promises waterfalls and heat relief


A hike along Clear Creek in Cimarron State Park is a pleasant way to spend a warm spring day. As the temperatures rise, trails in the woods and near water become more and more inviting. This trail follows Clear Creek for a bit over a mile and a half past a series of waterfalls. The wildflowers are beginning to bloom, and it is a beautiful time to visit.


Cimarron State Park is located about 35 miles northeast of Taos past Eagle Nest Lake. After entering the park near Tolby Campground and the park office, the trailhead is about three miles farther down U.S. 64 at mile marker No. 292, where there is a small parking area on either side of the road.

To find the trailhead, walk up the road about 50 feet to the north from the parking area. A sign there that says "Clear Creek Trail." Head up the trail to the southeast. The first section is a relatively flat meander through the woods. There are no signs, but the trail is mostly quite visible. Near the first L-shaped bridge, a section of moderate climbing begins. The trail crosses Clear Creek three more times on good log bridges. The creek is not very high now, but water is still flowing, bringing coolness to the canyon. A few trees have fallen down on the trail, but it is passable in all sections.

A steeper climb begins to the left of the creek and here there are a series of waterfalls cascading over rock shelves into pools below. After more than a mile and a half through the aspen and mixed evergreen forest, the trail hits a flat point above a dramatic rocky waterfall. The trail is not so visible after this point. This is a good place to stop, rest in the shade near the water and eat lunch. Allow an hour or more for the hike up and somewhat less for coming down. Altogether, the round trip covers more than three miles and gains 775 feet, starting near 7,710 feet and ending at 8,485 feet.

Wildflowers and wildlife

The wildflowers are beginning to bloom along the trail, including the brilliant yellow Golden Mountain Banner, a member of the pea family, as well as red columbine, flowering claret cup cactus and pink wild geraniums.

Steve Clark, law enforcement ranger for Cimarron Canyon State Park, says that he has seen a bear in the area recently. Cougars are present as well but rarely seen. "There are big cats here, but they are nocturnal and you are not likely to see them," Clark adds.

Cimarron Canyon State Park is located within the Colin Neblett Wildlife Management Area. Such areas are managed by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for the benefit of fish, wildlife and their habitats and to provide public access for hunting, fishing and wildlife-associated recreation, according to the website for New Mexico Game and Fish. The wildlife management area covers more than 33,000 acres, and the state purchased it in 1951. Visitors can fly fish, horseback ride and camp in the park. Backcountry trails are closed between May 15 and July 31 for elk calving, but Clear Creek Trail is open year-round.


The area near the Cimarron River was home to Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes. According to the Legends of America website, the area near Eagle Nest was used mostly for farming and ranching when the mining settlement of Elizabethtown, just to the north, was at its peak. In 1873, Charles and Frank Springer founded a ranch on the banks of the river. In 1907, the men applied to build a dam on the river at Eagle Nest for irrigation and a power plant that was approved and completed in 1918.

The lake was stocked with trout and became a tourist destination. By the1920s, illegal gambling was well-established in Eagle Nest. In the 1940s, the illegal gambling was halted when authorities took axes to the slot machines in town. Legend says that word of the bust was leaked before it happened, and some slot machines were dumped in the lake and can be seen near the dam when the water is low.

The Colin Neblett Wildlife Management Area is named for Judge Neblett, a frequent visitor to the area. In 1927, Eagle Nest Lodge was built on the shores of the lake. It was a luxurious hotel with 12 rooms, a lounge and restaurant and later five studios were added. The lodge is still visible at the north edge of the lake.

In 2002, the State of New Mexico purchased the lake, and today it is one of 34 state parks. In addition to Eagle Nest and Cimarron State Parks, the Coyote Canyon State Park is located in this area. The remainder of the state's parks are scattered throughout New Mexico.


From Taos Plaza, head southeast on Kit Carson Road (U.S. 64). Drive 35 miles staying on US 64, which is part of the Enchanted Circle Drive. You will see a sign for Cimarron Canyon State Park. The park office and Tolby Campground is located here. To reach the Clear Creek Trailhead, go about three miles farther to mile marker No. 292. There is a sign and parking area here. Walk up the road, behind the guardrail to the marked beginning of the trail.

If you would like to drive the entire Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway loop, return by going back west to Eagle Nest and then taking NM 38 north over Bobcat Pass and through Red River to Questa. Turn left at NM 522 and head back to Taos. This is a slightly longer, but equally scenic drive through the wide valley landscape. Memorial Day weekend, the 36th Annual Red River Memorial Motorcycle Rally will be held in Red River. With more than 20,000 motorcyclists expected, it will be a busy time here.

Call for more information

Call Cimarron Canyon State Park at (575) 377-6271 or visit nmparks.com. All campgrounds are open. Be aware that there are fire restrictions in place prohibiting campfires or charcoal. Annual state park passes can be purchased at nmparks.com. There are fees for day use and camping and appropriate licenses are required for fishing and other game activities.

Cindy Brown is the author of the Taos Hiking Guide available at local retailers and at nighthawkpress.com. Contact her at cindybrowntaos2010@yahoo.com. For previous hiking columns, search by trail name at taosnews.com.