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Bottomless Lakes State Park

By Phyllis Eileen Banks

Last updated on Monday, January 06, 2003

Red Bluff on east side. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks
Red Bluff on east side.
Sixty-five years sounds quite old, but it is a very young age for a first state park. Dedicated in 1933, Bottomless Lakes was New Mexico's first designated State Park. It is a twelve mile drive east of Roswell on U. S. Highway 380, then seven miles south on New Mexico Highway 409.

The lakes are bottomless in name only. None is more than ninety feet deep, but the illusion of great depth and the greenish blue color is created by algae and other aquatic plants covering the lake bottoms. In actuality, they are sink holes rather than lakes and range in depth from 17 to 90 feet. They were formed when circulating underground water dissolved salt and gypsum deposits to form subterranean caverns. Ultimately, the roofs of the caverns collapsed from their own weight to form the sink holes that soon filled with water. They are all quite small and only Lea Lake is large enough to support swimming and other water recreational activities. It is on the south end of the group, where the day use and camping areas are located.

More than 100 years ago when the cowboys drove their cattle along the nearby Goodnight-Loving Trail, they attempted to solve the mystery of these lakes. They tried without success to find the bottom by tying rocks to their lariats and dropping them in the lakes. As one length played out another was attached, but the bottom was never found. The lariats were swept aside by underwater currents. However, the cowboys didn't know this and so named them "bottomless."

This area is famous for "Pecos Diamonds." They aren't diamonds but are quartz crystals formed inside gypsum. Now and then the gypsum crumbles away, exposing the "diamonds."

All the lakes are on the east side of the road, as is the Interpretative Visitors Center. In addition to receiving information, viewing exhibits describing the natural history of the area and paying entry fees, you will be introduced to Scarlett, the red-tail hawk. She has permanent tendon damage to her wing and cannot be released. She is valuable, however, for education purposes at schools and for civic groups.

Near the Visitors Center is 30 feet-deep Cottonwood Lake. A short nature trail leads from here to nearby Mirror Lake, so named for the beautiful reflection of the red bluffs surrounding it. It is 50 feet deep and provides a home for various species of fish. Rare species of Pecos pupfish and rainwater killifish are inhabitants. Fishing is allowed year-round, where stocked, if you have a New Mexico State fishing license with a trout validation. One twelve-year-old advised using Velveeta Cheese. "It's the best bait," he said, and his string of trout seemed to prove it.

The Devil's Inkwell is also stocked with rainbow trout in the winter. Overnight campsites, drinking water and chemical toilets are available nearby.

Lea Lake. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks
Lea Lake.
Lea Lake, the largest of the lakes, is the only place where you can swim or rent hydro bikes, paddle boards or rafts for a nominal fee, from the first weekend in May through Labor Day. Lifeguards are on duty during the summer, and the sandy beach is well-maintained.

In this arid area (12-15 inches annual rainfall) it is difficult to imagine Lea Lake being spring-fed with 2 1/2 million gallons of water flowing through it daily. The springs that feed the lake receive their water through a honeycomb of underground channels that bring water from the Sacramento Mountains west of Roswell. At least part of the water in Lea Lake flows from the opposite direction by gravity from rock layers east of the area.

Where does it go, some ask? Although the water appears to circulate in and out of the lakes through underground means, the ultimate destination of the water is unknown. Some have speculated that it appears in Carlsbad Caverns, some 100 miles to the south, but that is doubtful.

Recently, because of the clarity of the water, scuba diving has become popular. In the summer when the water comes in, it is cool. Then when the lake water warms up, the temperature differences cause such clarity, visibility is fifty to sixty feet.


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