On trips to Colorado, I’ve seen a lake on Highway 159 between Costilla, NM and San Luis, CO. There are no signs at the entrances on Highway 159 naming the lake, but from my research on Google Maps, it appears to be Sanchez Stabilizing Reservoir. The area around the reservoir is Sanchez Stabilization Park; it’s also a Colorado State Wildlife Area.
According to Wikipedia,
Sanchez Reservoir lies in far south-central Colorado, west of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Costilla County. Its inflows include Ventero Creek and the Sanchez Canal, a diversion canal that takes water from Culebra Creek and two other creeks…The reservoir’s earthen dam was built in 1912.
Brown signs labeled “Recreation Area” on either side of the highway are the only indication that the lake is on public land and not private property.
There are no signs about camping, nothing to say camping is either allowed or prohibited in the area. I’ve been of the mind that if there’s no sign explicitly prohibiting camping or overnight parking, then it must be allowed. (I find this way of thinking particularly acceptable in the U. S. Southwest. Results may vary in other areas.)
According to the Colorado Birding Trail website, I was right about camping at Sanchez Stabilization Park. That website says primitive camping is allowed in the Park.
I’ve seen people seemingly camping at Sanchez Stabilization Park in truck campers and small-to-medium pull-behind campers. I’ve typically seen the area more crowded in the summer, but have noticed campers there in all seasons.
The aforementioned birding website also says,
Sanchez Reservoir is among the largest in the San Luis Valley, as well as among the most productive. The southern end can be frustrating to scan; most of the birds are usually on the north end.
The folks at the Colorado Birding Trail say the Reservoir is owned by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and is open all year. The recreation area does not provide accommodations to folks with disabilities, but for birders, some viewing is possible from one’s vehicle.
According to Uncover Colorado
Colorado has 350 State Wildlife Areas, covering more than 684,000 acres. With a valid fishing or hunting license you can access the properties for recreation, including hunting, fishing, hiking and wildlife observation.
I take that to mean that in order to camp at Sanchez Stabilization Park, you need a valid Colorado fishing or hunting license. However, I’ve never seen any notice of such a requirement on site.
According to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Website, a Colorado annual fishing license for a nonresident over the age of 16 costs $97.97. A one-day Colorado fishing license for a nonresident older than 16 runs $16.94, while a five-day Colorado fishing license for a nonresident over 16 costs $32.14. If you’re a Colorado resident over the age of 16, an annual fishing license costs $35.17. A one-day fishing license for Colorado residents over 16 costs $13.90. Colorado Parks and Wildlife says you can purchase a fishing license in person at hundreds of retailers or at a CPW location. You can buy a license by phone by calling toll free 1-800-244-5613, or you can buy a fishing license online.
If you’d rather pay for a hunting license, a nonresident small game one-day license costs $16.75 and an annual nonresident small game license will set you back $82.78. For Colorado residents, a small game one-day license costs $13.90 and an annual small game license runs $30.11. Colorado Parks and Wildlife says you can buy a hunting license in person at hundreds of retailers or at a CPW location. You can buy a license by phone by calling toll free 1-800-244-5613, or you can buy a license online.
As I was researching this post, I found some references to a Wildlife or Habitat Stamp. At first it seemed that a camper only needed a Wildlife/Habitat Stamp in order to spend time in a Colorado State Wildlife Area such as Sanchez Stabilization Park. However, in a May 5, 2020 Hiking Bob column by Bob Falcone in the Colorado Springs Indy, I learned
…in an effort to make sure everyone pays equally to use SWAs, CPW will be requiring all users to purchase a hunting or fishing license, effective July 1 .
Hiking Bob goes on to say
The least expensive option for Colorado residents would be to purchase a single day fishing license, for $13.90 per day, and the required Habitat Stamp for $10.13 per year. A yearly fishing license can be purchased for $35.17, however senior citizens (over age 65) can get the annual license for $9.85 and are also exempt from the Habitat Stamp requirement.
There are two entrances to Sanchez Stabilization Park from Highway 159. You can take each entrance to several parts of the recreation area. The dirt road leads to the pit toilet restroom at the front of the area, to the tree-lined dirt road where the picnic tables sit in the middle of the recreation area, or to a series of dirt roads that go around the lake.
When I’ve looked in at the pit toilet restroom on a couple of occasions, I’ve always found it fairly clean. Someone is sweeping out the building housing the toilet. There’s usually graffiti on the walls, which is typical in a building that’s probably not attended daily. I must admit, I’ve never lifted the toilet’s lid to find out if anyone is scrubbing down the risers or wiping the seat and lid. While I have seen toilet paper in the restroom, I suggest travelers stay prepared by carrying their own stash of TP.
If the toilet ever gets a thorough scrubbing, whoever does the cleaning must truck in water or haul some from the lake, because there’s no faucet or spigot on site. Again, I suggest preparation if you plan to spend time Sanchez Stabilization Park. Plan to carry in your own water for drinking and washing. I don’t know what might be running off into the lake water, so I don’t know if it’s suitable for washing dishes or the human body. I certainly would not drink it.
While there are no signs saying not to eat fish caught in the Reservoir, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife webpage about Sanchez Reservoir SWA says
Anglers should take note of [the] warning issued by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment regarding mercury levels in fish caught in this reservoir.
(When I clicked on the link in the above quote on the website, I was taken to an empty link, so I don’t know exactly what the warning says. You can get more information about the Health Department warning in particular or Sanchez Reservoir in general by calling the area Colorado Parks and Wildlife office in Monte Vista at (719) 587-6900.)
There are about a half dozen picnic tables in the part of the recreation area between the restroom and the lake. There are stone fire rings near some of the picnic tables,and I’ve never seen signs prohibiting campfires. If you decide to build a fire in this recreation area (or anywhere!), make sure there is no fire ban in effect and please follow Smokey Bear’s Campfire Safety Rules.
There is a line of trees between the picnic tables and the dirt road running behind the picnic area. The trees provide a little shade. Whenever I’ve stopped at Sanchez SWA, I’ve always parked near one of the trees and escaped the sun.
I have seen people camped on the beach next to the lake. After reviewing my photos of the lake, I see that the only trees in the area are the ones near the picnic tables. People camping on the beach don’t have the benefit of the shade trees provide. I bet it gets hot out on that beach in the summer.
I’m not sure how soft or wet or loose the sand on the beach is. I would be very careful about driving a car on the sand, much less a motorhome. If I were going to pull a rig onto the sand, I would be careful about that too. Before I drove my rig out there, I would walk over the area that sparked my interest and survey the conditions in order to determine if my rig could handle the terrain.
Since I haven’t spent a lot of time at Sanchez Stabilization Park and haven’t spent the night there, I’m not sure if bugs are bad out there. They may be worse in the summer (as bugs tend to be). Again, I suggest visitors arrive prepared to keep bugs away.
The lack of signs also mean there’s no indication of how long one is allowed to stay at the reservoir. I looked online, but could find no rules on camping limits at State Wildlife Areas. The upper limit of staying on public land is usually 14 days, so I wouldn’t plan to stay for more than two weeks at Sanchez Stabilization Park.
I don’t know if I would buy a fishing license and Habitat Stamp for the sole purpose of camping at this reservoir. If I liked to fish and didn’t mind throwing back what I caught, it might be nice to spend a week or two here fishing a little and enjoying the peace and quiet.
There’s another way to access Sanchez Reservoir. The Colorado Birding Trail website gives the following directions:
From the intersection of CO 159 and CO 142 in San Luis, head east on the continuation of CO 142 (CR P.6) about three miles to CR 21 and turn right (south). From here it is about five miles south to the SWA.
I took all the photos in this post.