THE FIRST FISH CATCHES US BOTH BY surprise. I’m practicing flicking my rod to set the fly into a deeper stretch of the Pecos River when the indicator twitches. I tug back, just attempting to unhook the bottom, then glimpse the pale, lean flash of a brown trout as it shakes the hook loose and dives back into the current. My fly-fishing guide, Todd Emerson, sees it and whoops.

I try again, aiming into the same rivulet. This time when the indicator moves, I set the hook. Another eight-or-so-inch brown wriggles on the line. I kneel in the shallows, wet my hands, and hold it for a slippery, numb-fingered moment, admiring the red speckles on its tawny sides.

But for the next two hours, we wade up and down the river along Field Trip—a new outdoor-adventure-oriented cluster of cabins and tents—casting into swimmable pools and don’t register a nibble. That feels about right for the Pecos River Canyon; at one turn shockingly generous and welcoming, and at another, disinclined to give easily.

The Pecos River Canyon cuts into the southern edge of the Rocky Mountains, a 60- to 90-minute drive from Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The river runs from alpine headwaters through steep granite canyons and out to the village of Pecos, the last place to snag a burrito or a burger. Almost every hike starts with a steep climb out of the river valley to alpine lakes and high peaks.

People who live and work there call the canyon a jewel—but it’s one they’re still prying loose from a troubled past. Now, long-held hopes of supporting a vibrant river with a robust but responsible outdoor recreation scene are facing a historic specter: a proposed new mine. For a decade, a previous mine nurtured a bustling town in the canyon; it opened the country to people, some say. But it also left a cleanup that’s lasted a century.

Field Trip’s tents deliver a glamping experience.

SUZANNE STEVENS RASIC GREW UP RETREATING to a kids’ summer camp in the Pecos River’s emerald corridor as a respite from Roswell’s hot summers. As an adult, she’d fallen in love with the ease of glamping, where you sleep in semipermanent and well-equipped tents—all the joy of the outdoors, with few of the hassles of packing or setup. When life called for a change for her and her husband, Marc Rasic, she wanted to come home and run a place for glamping.

That it could be along the Pecos River seemed like the stuff of dreams. A cousin who lives in Pecos and had attended the former Camp La Salle, where boys came to swim and shoot and work leather and metal from the 1950s to the 1980s, knew the camp property’s owners were aging and might be tiring of caretaking. He asked if they were interested in selling. They were. So the Rasics came to visit.

“It didn’t take anything to fall in love,” Suzanne says. “It was amazing.”

Field Trip features eight canvas tents.

The couple sailed through to become the new owners of the shuttered camp, moving into a house made from the renovated kitchen and dining hall, complete with a pass-through window where boys picked up their dinner plates. Then the work really started. Roofs on some buildings were crumbling. Cabin walls were crammed with pack-rat nests. Log siding required more than 100 tubes of caulking to seal out the winter wind. Septic systems were cracked and leaking, a fix they were told would take three weeks and stretched on for six very smelly months. Just after the first A-frame cabin was opened to rentals in 2022, the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire forced the whole canyon to evacuate and left the Rasics wondering if everything they’d built would burn to the ground.

But shortly after Field Trip started taking reservations, a couple of campers posted about their stay on TikTok and the video clip went “insane,” Suzanne says. Without advertising, they’re now so fully booked that they’re at a loss for where to wedge in another wedding, birthday party, family reunion, fly-fishing workshop, or writers’ retreat.

“We didn’t think it was going to go so big, so fast,” Marc says. “The space truly just kind of sold itself.”

“I believe this is going to be the jewel of the north.”

—David Esch, Pecos Canyon State Park technician

Canvas tents, 1950s Airstream trailers, and cabins dot the six-acre property. Each tent is equipped with a firepit with a grill. Heated sleeping pads and extra blankets ease crisp summer nights when, even in July, a beanie and wool socks would be welcome. A sauna and wood-fired hot tub perch riverside. A gear lending library can equip a quick overnight backpacking trip or shorter day hikes. People come to stay who have never camped before, Suzanne says. She tears up watching strangers becoming friends, their kids playing together and their plans merging for future meetups.

“The old owners came out here and were like, ‘This is what it was supposed to look like,’ ” Marc says. They’re warmed by that approval—and by previous campers, some now in their 60s and 70s, who go out of their way to visit. “We kept the old spirits alive.”

Suzanne Stevens Rasic and Marc Rasic, with their dogs Schatzi and Stella, opened Field Trip in 2022.

THE FACT THAT HISTORY REMAINS VISIBLE IS part of why Rodney Perea, superintendent of New Mexico’s newest state park, Pecos Canyon, loves working there. Plus, just look at the view from his “office,” he says, standing on the riverbank and winging an arm around at the rippling water, the patch of grass where wildflowers bloom, and the improved parking and pathways. The state park was established in 2019, and in early 2020, Perea became its first superintendent—and its first and then only employee. Since taking charge, “we’ve changed the mindset,” Perea says.

The Terrero and Mora properties were managed by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish for decades to offer fishing access through a river corridor dotted with private property. But the place had a reputation for being a bit of a Wild West. Vehicles spilled out of parking areas and onto vegetation. Camping sprawled and, with it, unsafe fires. Garbage littered the roadside. Parties blared music late into the night. “It was kind of troubled,” Perea says.

Park staff is now up to three, and they’re often spotted driving among the park’s four parcels. Staffers pick up trash, empty garbage bins, clean pit toilets, and chat with visitors to check fishing licenses and even pass along advice on fishing spots. Compelling change makes for a lot of Fee Area and No Parking signs, and some closed gates to let the land recover.

Pecos Canyon State Park technician David Esch, left, and supervisor Rodney Perea.

Take the “frog bog,” a cattail-lined basin that’s home to a rare species of frog. The squishy habitat was a destination for “mud bogging,” spinning vehicles around in the muck. Tire ruts still dimple the ground, which is soft just under my hiking boots. After park staff ringed the area with pink granite boulders to block vehicles and installed fences and a gate, the wetland began healing and the frogs returned.

“During summer, you’ll hear them throughout the rains,” says Perea. He sometimes brings his lunch, sits on a downed log, and listens. “It’s a soothing sound.”

The wildlife is benefiting, he adds, pointing out the fresh imprint of a deer hoof. Turkeys, bears, bighorn sheep, and mountain lions have also been spotted more often.

It’s not that people have abandoned the place: Visitation numbers have quadrupled over the last four years, Perea says. He’s heard from people who feel safer camping with their families or leaving a truck parked all day while they fish.

Work in day-use areas includes rehabbing a log-sided pavilion to shore up the decades-old roof and adding a paved sidewalk to a new pit toilet that’s wheelchair accessible and illuminated in evenings with a solar-powered light. Aging log picnic tables were moved to an outdoor classroom. In the campgrounds, staffers are working on outlining individual campsites with rocks and cut tree trunks.

“I believe this is going to be the jewel of the north,” says David Esch, a Pecos Canyon State Park technician. The canyon offers a rare place to hear the wind, the water, and the birds, he says. “A lot of people don’t know we exist.”

from left Todd Emerson provides guide services for Field Trip; Young campers play near Bert Clancy Campground.

LIKE MOST GEMS, THE PECOS COMES WITH SOME rough edges. Trails need maintenance. Some campgrounds struggle to find hosts to help collect fees and enforce rules when that means convincing someone to live without electricity or cell signal for a summer. Still, the Pecos is beloved by anglers, campers, and even people just hoping to escape the summer heat by dipping their feet in the river.

But what first brought settlers into the canyon was its minerals. In the 1920s and ’30s, miners shoveled 138 million pounds of lead and 440 million pounds of zinc from near the confluence of Willow Creek and the Pecos River. More than 3,000 people lived in a bustling mining camp, which had a hospital, post office, two stores, and a nine-hole golf course. A 12-mile aerial tramway hauled miners to and from the town of Pecos and transported ore out of the canyon. All of that vanished after the mine closed in 1939.

But mining produces heaps more waste rock than ore (the name for the old town site, Tererro, comes from a Spanish word for dump). Those piles of rock can create sulfuric acid and leach heavy metals and other toxic minerals. By the 1970s and ’80s, heavy metals were being found in the streams and river.

Frankie’s at the Casanova serves New Mexico favorites.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the lead concentrations in fish from the Pecos River were high enough to advise against human consumption. Small mammals were so loaded with contaminants that eating them could poison birds. Then in 1991, a massive spring runoff flushed contaminants out of a waste rock pile, killing 90,000 fish in the Lisboa Springs Fish Hatchery alone.

“That got everyone’s attention,” says Sally Paez, an attorney with the nonprofit New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, who has spent years studying the site. “I think everybody realized that we needed a really big cleanup.”

The mining company set to work, lining, capping, and moving those piles away from waterways. By the early 2000s, though some contaminants were still at problematic levels, doing more work risked exacerbating the problems. With further gains unlikely, the company petitioned the state to leave it as is. The New Mexico Environment Department agreed. The largest waste pile is still fenced off, a bare, grassy slope amid the pines.

“Every time it rains, there’s acid drainage coming off that waste pile,” says Lela McFerrin, vice president of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, who has lived by and fished in the Pecos River for nearly 50 years. “It’s never ending.”

The mission church at Pecos National Historical Park.

In 2019, Comexico LLC, an Australian mining company subsidiary, acquired 20 federal mining claims near Tererro and started searching for gold, copper, lead, silver, and zinc. The old mine devastated the river, McFerrin says, and she doesn’t want to see that happen again. Neither did the 200-some people she counted at the last public meeting on the mine. Residents are concerned about water quality, heavy equipment accidentally starting a wildfire, possible health risks, and even the economy.

“The Pecos and the whole area had been very popular for recreation in the eighties and nineties,” Paez says. “Then it came out that the fish were full of lead and pollution, and the river was completely poisonous.” Although it rebounded some in the 2000s, she’s not convinced the river valley ever completely recovered. “There’s still that lingering concern,” she adds. “Things are mostly cleaned up, but people are worried about going backward.”

from left A riverside sauna; The glamping camp includes a tree house.

The Upper Pecos Watershed Association has petitioned the U.S. Forest Service to administratively withdraw nearly 4,000 acres from mining for 20 years. New Mexico’s congressional representatives have also introduced a bill that would withdraw most of the area from mineral leasing and designate 11,000 acres as wilderness where human industry can’t gain a toehold. For now, the Santa Fe National Forest is reviewing the proposed new mine’s environmental assessment, which examines how it would affect water, wildlife, and cultural resources. “With how much damage it did last time, how could you roll the dice again?” Suzanne Stevens Rasic says.

A lot of people care about that little river, McFerrin says. Just last fall, 150 people showed up for a second-annual cleanup that runs from the headwaters along its length to Pecos, Texas.

The Upper Pecos Watershed Association, she adds, is watching for those next environmental reviews, with “lawyers ready to jump all over it.” She hopes those and other voices for the river will shape its future.

After we’ve snagged fishing line for the last time, Todd Emerson and I wade back to Field Trip. Marc Rasic comes to chat. We stand around the tailgate at Emerson’s truck, and the Pecos does what it seems to do: Inspire a list of “someday maybes.” Maybe Marc will clear another part of the property for more tents. Maybe Emerson will stay as the in-house fishing guide. For now, Marc says he’s happy with a busy lineup that has him running that morning, stoking a wood-fired hot tub for a guest soon to arrive. The thought of a threat to curtail those dreams feels distant, despite its perch just a few ridgelines away.

Read more: The Pecos River challenges even the most experienced angler, which makes its rewards that much sweeter.

Sleep. Take a starter course in camping at the Field Trip glamping tents, or rinse off and reset after a backpacking trip at one of their cabins. Pecos Canyon State Park primitive campsites are booked in advance through Nearby Santa Fe National Forest campgrounds, available on a first-come basis, include Cowles and Holy Ghost. Check for additional cabin rentals.

Eat. Grab a seat on a dark wood chair and relish the Old West vibe while loading up on breakfast burritos, sandwiches, or other New Mexican classics at Frankie’s at the Casanova restaurant in the village of Pecos. Moving fast to the high country? Grab a to-go order from Pancho’s, with a stunning array of options in the “burrito emporium” as well as deli sandwiches, burgers, salads, and breakfast served all day.

More. At Pecos National Historical Park, hiking trails wend among the Pecos Pueblo and the mission church. Meander a little over two miles through a Civil War battlefield, or visit the cottonwood gallery along the Pecos River. Water, Wildflowers, and Trout, the annual fundraiser for the Upper Pecos Watershed Association, typically brings catering, local entertainment, dancing, and live and silent auctions to the banks of the Pecos River in midsummer.