Posted by on Jun 5, 2016 in Gallery, New Mexico, Travel | 32 comments

The last “real” hiking we did was back in the fall as we were making our way cross-country to Florida for the winter. We spent the winter and spring doing a lot of biking, kayaking, and what passes for hiking in the flatlands of the South. But none of this keeps us in shape for steep mountain hiking. Consequently, I’m always a bit apprehensive when we return to the West, and are suddenly confronted with the big, rugged, beautiful mountains that we love to hike.

At a mere 155 miles from our last stop near Carlsbad Caverns, we arrived at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park in southern New Mexico, settled into our spacious site at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, and looked up at the mountain right outside our door. Oh yes, it definitely beckoned to us—even though we could see from our site just how rocky and relentlessly steep the trail was.

Early the next morning, we packed our lunches, filled four water bottles, stashed some dark chocolate in our packs, and set off on the Dog Canyon Trail located immediately behind the Visitor Center. Our warm-up for the trail was walking the few hundred yards from our campsite to the start of the trail, and then it was no-holds-barred, straight up a series of abrupt, rocky switchbacks. Small wonder there was no one else on the trail. (The rest of the campers were undoubtedly relaxing with a cup of coffee, enjoying the view of the mountains from their spacious sites.)

It was challenging, no question about it. But it was worth it. Because the trail heads straight up, there are fabulous panoramic views right away. The scenery is stunning, both within the canyon and looking out across the Tularosa Basin, with White Sands National Monument shimmering in the distance. As we hiked, we crossed a variety of landscapes, from typical Chihuahuan Desert to surprisingly green meadows in the midst of an otherwise earth-toned terrain.

Fortunately, the trail is not all relentlessly uphill. There are two relatively flat plateaus known as “benches,” the first of which appears at just over a half-mile of steady, steep ascent and opens into a landscape of yuccas and blooming cacti. The trail then wends along a series of ledges, followed by another tough uphill stretch to the second bench. This one is a surprise of large boulders, a cholla forest, and rock walls of lush greenery with the songs of Canyon Wrens echoing throughout the canyon.

The entire Dog Canyon trail goes for 5.5 miles one-way, but a good turn-around point is 3 miles in, at the bottom of a shady canyon. That was our destination, and it was there that we had lunch and headed back home. For those interested in the details, we started at an elevation of 4,400 feet and gained almost 1800 feet in three miles—the remaining 2.5 miles requires a more grueling climb of another 2,000 feet. We’ll save that one for next time. Or not.

There are few other things to do at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. It’s a nice place to relax for a couple of days in the middle of nowhere. There’s a sweet half-mile Riparian Nature Trail that makes for a nice stroll—no steep uphill required. And the park is close to White Sands National Monument, a place that is still on our must-see list (but with high winds forecast, we decided to save it for another visit).

About the campground: Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is remote and peaceful, with dark night skies and sweeping views all around. This also means that the campground is highly subject to winds—we endured a night of 45-mile per hour gusts in early May.

Electric and water hookups are $14 per night; non-hookup sites are $10; the park has decent bathrooms and shower facilities. Excellent Verizon. Although there is plenty of space between sites, many of the sites are small and require significant leveling. The sites in the upper loop tend to be larger and more level. A handful are reservable; there are many more that are first-come, first-served.

Next Up: A Week In Colorful Silver City, NM

Back To Hiking: Oliver Lee State Park

On The Riparian Nature Trail

Beautiful Cholla Blooms

Late Afternoon Walk On The Nature Trail

Setting Out On Dog Canyon Trail

Lots Of Elevation Gain Right Away

View Of The Campground From The Trail

Entering Lincoln National Forest

Reaching The First Plateau

Landscape Of Yucca And Cacti

Octotillo In Bloom

Beginning The Next Climb

A Few Helpful Steps Along The Way

A Bit Of Color On The Trail

Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus

Such A Beautiful Day On The Trail

The Second Plateau

Surprisingly Green

Our Turnaround Point

The Long Journey Down

Stark Desert Mountain Beauty

Distant View Of White Sands National Monument

The Final Stretch

Looking Down At Our Campsite

Our Site From Ground Level

Yucca About To Bloom

Back To Hiking: Oliver Lee State Park
On The Riparian Nature Trail
Beautiful Cholla Blooms
Late Afternoon Walk On The Nature Trail
Setting Out On Dog Canyon Trail
Lots Of Elevation Gain Right Away
View Of The Campground From The Trail
Entering Lincoln National Forest
Reaching The First Plateau
Landscape Of Yucca And Cacti
Octotillo In Bloom
Beginning The Next Climb
A Few Helpful Steps Along The Way
A Bit Of Color On The Trail
Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus
Such A Beautiful Day On The Trail
The Second Plateau
Surprisingly Green
Our Turnaround Point
The Long Journey Down
Stark Desert Mountain Beauty
Distant View Of White Sands National Monument
The Final Stretch
Looking Down At Our Campsite
Our Site From Ground Level
Yucca About To Bloom
Back To Hiking: Oliver Lee State Park thumbnail
On The Riparian Nature Trail thumbnail
Beautiful Cholla Blooms thumbnail
Late Afternoon Walk On The Nature Trail thumbnail
Setting Out On Dog Canyon Trail thumbnail
Lots Of Elevation Gain Right Away thumbnail
View Of The Campground From The Trail thumbnail
Entering Lincoln National Forest thumbnail
Reaching The First Plateau thumbnail
Landscape Of Yucca And Cacti thumbnail
Octotillo In Bloom thumbnail
Beginning The Next Climb thumbnail
A Few Helpful Steps Along The Way thumbnail
A Bit Of Color On The Trail thumbnail
Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus thumbnail
Such A Beautiful Day On The Trail thumbnail
The Second Plateau thumbnail
Surprisingly Green thumbnail
Our Turnaround Point thumbnail
The Long Journey Down thumbnail
Stark Desert Mountain Beauty thumbnail
Distant View Of White Sands National Monument thumbnail
The Final Stretch thumbnail
Looking Down At Our Campsite thumbnail
Our Site From Ground Level thumbnail
Yucca About To Bloom thumbnail