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.
Hiking The Dog Canyon Trail
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. It was then a relentless climb, 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 the typical Chihuahuan Desert terrain to surprisingly green meadows in the midst of an otherwise earth-toned terrain.
Fortunately, the trail is not all brutally 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 traverses 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 is 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. 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. 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 of the sites are reservable; there are many more that are first-come, first-served.
It’s amazing how the neutral colors of a desert can bloom such exquisite, almost neon colors. It puts the painters pigments to shame.
I agree, Sheila—desert blooms are a wondrous sight. They definitely stand out in an otherwise stark landscape!
Beautiful! That’s a park we have not seen yet, looks like you made the most of it. Love the price for partial hookups!
Lisa, this is a hike that you and Hans would enjoy. It’s a sweet little park—and the price is excellent!
I like this kind of hikes, climbing up a mountain then reward with views. After hiking in red rock country I can’t wait to hike in a green scenery.
This could be a stop for us someday, for we still have to explore western NM.
ML, the rewards (in terms of views) on this hike are immediate, and continue for the entire hike. We love those red rock hikes, but this is a good one, too!
I agree with Lisa, this is a park we’d like and especially for the price. We haven’t done the Caverns yet either so perhaps we’ll retrace your steps!
Sue, you guys would enjoy the peace and beauty of this lovely little park. And it’s the perfect distance from Brantley Lake SP for visiting the caverns!
Had to take a moment and go pin that state park before I returned to comment. It looks wonderful. What a great hike! Reminds me a little bit of the Catalina Mountains, but oh, such bloom! and I loved the views. Thanks for writing about it.
Sue, the Dog Canyon hike also reminded me a bit of the Catalina Mountains, especially parts of the hike to Romero Pools at Catalina SP. You’ll like this hike—the great thing is that you can go as far as you like, and the views are terrific right away. I’m glad this was helpful for you.
Boy those are sweet big sites and wonderful views. It looks like even with wind you wouldn’t be sand blasted. Surprisingly green on that second plateau. Love that you give such great pictures and information on places I’ve never even heard of before and now want to go to. So sorry you didn’t get to go to the National Monument.
Sherry, the sites are huge! You’re right, we weren’t sand blasted, just wind blasted. We had just come from Monahans Sandhills State Park, so we were okay with not seeing White Sands NM this time. But we definitely want to go there, and Oliver Lee is likely where we’ll stay.
I really enjoyed our stay there. I hiked the Riparian trail and found the vegetation and water to be such a pleasant surprise. I hiked only a short distance on the Dog Canyon Trail to get those valley photos. It is most definitely a climb – kudos!
Ingrid, you understand exactly how intense that climb is up the Dog Canyon Trail! Anything for a good photo, right? :-)
We work so hard to get in shape for these climbs and elevations and then we go east!! All is lost very quickly. But you are like us, no easing back into it! Just head out and make the big climb!! Way to get back into hiking:) Beautiful choice:) The scenery takes your mind off the pain:) One day we will get to NM!
Pam, the scenery does help to distract me when I’m hiking up challenging trails! :-) I always want to see what’s around the next bend. You guys really do need to squeeze New Mexico into your travels. I think you’ll love it!
Laurel, I know we will really enjoy NM. We toured across the northern area many years ago on a motorcycle trip, but we didn’t do any hiking. And we’ve never done the rest of the state. The problem is that all these places need to be seen at the same time of year!! We still need to spend time in Colorado. I need a much, much longer fall season in snowy locations. And, of course, as you well know, having to go east every year for family throws a wrench into plans as well:) Oh, well, we are just enjoying every day for what we are seeing and loving every single minute:) New Mexico is on the list:) It is wonderful to have such problems, isn’t it. We certainly are very blessed!
Pam, it’s definitely a challenge to figure out how to spend time in all of the places that we want to explore—Colorado is high on our list, as well! As you said, it really is wonderful to have such problems. We are so grateful to be living this life. We’re certainly looking forward to hiking somewhere with you guys again!
Your pics really capture the diversity of the trail – and the steepness! Those dang winds are the only drawback to most of NM, especially in the spring :-( The ocotillo blooms look like bright red birds in flight – they are a favorite of mine. Beautiful sites at this park, we would love it if we’d fit :-)
Jodee, your rig would definitely fit in this park, no problem at all. You would love the sweet Riparian Nature Trail, and also the interesting Visitor Center. The ocotillo do look like red birds in flight! :-)
I am looking to a real hike next week after some time at the beach. What a nice view and place to take a breath from the top.
Debbie, it was a great view and nice to have a flat place to rest after that climb! Enjoy your hike. :-)
We have not been doing as much hiking around here since the temps have begun to rise and I am concerned about the same thing as we plan our trip north to Yellowstone, Glacier, and beyond. Although I know you enjoy your time back east, I’m sure you are glad to be back hiking in the western mountains.
You definitely have some good hiking coming up, LuAnn. I’m looking forward to hearing about your adventures. And yes, we’re happy to be back in the West. Love all of the varied experiences we have in our travels:-)
Wow stunning photos! Thanks for taking the challenge of hiking here and sharing such beauty.I haven’t been to this part of NM… I’ll definitely add this to my wish list. I’d better put my cup of tea down and start hiking to get in shape…I miss our morning walks Laurel and you’ll be happy to know I’m cleaning out the house fast and furiously so we can catch ya’s on the road this year!
Thanks, Judy. I miss our morning walks in the hills of Ashland, too! But even better would be if you have plans to join us on the road! Yayyyyy……oxoxo
Eric – you [and Laurel I guess] take fantastic photos that are shared with us.
Do you almost always use filters on your camera that is always hanging around your neck?? Thanks, rick
Thanks so much for the compliment, Rick. Both Eric and I do always have cameras hanging around our necks, wherever we go. We have polarizing filters, but rarely use them. Instead, we try to photograph with good light (sun behind us, morning and late afternoon light, etc.).We also sometimes adjust the lighting on photos with simple photo programs on our laptops, but it never yields great results.
There’s no substitute for trying to capture the light accurately when you’re taking the photo, though (at least in my inexpert opinion). You can see the difference in color when you look at the photos of the rich cobalt sky in some of our photos, compared to the relatively washed out paler skies when we were shooting into the sun or in the harsh light of mid-day.
We did this trail last year and it was a kicker! Hate to tell you, but you gotta go back and do it again. There is an old stone cabin (or what’s left of it) a little further down. And beautiful yellow Colombine!
Ha, yeah, it’s definitely a kicker, Loretta! We hiked close to the cabin, but looked down on it and decided we’d had enough at that point. :-))
We are working on walking everyday so that eventually we won’t be the ones sipping coffee back at base camp. However, I do enjoy to do that too. Love your photos.
It’s great to have choices—hiking or coffee back at camp. :-) Glad you’re enjoying the photos, Brenda.