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