Written and photography by Rob McCorkle
Driving south from Alamogordo on a late fall day, I am amazed by how green the western slopes of the Sacramento Mountains appear compared to the tawny look of the Organ Mountains outside Las Cruces. Eight miles further down U.S. Highway 54, I arrive at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park (elevation 4300 feet) at the mouth of Dog Canyon in the Tularosa Basin. Oliver Lee State Park, located in the New Mexico State Parks Division’s Southeast Region, is one of 34 state parks that attracted five million visitors in fiscal year 2019, half of them lake parks such as Elephant Butte and visitation leader Navajo Lakes State Park near Farmington. Oliver Lee State Park receives roughly 45,000 visitors annually, but many Las Crucens have never been there or even heard of the park less than two hours away. The vast majority of Mesilla Valley denizens who do visit are day users ($5 per vehicle) who come to hike the challenging Dog Canyon Trail that climbs from desert scrublands 3,100 feet into aspen and pine forests atop the Sacramento Mountains just below Cloudcroft.
Kate German has been managing the state park for a little more than three years. She explains that the verdant mountainside resulted from plentiful rainfall occurring from the end of August through mid-October that sent waters crashing through the canyon, further eroding trails already severely altered by major floods in 2006 and 2008. Those floodwaters also wiped out a footbridge on the easily traversed and popular Riparian Trail that descends from the visitor center to the stream flowing through the bottom of Dog Canyon. Kate says the structure will not be replaced. A picnic table in a scenic setting marks the trail’s end. “Since the end of August, we’ve had one big rain after another,” she says. “We’ve probably had a year’s worth of rain since then and experienced an isolated storm with golf ball-size hail that hit the campground and broke every skylight in the park.”
Oliver Lee Memorial State Park sports a dual personality. It is both a recreational park catering to campers and hikers, as well as a historical park that preserves the legacy of one of the state’s most famous ranchers, Oliver Lee, who established his ranch headquarters here in 1893. In his day, Lee was the Ted Turner of the New Mexico Territory. He was part of a group who in 1914 created the Circle Cross Cattle Company headquartered in Timberon. The cattle empire came to encompass at its zenith a million acres stretching from the Mescalero Reservation to El Paso. Historical accounts link Lee, a native Texan, to Dog Canyon homesteader Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas, an accomplished carpenter from Grenoble who built a two-room cabin in the mid-1880s and harnessed water from the perennial Dog Canyon stream fed by snowmelt and springs to irrigate a vineyard and orchards. A sign at the bottom of the Riparian Trail details “Oliver Lee’s Irrigation System” that sent gravity-fed water through a hanging cement plume along the canyon walls and along a mile-long ditch dug from the canyon mouth across the prairie to Lee’s ranch headquarters.
Frenchy raised sheep and built stacked rock walls — portions of which remain visible today — snaking up the surrounding hillsides to corral his livestock. He met his demise in 1894, mostly likely at the hands of cattlemen who owed him money. Park visitors can see the reconstructed remnants of Frenchy’s adobe and rock home a short stroll from the visitors center parking lot. Like many a Wild West legend, Lee was a man of contradiction. Some considered the cattleman a ruthless outlaw, deadly with a six-shooter, while others believed him to be a man of virtue with Southern manners, a shrewd businessman, faithful husband, and doting father. In the early 1890s, the West Texas transplant found himself in the midst of rising tensions between competing political factions in the Tularosa Basin and Rio Grande Valley near El Paso. Doña Ana County Sheriff Pat Garrett went after Lee for the murder of Mesilla lawyer A. J. Fountain, who was ambushed with his son on their return from Lincoln carrying documents that purportedly would help New Mexico’s cattle barons evict Lee and his fellow Texas cattlemen from their Tularosa Basin spreads.
Lee was eventually acquitted of the murder by an Otero County jury and went on to serve as a New Mexico legislator in both houses. Guided tours of the Lee ranch house and surrounding ruins of the barn, corrals, and chicken coop leave from the visitor center at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturdays, and occasionally at 3 p.m. Wednesdays. Park volunteer Bill Powell, a Lee family descendent, took me and Charles Lockhart, a Globe, Arizona, resident who was camping with his wife, on the one-hour tour. The Lee family residence from 1893 to 1907 has been meticulously rebuilt according to historic records and oral histories and authentically furnished. Display cases hold a number of Lee family artifacts, such as eyeglasses, children’s toys, bottles, sewing materials, and bridle bits. Remnants of a Disney movie set for a 1970 Western can be seen as well. The state park offers overnight camping at 44 campsites with tables and fire rings, 18 of which have electric hookups with 30-amp service. One handicap site has 50-amp service. Seven of the developed sites and the park’s group shelter ($90 per day, plus camping or day use fees) can be reserved through Reserve America at (877) 664-7787.
Campsites run from $10 to $18 per night. The campground features restrooms, a dump station, and water hydrants throughout.Other park activities include strolling the Chihuahuan Desert Garden, birding, picnicking, nature photography, and periodic star parties hosted by an Alamogordo amateur astronomers’ group. Upcoming star parties will feature: “The Great Nebula of Orion” on February 22 from 6 to 8 p.m. and “Venus: Our Sister World” on March 28 from 7:15 to 9:15 p.m.