Whitesands National Monument only offers camping for backpackers, and we wanted to sleep indoors during the cold spell, so we needed to find another place to camp. John found a great state campground about a half-hour drive away, Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. The park is nestled at the foot of the Sacramento Mountains, with a striking view of towering canyon walls, but at a low enough elevation to have more moderate weather than the Lincoln National Forest land encompassing the mountain range. In all our trip so far, this is the first campsite we stayed at for more than three nights, camping there for five (we still drove a couple days to visit Whitesands National Monument, so we still have not parked the van for more than three nights). New Mexico state parks are relatively cheap at $14 per night for water and electric sites, and some of the sites offered neat covered picnic areas. Overall, we recommend this park.
[ John here: As you may or many not recall, I’m not a fan of pay showers, showers that don’t allow you to change the water temperature, and showers that turn off in 15 seconds unless you push a button. I used to use vise grips and a short piece of rope to hold the “button” down, but my vice grips started to get rusty, and I just felt weird when taking them into the restrooms and shower areas (old solution). In an a open style bathroom pulling out vice grips is startling for many. It seems especially so now that my beard is much longer, and I look a touch more homeless. [[ Heidi’s interjection: No one has ever seen John pull out vice grips in a bathroom, and I think his self-consciousness regarding his luxuriously long beard is unfounded. What do you think, does he look homeless or handsome? ]] Anyway, I’m now using thin rope only! If you zoom in on the picture you can make out what’s happening here. The rope is simply holding down the button, and the excess rope is wound around stuff so it doesn’t come undone. Now that I think about it, it’s probably just as weird taking 15 feet of bright red cord into the shower stall as taking in vice grips. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m open to new ideas. 🙂 ]
A guided tour of Oliver Lee’s ranch house is offered every Saturday and Sunday, so we joined the tour the Sunday we were there. Oliver Lee was one of the original settlers in the area in the 1800’s, and he devised an irrigation system to pull water from the nearby Dog Canyon to build a ranch. (Another Dog Canyon! This one is named for a lone dog left behind by the Apache retreating from the canyon during a battle with the U.S. Cavalry). The house stood abandoned and decaying until 1971, when it was scouted to be the set for a Disney Western film, Scandalous John. Following the filming, the house continued to crumble until a restoration effort in 2010. The restored house now functions as a museum of life in the old west and tribute to Lee. Lee’s history was mixed; accused of murder he was an outlaw for several years before finally being acquitted. Years later he served as a state senator. Some aspects of his life may have been questionable, but without a doubt he was instrumental to the settlement of the area around Alamagordo, NM.
Our final day in the park we spent hiking on the Dog Canyon National Recreation Trail. This trail climbs up the escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains from the Visitor Center of Oliver Lee Memorial State Park to a high mountain plateau leading to a forest road. The trail quickly leaves the state park and is contained mostly in the national forest. The trail description states that it climbs over 3,100 feet in 5.5 miles, but actually the elevation is in even less distance – there are three steep ascents separated by less extreme terrain, and the last mile is pretty flat.
[ John here again: Ha! Here in a comment and in the picture. 🙂 If you look closely you can see in many of the pictures of me I’m wearing two, and sometimes three hats. This is inconvenient for sure, but for a pasty-skinned, red-bearded man like myself they are all necessary. The first hat (from head up) is very difficult to see, and in fact I’m not even sure I’m wearing it in this picture. It’s a small brown wool “beanie” style hat. If you recall I shaved my head…in the middle of winter. This first layer hat functions as my hair that was “lost” some time ago. Even the desert is darn cold in the mornings and after the sun goes down.
The second hat is one that you see many older men wearing, and I’m OK with that. It has a ridiculously long bill, followed by what I like to think of a mud flap around the sides and back. This mudflap protects the back of my neck and ears from the sun. Unfortunately the fabric is extremely light weight and many, many times a day the wind flips it up, and my baby-like sensitive skin is exposed to the harsh sun. You’d be surprised how much area is still not covered. This leads me to hat three, the top-most hat.
Hat three covers the vital area on the side of my head that hat two misses (the area between the bill and where the mud-flaps start). Hat three also protects my ears and neck when the mud-flaps fly up because of the wind. The brim on hat three is not large enough to cover my neck and ears when the sun is at an extreme angle, which is why hat two is necessary.
I’m not sure why I explained all of this, or if you even noticed the extra hat(s), but I think it’s pretty clear other hikers see it, and as much as I’d like to say I don’t care how I look, I think I do care just a little. Plus they are heavier, and I have to store them. Perhaps this is my subconscious reaching out to our readers for a better hat idea, or a totally different approach. It’s worth nothing, and you probably realize this already, but I really don’t care for sunblock. ]
We took a short break next to a frozen stream. This spring-fed stream is the water source that attracted people to the area – first the Apache and later U.S. settlers. A decaying stone cabin sits on the shore of the stream; a remnant from the days when the trail was used to move cattle between winter low-elevation pastures and summers on the ridge top. We also came across a geocache in this area – a watertight box filled with items for and from hikers; the idea is to trade something you have for something in the box you want. It was placed in memory of a local man who loved to hike the trail by his granddaughter.
After the hike I took John through the desert garden near the Visitor Center to show him the unbelievably large century plant I found there.