Dog Canyon, New Mexico
Cañon del Perro
Journey through time in Dog Canyon.
Cañon del Perro translates into more than just Dog Canyon. It translates into some of the fiercest Apache Indian battles in the state of New Mexico not to mention an intriguing historical hike along the Sacramento Mountains of the Lincoln National Forest.
Starting from the trailhead of the "Eyebrow" trail in the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park near Alamogordo, I knew the calf-strengthening hike with an elevation gain of 3,130 feet would leave me dog-tired in Dog Canyon. However, I had no idea that the first 4.2 miles of trail would lead me on a fascinating journey through time.
In the 1860s, U.S. Army soldiers pursuing Apaches found a stray dog at an abandoned ranchero in the canyon. This is how the canyon was allegedly named. But, the canyon could have just as easily been named from any number of its fascinating natural features. Ancient crinoids and other fossils riddle the San Andres limestone. Expansive views of the Tularosa Basin and its white sand, the fresh smell of pine and juniper trees, and the solitude of the canyon are equally worthy as namesakes. Side trails lead to cascading streams, perennial springs, edible plants, and blooming wildflowers.
Armed with topographic maps, a gallon of water, and the story of Chief Nana I found in the Guide to the New Mexico Mountains by Herbert E. Ungnade, I retraced the footpaths of the Apaches as I skirted 1,500-foot canyon walls and steep rock benches. Ancient people have used the canyon pathway from the basin to the mountains for 4,000 years. It is easy to see how these great cliffs were naturally defensive refuges for Apaches during attacks and why they loved the canyon so much. In fact, Geronimo while imprisoned at Fort Sill, Oklahoma is said to have grieved over the occupation of the canyon by white invaders.
As I sat among the ruins of the Line Cabin located on a side trail, I imagined myself one of the few homesteaders of this harsh environment and I began to read the story of Chief Nana. It was during the mid to late 1800's when this trail provided routes for Chief Nana and his 15 men to battle Army troops. In the area of Dog Canyon, Chief Nana, nearly blind and rheumatic, is said to have fought 8 battles against 1,000 men murdering 200, kidnapped 2 women, horse-napped 200 horses, and still escaped.
According to Herbert E. Ungnade, 60 soldiers pursued Chief Nana into Dog Canyon in 1880 and the Apaches rolled boulders from the "Eyebrow" trail toward the 9th Cavalry wounding or killing almost everyone. Apparently, there were many more battles between Apaches and the Army in the canyon.
However, Apache and Army skirmishes aren't the only interesting stories of the canyon. A French homesteader near the mouth of the canyon named Francois-Jean "Frenchy" Rochas ran cattle and cultivated an orchard in the area. He was found murdered in his cabin in 1894. The State Park has partially reconstructed Frenchy's cabin for public view.
Another intriguing character of Dog Canyon was the Texan Oliver Lee himself. He was a successful cattleman and controversial state legislator. Around 1892, Lee built his ranch one-mile from the canyon and with the help of Frenchy developed an irrigation system to direct spring water from the canyon for his herd. Lee was indicted for the murder of his rival Colonel Albert J. Fountain but was acquitted for lack of evidence. Lee may have been responsible for Frenchy's demise. Lee died in 1941.
From the cabin, the trail leaves Dog Canyon for a 1,000-foot climb to Joplin Ridge as Dog Canyon leads to an impressive yet impenetrable dry waterfall. Although I ended my hike at Joplin Ridge and enjoyed an easy climb down, the trail continues along Forest Road 90 where the network of trails and roads through the forest is never-ending.
Continue to hike along Holder Ridge to the north or venture deeper into one of the many canyons for a longer trek. But just remember as you hike the peaks of the Sacramento Mountains Chief Nana and his men may be watching you.
Postscript: When a park posts signs warning of rattlesnakes, take them seriously. On my recent return to Dog Canyon, I was hiking through a grassy section of the trail when I started thinking about what I would do if I were bitten by a rattlesnake. "Would a cell phone work? Could I remain calm and hike back?" I wondered not longer than 10 seconds before I stepped on something. The soles of my old boots are worn thin so I feel everything I step on. Whatever it was pulled out from under the toebox of my boot and made a slight rattle sound. Of course, I jumped away thinking rattlesnake and then began immediately looking for the critter. I found him climbing through a bush. A rattesnake! In a bush! If my boot soles had been any thicker, I doubt I would have felt it as the rattlesnake pulled the tip of his tail out from under my boot. I had barely pinned his tail and I believe the rattle sound came as a result of him pulling his tail away. He probably heard me coming and was trying to slither off the trail when I nailed him. Anyway, watch your step and be careful.
How To Get There:
DRIVE TIME: Oliver Lee Memorial State Park is 15 minutes (13 miles) south of Alamogordo, NM and 1 ½ hours (80 miles) north of El Paso, TX.
THE WAY: From Alamogordo, take Highway 54 south for 8.7 miles. From El Paso, take Highway 54 north for 75 miles. Either way, turn east and follow the road for 4.2 miles to the state park visitor center.
TRAIL: Dog Canyon Trail, sometimes called the Eyebrow Trail, leaves the state park visitor center and continues up canyon for a 4.2 mile one-way hike to Joplin Ridge and Forest Road 90. Round trip is 8.4 miles. Or, place a car shuttle on the forest road about 4 miles southwest of Sacramento Peak.
ELEVATION: The elevation gain of the trail is 3,130 feet with the last 1,000 feet becoming moderate to strenuous. Joplin Ridge elevation is about 7,700’.
CAN’T MISS: The waterfall (sometimes dry) east of the Line Cabin and further up Dog Canyon.
CROWD CONTROL: Oliver Lee Memorial State Park’s visitor center and campground are the main attractions. Few venture up canyon further than the end of the nature trail. Achieving solitude is no problem at the higher elevations.
SEASON: Spring and fall are the best times. June and July are typically too hot unless you’re a morning hiker or in the higher elevations. Winter brings snow.
GUIDES: USGS topographic maps for Deadman Canyon, Alamogordo South, and Sacramento Peak are best for details. Lincoln National Forest Map for Smokey Bear, Cloudcroft, and Mayhill Ranger Districts (one map) is adequate. Maps available from the Lincoln National Forest (see Contact below).
WALK SOFTLY: When visiting the cabin, take care and remember to leave any artifacts as you found them. The springs and streams are delicate ecosystems so camp at least 200 feet from them.
CONTACT: Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, (505) 437-8284. Lincoln National Forest- Forest Supervisor, (505) 437-6030.