I often have to drive on Highway 54 to Alamogordo, New Mexico from my home here in El Paso, Texas. Along the way I always pass the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park which is home to a hike deep into the Sacramento Mountains called the Dog Canyon Trail:
I have heard from friends that this hike is one of the best in the region so finally on a recent weekend I decided to take a day and hike this canyon:
I would find out that not only was this an extremely challenging and beautiful hike, but this now peaceful canyon has had a colorful and often violent past.
I woke early and arrived at Oliver Lee State Park after about an hour drive from El Paso around 7:00AM in the morning:
Oliver Lee State Park is much more than just the start for the Dog Canyon Trail, it also has a large visitor center and a number of campsites for visitors:
The first thing I decided to check out before heading out on my hike was the ruins of the cabin constructed in 1886 by Francois Jean Rochas who was known as “Frenchy” to the locals:
Frenchy constructed the cabin and and nearby rock walls to enclose his cattle:
He also was successful in irrigating crops and vineyards on his property with water from the canyon. It was this access to a reliable water source in such an arid area that would later bring great trouble to this Frenchman who just wanted to be left alone. What is interesting about Frenchy is that before arriving at Dog Canyon he has been linked to being the builder of the famous wooden staircase in the Lorretto Chapel in Santa Fe that has caused some people to believe he was a holy figure such as St. Joseph. You can view pictures of my visit to Santa Fe and the chapel at this link. Anyway no one really knows why Frenchy decided to move to Dog Canyon, or even to New Mexico for that matter, but where ever he lived, he led a solitary life and was largely regarded as being a hermit.
From Frenchy’s cabin I then walked up to the visitor center but it was closed. However, I didn’t come here to see the visitor center; I came here to see Dog Canyon and behind the building I found the start of the trail:
This one way 5.5 mile hike begins at about 4,300 feet in altitude and reaches to over 7,000 feet at the end of the trail. Immediately from the start of the hike, the trail begins a steep ascent up the canyon, which provided great views of the Oliver Lee Memorial State Park:
It wasn’t long before I was stopping to admire the great views across the Tularosa Basin:
Here is a view of the Jarilla Mountains that lies between El Paso and Alamogordo that interestingly enough to this day hobby gold seekers continue to prospect for gold at:
Off in the distance I could see the old ranch house of Oliver Lee that the park is named after:
Oliver Lee (1865-1941) was a famous gunfighter that owned a large ranch along the edge of the Sacramento Escarpment that became instrumental in the founding of Alamogordo as well as Otero County. Lee came to New Mexico as a teenager in 1884 with his brother from their native Texas. They worked on local ranches and saved up their money. In 1893Oliver Lee bought the land near Frenchy to start his Dog Canyon Ranch. He would soon find himself in conflict with a major local rancher named John Good. Oliver Lee had sent one of his ranch hands George McDonald into Dog Canyon to round up some stray cattle. Poor George would never make it back out as he was later found shot to death in the canyon. Lee believed that Good killed his ranch hand and thus retaliated against Good by killing his son. Lee continued this retaliation by shooting at the Good family at their son’s funeral. This started a range war where gunfights would break out at various ranch houses in the area. The Sheriff ultimately ended up arresting Lee, but he was released when prosecutors could not find anyone to testify against him. Within a year Good had taken steep loses from Lee and decided to leave the Tularosa Basin for good while he still could.
Picture of Oliver Lee from the True West Magazine Blog.
This left Lee with only one other problem, he was reliant on the goodness of Frenchy to provide him water since he owned the land where the spring was located in Dog Canyon. Lee tried at first to buy Dog Canyon from Frenchy, but he refused to sell. Oliver Lee than turned to intimidation of Frenchy, but even this could not convince the Frenchman to sell his land. Eventually Frenchy was found shot to death in his small cabin near the Dog Canyon spring in 1894. It is still a mystery of who killed Frenchy, but Oliver Lee has long been suspected of the killing. With both Frenchy and Good gone Lee now controlled a large amount of land in the Tularosa Basin that he could irrigate with the reliable water source from Dog Canyon. This led to him to become a wealthy and powerful rancher. So powerful in fact that he ended up taking on top government and law enforcement officials to include the man who killed Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett. Even Pat Garrett would prove not to be tough enough to stop Oliver Lee.
Colonel Albert Fountain
In 1895 Oliver Lee was accused by government officials for livestock theft. Though the accusations were likely true there was also political reasons for the prosecution since Lee was friends with a powerful Democrat Albert Fall who had defeated Republican, Colonel Albert Fountain in 1890 for the New Mexico state legislature. Fountain worked as a lawyer in Mesilla after his defeat and was appointed to investigate Lee and his allies for livestock theft. Fountain and his 8 year old son disappeared in 1896 as they returned from Lincoln to Mesilla after conducting an investigation into Lee’s activities. Their bodies were never found and all that was left at the likely murder scene was Fountain’s buckboard wagon, several empty cartridge cases, his cravat and papers, and two pools of blood. The Dona Ana County Sheriff at the time Pat Garrett pursued Oliver Lee and his men for the murder and finally cornered them in 1898 in Alamagordo. This led to a shoot out where Lee successfully forced Garrett and his deputies to flee after pinning them down and killing Garrett’s deputy Kurt Kearney. The man who had both captured and eventually gun downed Billy the Kid had been run out of town by the infamous Oliver Lee who would add further insult to injury by getting away with the murder of Garrett’s deputy.
To avoid conviction for killing the deputy Lee used his powerful political connections to form Otero County and thus make Dona Ana County’s Sheriff Pat Garrett irrelevant. Once Otero County was formed Lee’s friend George Curry was made Sheriff. Lee than surrendered to the Sheriff to face trial in the new Otero County where he was quickly acquitted of all crimes.
Lee would continue to live at his Dog Canyon Ranch until 1907 when he took over operations for the Circle Cross Ranch located deep in the high country of the Sacramento Mountains. He eventually became one of the most powerful ranchers in all of New Mexico with him controlling an estimated 1 million acres of land. Lee’s power and wealth led to him becoming a prominent legislator serving in both houses of the New Mexico Legislature. He died in Alamogordo in 1941.
A picture of Oliver Lee in his elderly days. Click picture to learn more about this image.
I think a strong case could be made that Oliver Lee was probably a much worse outlaw than Billy the Kid ever was, but few people have ever heard of Oliver Lee outside of southern New Mexico. With such an intriguing history it is surprising that a movie of some kind hasn’t been made of the outlaw who killed his way to power & wealth and then successfully took on the government of New Mexico and the infamous Pat Garrett culminating in him creating his own county that became his own unofficial fiefdom.
Anyway enough of the history lesson and back to the hike. As I continued up the trial the views too the south of the Sacramento escarpment were quite beautiful:
Even for people who don’t want to hike the entire trail, just hiking up this first section is worth it just to take in the views. In under a mile the trail exits Oliver Lee State Park and enters into the Lincoln National Forest:
Eventually the ascent up the mountain stopped at a level plain known as the “First Bench”:
The bench was covered in native Chihuahuan Desert shrubs and offered view of the surrounding canyon walls:
As I walked along the trail I could also make out the sound of water running down in the creek below:
After the First Bench the trail begins another ascent as it climbs higher into the escarpment providing increasingly incredible views of the canyon’s walls:
You would think this place would be extremely popular with rock climbers, but I have never heard of the Sacramento Escarpment being a place frequented by rock climbers. Anyway I continued to hike up the trail I not only appreciated the dramatic cliff faces that surrounded me, but the desert scenery as well:
Here is a picture looking down on the First Bench:
After about an hour and a half of hiking I found myself walking across the Second Bench of the Dog Canyon Trail:
The First Bench as I walked across it was littered with large boulders that had eroded and fallen off the surrounding cliff sides:
Looking down the canyon I could follow the Dog Canyon creek as it flowed out and into the Tularosa Basin far below:
Just ahead of me I could see the head waters of this creek which lied at the very end of the Second Bench:
Peering down from the Second Bench I could make out the cabin that Frenchy had constructed to serve as his quarters when he was busy grazing cattle here in the upper reaches of Dog Canyon:
The trail descends down to cabin and crosses over the small spring that serves as the head waters for the Dog Canyon Creek:
The water was actually quite clean, but there was plenty of bugs flying around it considering it is the only water source in the area. The water in this springs comes from ice and snow melt from high up in the Sacramento Mountains that drips its way through the surrounding rock walls and accumulates here at this spring. It really was quite a pleasant place and definitely a nice place to build a cabin:
Here is a closer look at Frenchy’s cabin that he built by constructing three rock walls that used one of the large rocks that fell off the canyon’s walls as the fourth wall:
Inside the cabin there is an old bed frame which I have no idea if this is the original bed frame that belong to Frenchy, but it is in here that Frenchy was ambushed and murdered likely be Oliver Lee or his henchmen in order to secure the water rights to this canyon:
When you think about if Frenchy was in fact the builder of the Lorretto Chapel staircase, than Oliver Lee was responsible for murdering someone that many had considered to be a holy figure. It is a bit ironic that someone so evil would be responsible for killing someone so good.
In the front of Frenchy’s cabin was a flat area that had a camp fire ring that I could tell had been recently used by campers:
I don’t know if camping is legal here or not, but it is definitely an exceptional place for a campsite if so.
Frenchy’s cabin serves as the halfway point for this hike and is often used as the turn around point for many hikers since the trail becomes much more steeper and difficult passed the cabin. However, I had plans to hike the entire trail and felt great by the time I reached the cabin at just under 2 hours. After taking a short water break I proceeded to continue up the trail that continues to ascend up the canyon behind Frenchy’s cabin:
Next Posting: Dog Canyon, New Mexico – Part 2