Ever hear of Dog Canyon? I hadn't either until a spur-of-the-moment trip brought me there and made me realize that state parks are some of the most underrated public lands you might never have used.
That re-route will shape all our future travel.
When we arrived late on a mid-winter afternoon at White Sands to find that travel trailers aren’t permitted in the park, we had to scramble for a Plan B. Normally, National Forest and BLM lands are our first choice for their easy access, but the few sites we found quickly were close to the road, shabby, and overused. That’s when Jen noticed a state park, Oliver Lee, 30 minutes to the east. There was no answer when we rang to see if they were booked, so we headed there anyway, not hopeful.
We stayed almost two weeks.
Oliver Lee Memorial is a peculiar state park. It was once part of White Sands National Monument, an odd association as the chalky gypsum dunes of the monument, nearly 30 miles away, bear no physical resemblance to the scrappy, thorny, barren, high-desert recluse at the base of the dry Sacramento Mountains. The place was significant first as a Mescalero Apache stronghold dating back to the 1400s, then as a late 19th century homestead. And though the place was transferred to the National Park Service in 1939, it didn't come into the New Mexico state park system—probably for lack of funding—until 1983.
That we could roll into Oliver Lee at 4:30 p.m. on a weekend and get an electric hook-up campsite a few days after the New Year speaks to the advantages of the state park system. Reservations in national parks are often made months, if not years, in advance, and the prices are double or more than the $14 we shelled out for a New Mexico state park site with hookups. If the national parks are the polished crown jewels of the U.S. public land system, our state parks are the geodes that litter the American West: they may not look like much at first, but crack them open, and they’re far more ubiquitous—and nearly as dazzling.
This is not an attack on the national parks system. The country’s public lands must be counted as some of our finest and most important monuments. Go see them, support them, stay there. However, they are limited commodities, and, based on our experience, they often overshadow excellent—and otherwise overlooked—state lands.
In the Land of Enchantment, we have exactly one national park, Carlsbad Caverns, which is an outrageous place that I’ve visited numerous times. (Yeah, that doesn’t account for New Mexico’s awesome national monuments—14 of the country’s 129—or historic parks—three of of 51—or national preserves—one of 20.) Everyone should visit White Sands. Coast to coast, only 27 states have national parks. Meanwhile, New Mexico has 35 state parks, of which I’ve seen only two. There are only 59 national parks compared to 10,234 state parks nationwide.
Though I’ve often judged state parks as inferior to the national variety, based on Oliver Lee, these places are no less compelling. At the eastern flank of the park, where the mountains surge from the thorny flatlands, the Dog Canyon National Recreation Trail (#106) wends irresistibly into the hills. I’m generally not much of a hiker and had planned on a mountain bike ride on a nearby trail I’d heard about following our backcountry overnights in White Sands. But seeing that Dog Canyon path burned like a well-used game trail into the mountainside, I couldn’t resist.
We left at 2 p.m., after I’d finished work, and though Jen was slightly anxious about carrying on, we pushed deeper into the parched mountains. We saw no one, save a couple likely in their 50s huffing up the initial slope. Then it was only century plants, rocky cliffs scraping our shoulders, and silence. We hiked five miles and over 3,000 vertical feet into the arid Sacramento Mountains, ogling homestead sites from over a century ago and land that felt like we were the first hikers in weeks. We bumped a few sturdy elk at our high point, walked through a herd of deer on the way down, heard a barbary sheep clatter rocks in the dusky eve, and finished long, long after dark. Dog Canyon was—outside of my ascent up Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and a backcountry push to Machu Picchu years ago—the best hike I’ve done in two decades. And I had no idea it was sitting, waiting for me in a remote, unappealing part of off-the-map New Mexico.
Artemis was waiting for us in a 44-site campground that had only eight or ten visitors. We heated up cheese quesadillas and elk green chile from our hunt earlier in the year. And with weary legs and creaking knees, we plotted how we could visit every park in the state before the year was out.