Oliver Lee Memorial State Park brings alive history from the wild frontier days before New Mexico was a state.
The park is located 8 miles south of Alamogordo on U.S. 54. It also features hiking and camping in the surprisingly lush Dog Canyon area of the foothills of the Sacramento Mountains.
The 620-acre park is named after a colorful and influential character, Oliver Lee, from the turn of the 20th century.
Lee was a rancher, state legislator and businessman who was instrumental in bringing the railroad to Alamogordo.
He also was handy with his gun and even stood trial and was acquitted for murder in the disappearance of lawyer Albert Fountain and his young son. Fountain was associated with a rival group of ranchers.
“It was a really rough time back then,” said Kate German, park manager at Oliver Lee. “(Lee) was known for not being afraid to pull out his weapon and use it if he needed to.”
“He is very much the character,” German continued. “Back then, they would shoot you over water or a barbed-wire fence. It was a different time. Lawmen were few and far between and people had to solve their own problems a lot of the time.”
One of the park’s highlights is a restored ranch house, where Lee lived from 1893 to 1907. The ranch house can only be seen on guided tours. At one time, the ranch house had a barn, bunkhouse, chicken house, slaughterhouse and small orchard. You can still see the adobe ruins from some of the outlying structures.
Also, the 1971 Disney move “Scandalous John” was shot at the ranch house. Some adobe ruins – from structures that were added specifically for the movie – are still standing, but they are in worse shape than the original parts of the ranch.
Adding to the historical flavor of the park, you can see the ruins of a cabin used by another Old West character – Francois-Jean “Frenchy” Rochas – near the park’s visitors center. Frenchy worked with Lee to bring water from Dog Canyon down to his ranch house, German said.
Several rock walls – that were built by Frenchy – are still standing throughout the park. Frenchy is thought to be the carpenter who built the mysterious Loretto Chapel staircase in Santa Fe.
The park features two hiking trails that cater to all skill levels.
The challenging Dog Canyon Trail goes to the top of the Sacramento Mountains and gains about 3,100 feet in elevation. It’s an 11-mile round trip, but many people turn around at the 3-mile mark where there is an historic rock structure that used to be a ranching cabin and a spring that flows some of the time
Some people park a car on the other end and hike from Oliver Lee to Sunspot for a strenuous 10-mile trip.
For the less adventuresome, there is the nature trail that leaves from the park’s visitors center. This is about 800-feet long and ends at a picnic table. You can go off trail there and walk up to some pools and springs. When the water is running a lot, the pools can be as deep as your waist.
“It’s not something you would expect to see around Alamogordo,” German said.
The nature trail once circled back and formed a loop. But that part of the trail was wiped out during the 2006 flooding that hit the Borderland, was rebuilt and damaged again by flooding in 2008.
You can still hike along the damaged part of the trail if you are up for it, German said. There are plans to work with a conservation group out of Ruidoso – EcoServants – to restore the loop part of the trail, she said.
For those wanting to stay overnight or up to two weeks, the park has 44 campsites that offer spectacular views of the Tularosa Basin to the west and the Sacramento Mountains to the east. Sixteen of the sites have water and electricity. Seven can be reserved year-round, with an eighth that can sometimes be reserved. There are also nine sites that have designated tent pads.
The park has a group site that can be reserved. It has a designated RV site and four walk-in tent sites. You can also pitch tents throughout the group area.
Other amenities include a restroom with running water and showers in the center of the campground. a lighted pathway to the main restroom, a vaulted toilet in the southern part of the campground near the tent sites and a visitor’s center with running water and restrooms.
Water is also located at different spots throughout the campground.