Wild West History at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park

Oliver Lee Memorial
State Park.
Photo by Joel Bickings.
Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. Photo by Joel Bickings.

At first site, Oliver Lee Memorial State Park in southern New Mexico might seem merely a quiet, off-the-beaten-path, sun-backed stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert. The stillness of the landscape, the massive towering cliffs that form a Hollywood-like set backdrop to the Park, even the occasional, swirling dust clouds that meander through the mesquite and yucca desert might give one the impression of quiet permanence. However, a closer look reveals much more.

Located thirteen miles south of Alamogordo off highway 54 at the entrance of Dog Canyon, the Park is a repository of some of the most dramatic history in New Mexico-land disputes and murders, Apaches on the warpath and U.S. Cavalry, wagon trains and pioneer ranchers. The Park is named after Oliver Lee, a one-time Dog Canyon rancher, one-time politician, and, some even say, one-time murderer and land-grabber, who rose to become one of the most influential men in the wild west history of New Mexico.

Although Park life now is rather less dramatic than in the bigger-than-life Lee’s day, one can still come and hear the famous stories of Lee and tour his restored ranch house on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Here one can also visit the ruins of "Frenchy’s" (Francois-Jean Rochas) cabin, where this original Dog Canyon pioneer was found dead with a bullet in his chest around Christmas in 1894, a year after Lee arrived at the Canyon. Most historians believe Frenchy met his end in a dispute over land or water rights. Sometime later, Lee was implicated in a case involving the disappearance of a prominent lawyer, Albert Fountain, and his eight-year old son, Henry, neither of whose bodies were ever found. Lee later became a primary investor in ranch holdings that covered over one million acres, stretching nearly to the Arizona border.

Today, Dog Canyon is a somewhat safer place, unless you happen to wander the 5.5 mile hiking trail from the Park office up to Joplin Ridge (a climb of over 4000 feet) in summer without sufficient water. The towering cliffs that flank this Canyon are some of the most spectacular in the Southwest. It was here in the 1880s that soldiers of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry exchanged lead with Apache warriors across the exposed landscape as they chased the Indians up the ravine. Hike into the Canyon and you will find some high desert benches thick with grasses and tree-size choya reminiscent of the old New Mexico before the coming of the ranchers and their cattle.

Chihuahuan Desert Plants. Photo by Joel Bickings.

Flora in the Park is unique to the Chihuahuan Desert and includes towering Tory Yuccas along with the slighter, more sleek Soaptree. Cactus abound everywhere in the coarse, rocky soil, so watch your step. Jackrabbits and cottontails scurry across the roads and pathways, and dozens of bird species pass through the Park in late summer on their way south. The riparian habitat around the spring that issues out of Dog Canyon is home to many kinds of birds and animals, as well.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Oliver Lee Memorial State Park today is the Desert Garden, painstakingly created by the Otero County Native Plant Society. For those desert rats who can’t get enough of the Chihuahuan ecology and want some hands-on learning, this garden is the spot. With many kinds of Chihuahuan succulents, shrubs, and wildflowers, this garden is truly a unique experience. Come in mid-to-late summer and see an astonishing number of butterflies among the many splashes of color.

With 44 campsites (18 with electricity and water; some handicapped-accessible, as well), the Park is a good base for exploring the surrounding desert, White Sands National Monument, and the Sacramento Mountains. One word of caution: this part of New Mexico can be very hot and dehydrating in the summer, and, in the spring, the strong, ever-present winds can make sleeping out under the stars a memorable experience, to say the least.