Climbing the Dog

Richard (my brother-in-law) and I rose early for our hike up the Dog Canyon NationalDSCN0819 Historic Trail outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Dog Canyon is a rigorous day hike in any season, especially summer, but at least the clouded sky was in our favor. Climbing the steep escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains, hikers can experience a rise of over 3,500 feet in 5.5 miles.

Today we were spared the sun’s brutality. With sufficient water and relaxing pace, we enjoyed a three-mile climb to the Fairchild Line Cabin and back, a four-hour hike. From the trailhead, we ascended 600 feet in six-tenths of a mile before reaching the first bench, or plateau. There would be no shade for the first two miles of the hike. The desert vegetation here consists of plants such as mesquite, creosote, ocotillo, agave, and prickly pear. The natural and human history of the place seemed palpable.DSCN0840

For thousands of years, native people climbed from the Tulerosa Basin (White Sands) into the Sacramento Mountains because of Dog Canyon’s spring-fed stream. In the late 1800s, the U.S. Calvary pursued Apache Indians along this trail and lost most of its soldiers in an ambush at the upper canyon. The Apaches unleashed giant rocks and boulders on the terrified men and horses down below, then briefly held to their freedom by finishing off the soldiers with their spears and arrows.

DSCN0843Sheer cliffs of limestone and dolomite rose 1,500 feet to the right of us. The distant basin, the White Sands National Monument, and the San Andres range shone below us to the west. We climbed another set of sweat-inducing switchbacks then reached a second plateau. Here the vegetation changed dramatically. We found lush grass with juniper and fragrant ash. This area of the Lincoln National Forest is ideal for backcountry camping in spring or fall (check with the National Forest Service for current fire hazard status).

DSCN0849We flushed a common poorwill from its roost beside the trail. This bird, a slightly smaller version of the eastern whip-poor-will, was a life-bird for me, a first encounter. The stillness and quiet of the high desert wilderness refreshed me, as always. The dry mountain air revealed the sweet notes of a canyon wren that called from a rock wall far away.

Primitive life was at the root of us. It seemed to unearth itself and rise through the layers of our modern ways. The desert had fallen off and left us with a feeling of mountain heights. The distance and vastness of creation entered the framework of our bodies.DSCN0852

From the second bench we descended into the canyon and arrived at the ruins of the Fairchild Line Cabin– stone walls with a bed frame and an aura of old whiskey bottles. Large junipers and cottonwoods dominated the pools of water and the delicate riparian zone.

We didn’t have the time, or energy, for the “Eyebrow,” a steep climb just beyond the cabin. That’s a tough haul for even an experienced hiker. There the trail rises a thousand feet in less than a mile. It rises to a pine forest in elk country, but the climb would have to wait for a cooler season.DSCN0854

black-throated sparrow

black-throated sparrow

The sun began to burn through the clouds. The three mile climb had been rewarding, but we quickly turned around. The long descent would be a faster walk. Our feet and legs would soon feel the pain.DSCN0825

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About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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12 Responses to Climbing the Dog

  1. Junior says:

    It’s great that, even for something that has become a tradition for Franklin visits to the area, you can find something completely new to you. On the other hand, it looks like the overall progression of the hike was comfortingly familiar.

  2. It looks like wonderful country Walt. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Puget Keith says:

    The desert sure strips life down to the basics. It is remarkable how hardy the plants and animals are to flourish in that seemingly inhospitable climate.

  4. Joseph Hord says:

    I’ve always enjoyed beautiful counry mixed with a little history. Thanks for taking us along for the hike!

  5. A Franklin says:

    Were these pics taken with your new camera? They look great! I wish I was there!

  6. Thanks Alyssa. They were taken with my/your “new” camera. I like it, too.

  7. Abby Austin says:

    Great trail, Franklin, and a fun account. We’ve moved out of the Borderland, but its stories and photos like this that keep me close, but also make me miss it. Unfortunately, this trail is one I did not hike. Any time we ventured to the national forest, it was all the way to the top, only passing by. However, I did have the chance to visit Salado Canyon and see the springs and the transition that takes place in that elevation between desert and alpine. You saw it the best from this trail because you saw the hike, the elevation gain, the sweat it took to change climates. Thanks for taking me back to the southwest, Franklin! I’m glad you’ve found a “home away from home” of sorts in New Mexico. It’s amazing country!

  8. Abby, I’ve got to take some time real soon and try to catch up with you, the blog, and the changes! I agree, Dog Canyon is an excellent place to get a strong feeling of southwestern NM and its diversity, to understand something of the balance between desert and mountain forest, elevation changes, and of our own place in the mix. It was certainly fun and sweat-producing. You saw some wonderful country there, of course, but yeah, the Dog is special. There’s always more of it to explore. Thanks for checking in and keeping in touch.

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