Richard (my brother-in-law) and I rose early for our hike up the Dog Canyon National 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.
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.
Sheer 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).
We 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.
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.