Hiking and Touring in Lincoln National Forest, An Odd Visit at Fort Stanton, and Elk!
Our first weekend off from Habitat we drove up into the Sierra Blanca mountains of Lincoln National Forest, about a hundred miles east of Las Cruces. I had been itching to hike in the mountains but we found everything predictably muddy and/or snow-covered above 7,000 feet so after cresting the summit on Route 70 we continued on, looking for opportunities as we descended the eastern side of the range. We didn’t have to travel more than 10 miles until we found a perfectly good forest road that led into grassland and pinyon pine-covered hills. We parked and started uphill along the road, passing a ranch about a mile from 70. Though snowy and muddy in sections we were easily able to bypass anything that was potentially slippery for the couple miles we stuck to the road; after that we crossed one of the fields and picked up a cow trail for another few miles. Of course we climbed a few hills and ridges.
After staying overnight in the delightful mountain town of Ruidoso we set out early the next morning to do some exploring and right away found ourselves looking at a herd of elk!! Abby and I got very excited (for different reasons) and I got to take some photos from the car. Abbs is very enthusiastic about elk; she goes bananas when we’re out hiking and come across a fresh trail but she has yet to actually locate any for me. I am still holding out hope that I can train her to be an #ElkFinder. Anyway, we continued on until we came across what was clearly an old military fort. We stopped and walked around for over an hour but there was no one anywhere, plus there was a vandalized building that had some modern machinery inside which was weird. The more we explored, the more unlocked buildings we found. At this point we were wondering what the heck was going on – not a lot of historical information posted for what was clearly a historical military fort, no cars or people, (some) buildings that had some modern stuff inside, and most creepily, buildings that seemed to have been abandoned in mid-renovation. Like, dangling telecommunications wires that were only partially run through buildings, work orders lying around from 2005, etc. The mystery was growing until we reached a building that appeared to have gift items inside. Then a person appeared, unlocked the door, invited us inside, and told us that a historical society was raising funds to restore the fort but only a few buildings had been renovated (gesturing to a cluster of buildings to the north we hadn’t walked past). Mystery solved. After watching a short historical film we learned about the long and varied history of the property, originally opened in 1855 to “protect” settlers from the Apache natives, converted to a federal tuberculosis hospital in 1899, and used during WWII as a detention center for German and Japanese prisoners of war. Our questions answered, we went back outside to explore a few more areas, including the stables where I encountered a very friendly horse, before attempting to cross the Rio Bonito to the ruins of the detention camp that included a prisoner-constructed swimming pool used for diving competitions, of all things. We returned to the car after discovering the road crossing the river was flooded which sadly prevented us from seeing the camp and pool in person.
Our exploration of Lincoln National Forest continued as we toured a route that eventually looped back to Ruidoso; views of the foothills and the surrounding snowy mountains were fantastic as we drove north into the Capitan Mountains. We also passed a museum in the town of Capitan that celebrated the real-life bear that became the mascot for the Smokey the Bear ad campaign. I was unaware, but it was apparently a black bear cub rescued by the forest service from a wildfire near Capitan in 1950 that came to be known as the “real Smokey;” said bear even lived the last part of his life in the National Zoo in Washington D.C.