There was one last destination I wanted to scratch off my bucket list before we packed up and moved to Utah: White Sands National Monument. In order to make a weekend out of it, we decided to camp in Lincoln National Forest in the section near Ruidoso. I had long been familiar with Ruidoso – since Texans flock to the town for a nearby mountain retreat – but had never visited.
We left Marfa after school on Friday and didn’t hit Ruidoso till dark. Thankfully Zach had already chosen a campsite – Oak Grove Campground in the Smokey Bear district of the forest. We avoided elk and deer along the road as we ascended to the campground and had to assemble our campsite in the dark. Soon we were settled and tucked into our tent for a peaceful night.
We awoke the next morning to a turkey’s call and a light rain. We decided to pack up our things, go into town for breakfast, and wait for the skies to (hopefully) clear.
Thankfully, after a hearty breakfast burrito at Porky’s and a little coffee time at Zocca, the skies had brightened and were rain-free. We went to the Smokey Bear Ranger Station to grab some maps and discovered the story behind the name. In 1950, after a devastating forest fire, a small black bear cub was found clinging to a scorched tree badly burned and alone. They named the cub Smokey. After being treated for his burns in Santa Fe, Smokey was relocated to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. There his exhibit spread the message of fire prevention and eventually led to the Smokey the Bear campaign with which so many of us are familiar.
We decided to check out Monjeau Peak. Near the top of the peak is a campground we were interested in for our second night, along with a hiking trail and the Monjeau Lookout. Much of the area we drove through and overlooked was recovering from the 2012 Little Bear Fire. The wildfire began with a lightning strike in the White Mountain Wilderness and eventually burned 44,330 acres.
We stopped first at the prospective campsite – Sky Line Campground – to admire the view and stretch our legs. It would have been a great site but we decided that the reported thunderstorms might make it a bad spot for lightning. Just a short drive farther up the road was the trail for a few different hikes in the White Mountain Wilderness. We wanted to take Truman for a brief hike so we started the trail and then doubled back around to the beginning. Truman’s enthusiasm can take him a lot farther than his legs. At some point, we’d like to come back sans dog to do a true hike.
After our little hike, we completed the drive up to Monjeau Peak to take a look at the Monjeau Lookout. The Monjeau Lookout in place today was built in 1940; the original was built in the same spot in 1936 by the CCC. The lookout is on the National Register of Historic Places making it a frequent stop for visitors in the area. You can climb up to the lookout and admire the views from the top. Though the website states that it’s still closed, we were able to go up and look around. I’m not sure if the website needs to be updated or if we were just lucky.
After our trek up to Monjeau Peak we decided to head into town to take a look around. We stumbled upon a great craft beer bar, Hidden Tap, so we hung out there for quite a while before strolling the city’s main street. Ruidoso has a great downtown district with plenty of stores to satisfy anyone’s craving for kitschy souvenirs, tees, sweets, and food.
Since the rain had held off all afternoon, we decided to spend some more time in town at Sacred Grounds Coffee House. Their new location recently opened and has two large decks on the back overlooking the Ruidoso River. It’s an amazing spot to while away an hour or two, plus Zach was in awe of their $1 bottomless cups of coffee. We even went back for breakfast the next morning.
We left Sacred Grounds to find a new campsite before dark and the impending rain. This time we went farther out of town toward Bonito Lake. (The lake was closed after the Little Bear Fire and has yet to re-open.) We ended up settling on the Upper Bonito Camping, a primitive, dispersed camping area straddling the Bonito Creek. Since there weren’t designated spots, we picked an open grassy area near the creek. Our spot seemed idyllic at first, but there was a rager a little ways from us. At first we were only irritated by their obscenely loud music but as the night went on I was continually awakened by car lights driving back and forth to the party. On the bright side, the thunderstorms we had anticipated never manifested over our tent, so, although there was a steady rain most of the night, there was no threat of lightning strikes.
In the morning we had to pack up in the rain again but like the day before, the rain ended shortly after we drove into town. After breakfast at Sacred Grounds, we left Ruidoso for the hour drive to White Sands.