By Dixie Boyle • Photos by Michael Meyer
Fourth of July Canyon, located in the Cibola National Forest on the east side of the Manzano Mountains just west of the village of Tajique, is one of the most popular destinations for hikers and campers in the state of New Mexico. Maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, this scenic spot includes 24 camping spaces, barbecue grills, restrooms, and plenty of parking for day visitors and picnickers.
Hikers can either take the easy, one-mile trek up to the head of the canyon or continue along the moderate-to-steep 6.5-mile loop that ends back at the campground. Those who merely want to enjoy a scenic Sunday afternoon drive can take the 55 Loop Road, which circles through Fourth of July Canyon between Tajique and Torreon—although it’s best to do this with a high-clearance or four-wheel drive vehicle. As home to the largest stands of big-toothed maples in the region, Fourth of July Canyon is particularly busy during the fall months, when the leaves of the trees change from green to gold to vibrant red, creating an explosion of color along the area’s roadways and mountainsides.
The canyon was discovered by Torrance County pioneer A.B. McKinley on the Fourth of July in 1906. McKinley had arrived in the Estancia Valley a year earlier from Arkansas during a fierce snowstorm. He worked as a short-order cook and butcher in Estancia before moving closer to the Manzano Mountains. A.B. was married four times and had eleven children—seven sons and daughters. He outlived all his wives except for the last one. He built their family home and a sawmill outside the village of Manzano, which lies about eight miles south of Tajique. He also planted a large apple orchard there.
In one of the many articles he published in the Mountainair
Independent, McKinley wrote of his discovery: “I was in the mountains alone, except for my good trail dog.” A buck the pair was tracking led them to a flat, scenic spot among the trees, where it began to drink from a spring. “Then being so tired,” McKinley continues, “I lay down and dropped off to sleep for about two hours.”
When he awoke, McKinley decided to bring his family back to the spot to celebrate the holiday. He was a man at home in the wilderness, and he headed an adventuresome family. They extensively explored the canyons and peaks that made up their backyard, and McKinley and his sons loved to rope the wild horses that roamed the Manzanos and ride until they were bucked off. Naturally, the unsettled geography and solitude of the canyon appealed to the McKinleys, and a family tradition was born.
McKinley is also credited with building the first wagon road to the canyon. “I was the pilot to this place and cut the road where we could get wagons into the spring,” he continued in his article. “So many happy times were spent in the place I adore above all else in the Manzano Range.”
For over half a century, the large McKinley family met at Fourth of July Spring for family gatherings and picnics. In an interview with the compliers of the Torrance County History book published in 1979, McKinley’s daughter Lela Mathews shared her memories of these family excursions:
We’d load wagons with mattresses, quilts and food and head for the spring for picnics that lasted days. The women drove the wagons because the men usually went on a day or two ahead to hunt. There would be four or five wagons from our family and 15 or so kids. We’d splash through the streams, race the wagons and sing. When we’d arrive, the men would ask what had taken us so long and then ask what we had to eat. We’d spread tablecloths on the ground, and the kids would gather firewood and wildflowers.
For dessert on these camping expeditions, the women made pinto bean pie with molasses and vinegar pies said to taste like lemon. Mathews remembers that there was always plenty of coffee and cake as well. Since growing fruit other than apples was a difficulty, the children spent some of their time during the get-togethers gathering algerita berries (a kind of barberry) and mountain chokecherries, both of which would be used later to make jelly. Although A.B. McKinley passed away in 1946, when he was 86 years old, his large family would continue to meet at the Fourth of July Canyon for at least another ten years.
The U.S. Forest Service had assumed management of the Manzano Mountains in 1906, prompting the organization of the Manzano Forest Reserve. By 1909, they had established the Tajique Ranger Station and constructed a log cabin for the forest rangers that would follow. Later, they improved and widened McKinley’s wagon road, established a campground and trail system for visitors to enjoy, and constructed roads that to this day traverse Fourth of July Canyon, as well as the foothills of the Manzano Mountains. Most locals still call the spot Fourth of July Spring, but over the years it has become known officially as Fourth of July Canyon.
Inlow Baptist Camp also has a history tied to the canyon. In 1941, a Baptist missionary named Eva
Inlow purchased the home of the Ellis family, who moved to New Mexico in 1887. Upon the father’s death, the family decided to sell out and move elsewhere. Inlow turned the home, which was built in Fourth of July Canyon just east of the existing campground, into a summer camp for children.
The first year the camp opened, Inlow and her staff were expecting around 100 campers. They were not prepared for the 225 that registered. They had to quickly put together extra bunks and camping locations for the overflow of young people. Soon, the camp boasted a dorm that would hold 65 girls and another with enough room for 45 boys.
Inlow also had a large courtyard and playground constructed for the children when they were not involved in other group activities, some of which included hiking in the Fourth of July Canyon.
Those first campers were asked to pay a $2.50 fee and donate the following food items: a bottle of milk, one box of spaghetti noodles, one pound of bacon, five pounds of potatoes, one box of oatmeal, two loaves of bread, and two cans each of corn, tomatoes, and peas. Anyone who brought ten or more boys and girls were given a free meal ticket and free tuition.
The camp is still thriving, in the shadows of Fourth of July Canyon, 78 years later.
One hundred and thirteen years have passed since A.B. McKinley discovered the spring he named the Fourth of July. Those waters still flow, and the Mountainair District of the U.S. Forest Service has developed the canyon site into an enchanting location in which to recreate and enjoy the outdoors. People from all over the state, the country, and the world continue to come here, just as A.B. McKinley and his family did close to a century earlier.
To get to Fourth of July Canyon, take I-40 east out of Albuquerque to the junction with NM 337 (Tijeras exit). Follow NM 337 for about 28 miles until it junctions with NM 55. Take NM 55 west to Forest Road 55 in Tajique and follow the road west to the campground.