Franklin Mountains State park gets under the skin of this mountain biker, figuratively and literally.
By Dan Oko
The official line on riding your bike in the desert alone is simple: Don’t do it.
The trailside risks are too great, the voice of reason insists; the price of making a mistake is just too high. Look at those thorny ocotillo branches reaching out like Giacometti sculptures reconfigured by sadists. See the prickly pear cactus hunkering like fanged linebackers. Imagine the coiled rattlesnakes and seldom-seen mountain lions waiting for you to crash and flavor the desiccated terrain with your blood, sweat and tears. Stay home for now, your loved ones beg, and be safe — live to ride another day.
“Yeah, right,” the sneering little devil on my shoulder replies, as the sun comes up over Franklin Mountains State Park, a 24,256-acre patch of Chihuahuan Desert in the middle of El Paso. The mild morning breeze blows caution away. Virtually alone, 500-plus miles from home and hungry for new trails, I stiff-arm common sense and obey the call of the wild. Today, I take my coffee with a double dose of denial; like the cowboys of yore, I’ll saddle up and ride, because that’s what I do.
Like many outdoors people, I belong to several clans: I’m a hiker, biker, part-time birder and dedicated angler. But if there’s one thing I have done more of than anything with my free time during the past decade, it’s mountain biking. So, when I first heard about the park’s trail-building campaign a couple of years ago, I started dreaming and scheming. As prescribed by a 1994 management plan, the park is putting the final touches on its 125-mile trail network, adding about 75 miles of fat-tire fun and dozens of miles for hiking and horseback riding as well.
Given that mountain biking in Texas doesn’t usually take place in bona fide mountains, the location of these new trails is good news for my clan. Given that the 37-square-mile facility is also considered the largest urban park in the world (because all of its acreage is concentrated within El Paso’s city limits), this emphasis on recreation in the face of the region’s ongoing urban development is also great news for citizens of far West Texas. Beyond outdoor adventure, the size of the park makes it an important conservation area, aiding in the protection of local flora and fauna, including mule deer, golden eagles, horned lizards and a variety of smaller creatures.
It is true that a bicycle — even a slow-moving mountain bike — isn’t necessarily the best tool for taking a biological inventory of the desert. But that doesn’t make it any less fun to spin through the narrow canyons that partition the Franklin Mountains, which rise some 3,000 feet above the city of El Paso, topping out at 7,192 feet at the summit of North Franklin Peak. Following an early morning face-off with an enormous hairy tarantula outside my tent — she retreats beneath the chassis of my old Toyota before disappearing into the gnarled underbrush — I change into my biking gear and head out on the Lower Sunset Loop, a 16-mile circuit many bikers consider a Texas classic.
Thanks to the park’s location hard by the New Mexico border, Lower Sunset is also the site of the popular Coyote Classic race, which kicks off the New Mexico off-road bike season early each spring. But on this midweek November morning, it is just me, the sun and the treacherous, dagger-shaped lechuguilla doing battle in the desert. So what if I am alone, I think — no biggie. With each hill conquered, my smile grows, and with each sweeping downhill carrying me to a rocky arroyo, my heart and lungs come a little more alive. As the wide-open vistas distract me from the twisted course I am tracing through the Franklin Mountains, it occurs to me I could ride out this way forever.
Then, in an instant, I go down hard, my bike clattering, and I find myself lying in the dusty trail, fortunately unhurt. As I catch my breath, I hear the unmistakable sound of air escaping rubber. Some Texans have another name for lechuguilla; they call it “lechu-gotcha.” I lift my bike and take a gander at my trashed tire; it should be no problem to swap out for a fresh inner tube, but there’s no question that I need to be careful. Standing alone, watching a big black bird I take for a raven circle overhead, the rustle of the breeze sounds a little like the desert’s snicker.
Some 70 million years ago the Franklin Mountains cracked the earth’s crust. The El Paso range is part of the greater span of the Trans-Pecos Mountains, which extend across the northern section of the Chihuahuan Desert between the Pecos River to the east and the Rio Grande to the west. The Franklins Mountains reflect an astonishing array of geological influences but, according to scientists, the seminal event in their formation was a tectonic shift that left behind a series of cliffs estimated to have crested originally at around 25,000 feet.
Despite the rough, arid Chihuahuan tableau, local human habitation can be traced back more than 11,000 years, when archeologists theorize that hunters and gatherers arrived. While the climate kept the Trans-Pecos from becoming more substantially settled, Spanish settlers arriving in the late 1500s reported encountering small tribes living along the banks of the Rio Grande.
Today, the river forms a thin trickle beneath the shadow of the Franklins, which are believed to have been named for Benjamin Franklin Coons, a pioneer businessman who by 1848 had established himself as a merchant in El Paso. How surprised might those conquistadors and priests be if they found me astride my steel steed in the middle of the desert, I wonder? No more surprised, I suppose, than if Coons had lived to see the lights of El Paso brighten the night. Given that the park remains relatively untouched, though, it’s easy to imagine that any time travelers from the past would feel right at home in the Franklin Mountains. “This park is real primitive,” says its manager, Ray Sierra. “Not everybody wants to come here, but it’s still popular with outdoor enthusiasts. Biking, hiking, camping — there’s plenty to do.”
Indeed, the scenic Trans Mountain Road that crosses historic Smuggler’s Pass at an altitude of 5,820 feet is lined with picnic spots that draw droves of El Pasoans each weekend. Endurance athletes, including runners and road cyclists, enjoy the wide shoulders on the road, which offer spectacular views of the heart of the Franklin Range. In the park proper, tough hiking routes such as the Ron Coleman Trail, a rugged four-mile-long path that connects park headquarters in McKelligon Canyon to a trailhead on the Trans Mountain Road, provide a dose of solitude for backcountry travelers. Technical rock climbing in Sneed’s Cory is another option.
In addition, the park is working with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages the Organ Mountains Recreation Area near Las Cruces, N.M. The agencies are completing the Sierra Vista Trail, a 28-mile-long path that connects the Franklin Mountains in Texas with the New Mexico section of the range on the outskirts of Las Cruces. The combined route will provide horseback riders, hikers and bikers with excellent opportunities for camping and backcountry exploration. “It’s a unique trail in this area,” says Oswaldo Gomez, recreation planner for the BLM. “It connects two cities over an epic distance, and will provide a place for endurance activities.”
Not too shabby for a park that turns just 25 this year. Formed in 1979 in response to pressure from the local Franklin Mountains Wilderness Coalition and with the political leadership of state Sen. Joe Christie of El Paso, the park has long been viewed as a refuge from the development occurring in the surrounding basin. Through the 1990s, according to Census 2000, the populations of El Paso increased 9.5 percent; this year the city is expected to top 700,000 residents. When combined with neighboring Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, the metropolitan area contains more than 2.5 million inhabitants.
As urban development continues to whittle away El Paso’s open space, the park’s legacy of conservation and recreation is growing more important. The city of El Paso owns 2,000 acres along the park boundary that have served as a buffer against development. But city planners are facing a tough choice: protect the increasingly valuable land or sell it for development? Opponents to development argue that the land should be preserved as open space.
“I’m a realist,” says park manager Sierra. “I know that anyone who acquires these lands will be looking at the economics. So what we want to do is identify key areas and see if we can find a way to establish access points [to the park].”
Sierra hopes that city leaders in El Paso will help the state institute a series of “pocket parks” outlined by the state’s 1994 management plan. Located along the park’s increasingly crowded southern boundary, where the mountain slopes run to the heart of downtown, these projected admission points would provide parking areas and registration kiosks to aid visitors.
My fat-tire clan knows about questions of access. As in any sport, a few slobs have left trail-users wary of mountain bikers; in other recreation areas horseback riders and cyclists have waged impressive political battles over who gets to go where. Fortunately, in the Franklin Mountains the history has been a lot more peaceful and there’s plenty of space for everyone. In turn, El Paso’s cycling community has worked closely with Sierra and his rangers to create one of the state’s most bike-friendly public facilities. My riding buddy, Christopher Hess, who wrote the book on Lone Star trails, Mountain Biking Texas: A Falcon Guide, has this to say: “El Paso was a surprise. It’s what I associate with real mountain biking, a jewel in the rough.”
Not that I am making much time with that flat. Rather, I am beginning to doubt the wisdom of taking off on my own into unknown territory. With the horizon dipping out of view up New Mexico way, I wonder if I should gamble on trying to complete the ride with my last good tube, or turn tail and head back to camp. The young dudes at Crazy Cat Cyclery had said I’d be lucky to get out of the parking lot without a flat. As Chris Hess is fond of saying, “In the desert, it’s a lot harder to get back to where you started from.”
But staring the Franklin Mountains in the face, I’m not about to quit. Hardcore mountain bikers get called “hammerheads” for a reason: their single-minded propensity to pound out miles on rocky trails. The call of a new course is a serious aphrodisiac to such people. With my inner hammerhead just waking up, I swap out my flat for my last tube and start pedaling. Once again, I am making good speed, dodging those prickly plants, pushing hard over the hills and through the desert washes. Having conquered the better part of 15 miles, I have almost made it when I hear that dreaded sound — the air whooshing from my tire. The desert spirits are laughing. It takes me a little more than half an hour to push my bike uphill the final mile. During the next two days and around 30 miles more of riding, I flat four more times.
That may sound like a thorny way to have fun, but even without sticking cactus needles in my shins, the desert had found its way under my skin. After all, you can’t take advice from a devil and not expect to pay your dues.
Fat-tire Franklin Mountains Fun for All Levels
Don’t let those wide-open spaces intimidate you. Riding a bike can be a great way to get outside and explore, as well as get some exercise. The routes maintained at Franklin Mountains State Park offer everything from a designated beginner’s loop to lung-busting, thigh-killing circuits only qualified experts should attempt. The classic Lower Sunset loop runs from the Tom Mays Unit almost to the New Mexico border before turning back, and has numerous shortcuts to suit riders of all levels. Largely carved by the Borderlands Mountain Bike Association, it even has trail markers, making it easy to gauge your progress. Here are recommendations according to experience.
Easy: Beginners should try the short loop that starts in the Tom Mays Unit picnic area, up the first hill from the entry gate. Take it easy, and see if you have the skills and confidence to ride farther into the desert.
Moderate: Intermediate riders will want to start out from the picnic area, as well, but rather than attempting the challenging 16.5-mile full Lower Sunset loop, pick one of the well-marked, early shortcuts to shorten the ride. Some of the trickiest places are in the first six miles of the ride. When you reach the first shortcut, which crosses an old jeep road after 5.5 miles, you can bail out or keep going,.
Difficult: After knocking out the Lower Sunset loop, serious fat-tire enthusiasts can tackle the mile-long grunt to Aztec Caves — a climb of some 400 feet — or the more challenging ascent to Mundy’s Gap, a climb of 2.2 miles that takes you to a scenic overlook.
Experts only: On the east side of the park, you’ll also find the Tin Mine Unit, which can be followed into Tom Mays by a rutted, rocky jeep track over Mundy’s Gap. Hard-core riders with plenty of time and no fear are the only ones who should make this big-time push, but it’s available. Smart riders (even strong ones) will leave a shuttle car in the Tom Mays parking lot so they can avoid backtracking or having to take the long road back to the abandoned Tin Mines on the other side of the park.
For more information: Contact the park at (915) 566-6441 or go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/franklin/.
Necessities for Mountain Biking in the Desert
- Plenty of water
- Protective eyewear
- At least one spare inner tube
- Tire levers and patch kit
- Pump or CO2 dispenser
- Spoke wrench, Allen wrench or multi-tool
- Gloves are nice, too