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Viva la Diferencia

Destination: El Paso

By Rob McCorkle

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 9.5 hours /
  • Brownsville - 14 hours /
  • Dallas - 10.5 hours /
  • Houston - 12.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 9 hours /
  • Lubbock - 6.75 hours

You’ll find spicy food, rich history and jaw-dropping views at the western tip of Texas.

Unlike most Texans, who may have only passed through El Paso on Interstate 10, I actually lived two different times in this colorful Southwest metropolis during my peripatetic journalistic pursuits. For a Houston-born Texan, I found, and still find, El Paso to be worlds apart — geographically, climatologically and culturally — from the rest of the Lone Star State, and infinitely fascinating.

Though its distance from most metropolitan areas is considerable, El Paso is readily accessible via commercial airlines that can whisk the intrepid traveler into its spacious international airport from places like our state capital or San Antonio. That’s the mode of travel I chose to get from the latter to El Paso.

Bumpily descending into the airport prepares you for just how different the area is from most of Texas. Out the window, the Rio Grande cuts a silver, serpentine path between Mexico and the United States through a desiccated Chihuahuan Desert landscape that looks like it could be right out of a sci-fi movie. Once on the ground, your gaze locks on the sculpted Franklin Mountains erupting from the flat, ochre desertscape dotted with yucca, ocotillo, desert willows and other xerophytic plantlife.

I hop into a rental car and drive just down the road to get my New Mexican-style “Mexican” food fix at Jaxon’s Restaurant & Brewing Company. I opt for a grilled chicken sandwich topped with slivers of slightly pungent New Mexico chiles, a trademark condiment in these parts.

With the sunlit afternoon stretching out before me (El Paso boasts an average 310 days of sunshine annually), I’m off to visit Franklin Mountains State Park, the nation’s largest urban wilderness park, which straddles the rugged foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I’m destined for the Tom Mays Unit, the most easily accessed unit of the state park, which lies on the western side of the Franklins that divide El Paso north to south. I decide to take scenic Trans-Mountain Road across the mile-high pass to the other side. The Patriot Freeway (U.S. 54) north to Trans-Mountain Road takes motorists past such local landmarks as Fort Bliss, Diablos Stadium (minor league baseball), the U.S. Border Patrol Museum and the El Paso Museum of Archaeology. Halfway up the eastern slope, a sign warns: “Rock slides next 7 miles.”

Only weeks before, a year’s worth of rain fell on one summer day, sending rocks hurtling down the slopes of the Franklins, cutting new arroyos, or washes, into its rocky face and shutting down Trans-Mountain Road and Franklin Mountains State Park for days. I marvel at how green the mountainsides look, knowing I may never see them in such verdant splendor again.

Lead park ranger Robert Pichardo greets me at the visitor’s booth, which is powered by a generator. Though located inside the city limits, the state park offers few amenities. It has no electrical outlets, no water and no dump stations, but features 44 picnic sites and a handful of tent campsites and five RV sites that rent for a modest $8 a night. Viewing a fiery sunset from one of the mountainside sites is worth the price of admission.

“The World Wildlife Fund has told us this is one of the best-preserved parts of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest part of which lies in Mexico,” says Pichardo, a 48-year-old El Paso native. “Another draw for El Paso is that it’s multicultural due to its proximity to Mexico and being home to Fort Bliss, which counts Koreans, Japanese, Germans and other nationalities among its troops. We once had a Chinatown, and El Paso was home to Wild West outlaws and Mexican revolutionaries.”

Franklin Mountains State Park, which stretches all the way to the New Mexico line to the north, was created in the 1970s to protect the fragile montane environment from encroaching development. El Pasoans and others have repaid that vision by making more than 20,000 visits a year to this desert mountain island playground. I watch as carloads of mountain climbers, hikers, mountain bikers, birdwatchers and sightseers from El Paso and neighboring Juarez, Mexico, pay their entry fee to spend an afternoon in the park.

Tourists from foreign countries, out-of-state visitors and Texans alike, marvel at the nature refuge’s open space and craggy, boulder-strewn mountainsides and peaks populated by a variety of interesting-looking, thorny desert flora, such as lechuguilla, Torrey yucca and the rare Southwestern barrel cactus. All that’s missing to complete this cowboy and Indian movie set, I think to myself, are the giant saguaros, which aren’t indigenous to the Chihuahuan Desert.

After spending a couple of hours hiking to enjoy strategic mountain vistas, looking for readily seen park critters such as the whiptail lizard and tarantulas, and poking through the flood-ravaged Nature Walk to familiarize myself with several desert plant species, I decide to head down the mountain. My destination is the city’s most recent entry into the outdoor recreation arena on the West Side. First-time visitors may hear El Pasoans refer to the city’s five major areas: the West Side, Upper Valley, Central El Paso, the East Side and the Lower Valley.

Keystone Heritage Park and the El Paso Desert Botanical Garden on Doniphan Road present a Chihuahuan Desert experience and ethnobotanical introduction to the various cultures that for 10,000 years have traversed and settled in the Rio Grande Valley where Texas, Mexico and New Mexico intersect. The park and garden sit atop a 4,000-year-old archeological site and archaic wetlands.

I marvel at the desert landscaping, water features, pit house replica and wall tile mosaics as I stroll the 52-acre site on the edge of a marsh discovered by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, which was working on a dam to help contain flood waters fed into the area by a series of ditches, or arroyos. A series of interpretive signs explains how El Paso was settled over the millennia — from prehistoric hunters and gatherers to the arrival of Europeans in 1598 — and how the area evolved from a land of pinyon, juniper and oak woodlands 10,000 years ago to the desert scrub and grasslands seen today.

There’s still plenty of time left to head north through the Mesilla Valley west of the Rio Grande on the Don Juan de Oate Trail (New Mexico 28/118), one of my favorite drives. The roads traverse old towns, cotton and chile fields, and pecan trees as it winds to the picturesque town of Mesilla, New Mexico.

Finding the renowned restaurant and pub Chope’s closed, I point my rental car east, cut over to I-10 and head back toward El Paso. I exit at Loop 375 (Trans-Mountain Road) to make the four-mile climb once again to Franklin Mountains State Park to photograph what I hope will be a postcard sunset. Though clouds aren’t cooperating this evening, I squeeze off a few shots before heading back to town for dinner on El Paso’s West Side. Avila’s Restaurant, a homegrown eatery, does not disappoint with a classic steak tampiquea dinner.

My El Paso headquarters is the venerable Camino Real, a downtown gem built as the Paso del Norte Hotel in 1912 to serve the ranchers and mining industrialists who frequented the crossroads trading center. The National Register of Historic Places structure sits just a rifle shot from Juarez, where Pancho Villa fomented a failed revolution, some of whose battles were reportedly witnessed from the hotel’s rooftop. The world-class Dome Bar and Restaurant, topped by a massive Tiffany dome, is fit for both cattle barons and casual travelers of today.

The hotel proves the ideal location for accessing old El Paso landmarks like the recently renovated Plaza Theatre, originally built in the 1930s, which once again is playing host to some of the day’s top names in entertainment such as Tony Bennett and Alice Cooper. A representative of the El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau escorts me into the interior of the architectural beauty that anchors the new Arts Festival Plaza — home to the El Paso Art Museum, an outdoor concert venue and a park. The theater is open mostly for special events. On Tuesdays, the El Paso Community Foundation hosts a tour as part of the Downtown Walking Tour.

The self-guided walking tour of downtown El Paso is an ideal way to soak up some of the history of the rough-and-tumble city founded in 1659 by Fray Garcia of Spain. El Paso actually sprung up from the Nuestra Seora de Guadalupe Mission that he founded just south of the Rio Grande. His statue in Pioneer Plaza faces the Camino Real Hotel. The mission and a 200-year-old church still stand today near the heart of downtown Juarez.

My trek starts at the Plaza de los Lagartos, named for the alligators that once swam in a large pool in the town square. For an hour, I follow the map that denotes Spanish Revival and Art Deco landmarks, many designed by Southwest architect Henry C. Trost, and other historic buildings. Structures from the city’s 1880s Wild West days such as the old Wigwam Theatre (Wigwam Saloon), frequented by famous and infamous characters such as Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and John Wesley Hardin, hold the most intrigue for me. Blocks of historic buildings that once served as playhouses, hotels, stage stations and the like today operate as retail outlets catering to Mexican shoppers from Juarez, only six blocks away.

My interest in the area’s Hispanic culture, whetted by my tour and a lunch at Azulejos, spurs me to walk across the street to the El Paso-Juarez Trolley Company kiosk and buy a ticket for a tour bus to Juarez. The Border Jumper is a hassle-free introduction to the teeming sister city of Ciudad Jurez. After a 10-minute orientation from our driver on where to find the best deals during our seven stops, importation regulations and cultural nuances south of the border, I’m on my way with half a dozen other travelers from as far away as New Jersey. Crossing into Mexico, our driver points out the “mighty Rio Grande” that is anything but, having been corralled into two concrete-lined channels.

Attracted by quality merchandise at reasonable prices at the very first stop, Colom’s, I select a sterling silver and red coral necklace with matching earrings. It’s only a short stroll down to another stop on the tour, Ajua, a quiet restaurant/bar featuring an enclosed courtyard with a fountain and soothing greenery. Next, I catch the trolley for its run down 16th de Septiembre Boulevard, one of downtown Jurez’s main corridors.

Though not part of the official tour, the nearby Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe proves impossible to ignore. After snapping a few pictures, I decide not to return to El Paso on the trolley, but to stroll down Jurez Avenue to soak up some local color.

On my last day in El Paso, I have about six hours after breakfast to check out a few more things. First up is UTEP’s Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, formally dedicated in 1999 and now containing more than 600 species of flora found in Mexico and the desert Southwest. The gardens wrap around the Centennial Museum at Jubilee Square on the western edge of the campus. Go inside the building to pick up a garden guide and list of recommended Southwestern native landscaping plants. Be sure to see the distinctive wooden structure containing an authentic prayer wheel presented to the university by the people of Bhutan. Known for its unusual Bhutanese architecture and as being the home of the Sun Bowl, UTEP is a must-see. I stop to chat with the gardener, who turns out to be Wynn Anderson, a retired UTEP vice president who was the brains behind the desert gardens. Then it’s “adios” to the home of the Miners. I head to Rim Road/Scenic Drive to cross over to central El Paso.

Scenic Drive wraps for four miles around the southernmost edge of the Franklin Mountains, providing an excellent bird’s-eye view of El Paso from several scenic overlooks, as well as a close-up look at some of the city’s most exclusive, Spanish hacienda-style homes. After stopping at an overlook to soak up sights of the sprawling desert city below, I set out for El Paso’s “Boot Hill,” Concordia Cemetery.

Except for the presence of an old man planting flowers at a gravesite, the cemetery is peaceful. A Texas historical marker explains the cemetery’s significance. Here, I learn that Concordia received the most use in the 1880s when folks like gunslinger John Wesley Hardin and his killer, John Selman, were planted six feet under. Among the 65,000 graves of those interred here during the Wild West days and those that followed are Kit Carson’s half brother; Billy the Kid’s companion, Lady Flo; Diamond Dick (Ernest St. Leon); the Morgan contractors; Mexican presidents Orosco and Huerta (since removed); Chinese railroad laborers, war veterans and civic leaders.

Fortunately for me, one of El Paso’s most popular Mexican food restaurants sits right across the street. Family-owned L&J Caf, which opened in 1927, is run by the third generation. Once known as Tony’s Place, the funky neighborhood eatery has served Fort Bliss soldiers, the Andrews Sisters, Clark Gable and common folk for more than 75 years. I order a trio of green chile-topped enchiladas a la carte and savor what I know will be my last taste of El Paso.

A mid-afternoon flight awaits, but I still have time for one more stop on the way to the airport — the world-famous El Paso Saddleblanket. The company, in business for more than 35 years, is in its third reincarnation as a premier retailer and wholesaler of more than 200,000 woven blankets and rugs of all colors, shapes and sizes, and a staggering variety of mostly Mexican, Native American and Southwestern merchandise. Trader extraordinaire Dusty Henson moved his business in 2005 from downtown El Paso to the interstate. He has amassed in a huge showroom an eye-popping inventory of Casas Grande, Mata Ortiz and Paquime Mexican pottery, turquoise jewelry, cow skulls, leather goods, cowhides, saddles, clothing, dried piranhas and other products. I decide a small piece of pottery that incorporates horsehair into its design will make a nice souvenir.

With my appetite for El Paso cooking, Western history, magical desert scenery and border culture satisfied, it’s time to head back to the “rest of Texas.” Hasta luego, El Paso del Norte.

Details:

The El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-351-6024), located downtown at One Civic Center Plaza on Santa Fe Street, offers maps, tour information and transportation schedules for El Paso in both English and Spanish.

Or visit: <www.visitelpaso.com>. The Camino Real Hotel (800-769-4300), 101 S. El Paso St., offers 359 rooms.

For more information about Franklin Mountains State Park, call (915) 566-6441 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/franklin>.

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