Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD
West Texas Trailblazer
Robert Newman constructed more than 10 miles of perfect trails in Franklin Mountains State Park.
By Melissa Gaskill
Robert Newman built his first trail as a youngster, creating a place to ride bicycles on land behind his parents’ house in Northeast Texas. Some 50 years later, he helped design and build more than 10 miles of trails in Franklin Mountains State Park.
In the intervening time, Newman earned a degree in geology from Texas Tech University, taught math and science at Bel Air High School in El Paso and enjoyed hiking. He and his wife, Juawanna, raised a son and a daughter. Newman retired from teaching in 1993, and in 1996, bought himself a mountain bike for his 60th birthday.
In 1998, Newman became a patrol volunteer at the 26,600-acre state park, the largest urban wilderness in the continental U.S., contained entirely within the city limits of El Paso. In 1999, he started building trails through its rugged desert terrain.
The first trail he worked on, Lower Foothills Trail, runs more than 4 miles along the northwest side of the park. He also helped create Northern Pass, a route of approximately 4 miles across the northern part of the park, and a 2-mile trail in its northeast quadrant from Hitt Canyon Road to Sotol Canyon Road, named Newman Trail in his honor. He spent nearly a year perfecting the route for his final trail, Agave Loop.
“I moved the flags three or four times, trying to keep it from being so steep,” Newman says of the rocky, hilly route in the Tom Mays Unit. “I wanted to build trails that don’t wash out when it rains. I’d spend as much time flagging a route as I spent building it. You want to get it right.”
Along the way, he attended several training sessions offered by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, a collective of bike clubs and individual riders that exists to create more and better places to ride. Its two-day workshops cover planning, design, building and promotion of trails.
“When I put in trails, I was always thinking of mountain biking,” Newman says. “If it’s bikeable, it’s hikeable, but not the other way around. The park had a master plan for where they wanted trails, and I would go out and flag them.”
After Newman flagged a route, a park ranger would track it on GPS, write it up and submit it to TPWD’s regional natural resources and cultural resources specialists in Fort Davis. They would walk the proposed route and the area around it, looking for endangered species or archeological sites.
“I had to reroute part of Northern Pass for a rare cactus,” Newman recalls. “They were worried about making it easier for collectors.”
Cesar Mendez, Franklin Mountains park superintendent, has been at the park since 2008 and notes that many of its trails were in bad shape. Some simply followed old roads that tended to go right up a slope.
“We had trails that didn’t have proper slope and were just not built correctly,” Mendez says. “That caused problems for hikers and bikers and put a burden on park staff. After every rain event, we had to fix trails, fill in eroded areas. Robert saw the need to create good, quality trails that are sustainable and require minimal maintenance. He put in new trails and helped us reroute some of those in bad shape, improving the experience of users and reducing the need for maintenance.”
Of course, a trail’s not much good if it washes away after a few hard rains.
“The three most important things when building a trail are erosion, erosion and erosion,” Newman says. “If you have erosion on a trail, not much else matters.”
The Chihuahuan Desert may not get much rain, but when rain does fall, it can come down hard. A sharp lip on the uphill side of a trail can turn into a waterfall, creating serious erosion. Newman also tried to make the route enjoyable and keep the grade at less than 10 percent, which wasn’t always possible with the park’s terrain.
Mendez calls the 10 miles of trail that Newman designed and built “the best” out of the park’s 100 miles or so.
“They could compete with any trails nationwide in terms of design and construction,” he says. “His last one is three or four years old now and we haven’t had to do any maintenance other than trimming vegetation. We haven’t had to fix washouts at all.”
Don Baumgardt, an avid biker and hiker whose GeoBetty Tours used to offer guided trips in the park and published the most extensive map of trails in El Paso, met Newman in the park years ago.
“You know right away that you’re on one of Robert’s trails,” he says. “They’re as good as anything done anywhere, the way they flow. I remember riding once after a heavy rain and seeing no damage on his trails because they’re so well designed.”
Newman would spend several months on a design, Mendez says, going out, walking back and forth, looking at the slope and grade and taking it all into account. It was time well-spent, as design is the most important part of the trail-building process.
“These are high-quality trails and a good addition to the park, but they also connect the trails system,” adds Mendez. “It is like closing the circle, improving our trail network. It opened up more opportunities for people to get out and use the trails.”
Most of the physical work of building trails is done by hand.
“It takes me four hours to get an hour of work done, because I’m slow,” Newman says.
His tool kit included a McLeod tool, which has a hoe on one side and a rake on the other, a 16-pound rock bar and a 16-pound sledge. He did a lot of walking, but drove a dusty, battered Jeep as close to a work site as possible. Baumgardt recalls running into Newman working on the Lower Foothills Trail.
“He had his Jeep up in a place we’d never seen a vehicle before,” he says.
Robert Newman (top) enjoys the views after hiking the West Cottonwood Spring Trail in the Franklin Mountains; Newman gears up to scout an area for a trail (above). A Newman trail (below) takes a scenic upper route to West Cottonwood Spring.
Photos by Cesar Mendez / TPWD
The vehicle has more than 260,000 miles on it and went through three sets of tires, donated by the local mountain biking club.
“He was never in a hurry to get it done,” Mendez says. “That’s why these are high-quality, sustainable trails. A lot of people learned from him, would go out with him through the conception and design process.”
Staff and volunteers continue working on some trails that Newman designed, but Mendez says the park now has most of the trails it needs.
“We just have a few connections we’d like to make so people don’t have to go out and back, and some other areas where it is a long distance between trails.”
Mendez sings Newman’s praises beyond the volunteer’s trail-building abilities.
“He’s very humble, very approachable, just an amazing human being,” he says. “He was happy to be out there making sure what he did had a purpose and benefited people. He never seeks any recognition; he just feels like it’s his contribution to something bigger.”
Newman is also his own person, Baumgardt adds.
“When we would run into him on the trails, he’s in his late 70s, everyone’s in their biker gear and here he comes in jeans and a work shirt, with a baseball cap under his helmet,” he says. “He did it his way. He didn’t feel like just because he loved riding a mountain bike, he needed to be like everyone else.”
Now in his 80s, Newman no longer builds trails, and gave his old mountain bike to his son-in-law. But he recently bought an electric fat-tire bike and started fiddling with the gears, thinking he might try it out on some of the Franklin Mountain trails.
After all, those trails are good ones.
Photo by Cesar Mendez / TPWD
Robert Newman builds the trail that connects the Agave Loop to West Cottonwood Spring in Franklin Mountains State Park.
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