TAKE A HIKE
Aztec Cave Trail
Franklin Mountains State Park
DISTANCE: 1.2 miles round trip
APPROXIMATE TIME: 1.5 hours
Sometimes it’s about the journey; sometimes it’s about the destination. With the Aztec Cave Trail, the destination is the main draw — in this case, caves perched on a hillside in the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park. The caves have a remarkable history: They are thought to have formed as gigantic air pockets in ancient lava.
The Franklin Mountains, contained within the city limits of El Paso, cover almost 27,000 acres and contain more than 100 miles of trails. The Aztec Cave Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the park.
The trail is not long, but it’s uphill and steep at the end. From the trailhead (the caves can be seen from the parking lot), the trail crosses an arroyo before beginning its gradual ascent, passing a couple of campsites along the way. A half-mile into the hike, the trail becomes increasingly steep, and footing can be tricky on loose rocks. The trail gains 500 feet of elevation in its 0.6 miles. This is Chihuahuan Desert country, and the vegetation along the trail reflects it, with lechuguilla, sotol, ocotillo, cactus and mesquite trees, adapted to survive the rigors of desert life.
The payoff comes at the end once the caves are reached, offering a cool respite from the desert heat.
“The view is great,” says park Superintendent Cesar Mendez. “You get a panoramic view of the Rio Grande valley — the Texas/New Mexico section. You can see the Organ Mountains in the distance, and you can see the northern Franklin Mountains.”
The view is so good, it’s the cover shot of Laurence Parent’s revised Official Guide to Texas State Parks.
Swifts, swallows and canyon wrens can sometimes be seen near the cave entrance. Smoke on the ceiling of the cave and markings on the wall reflect the presence of humans over many years. The Aztec name derives from artifacts, misattributed to Aztecs, found in the cave in the early 1900s.
Once you’ve enjoyed the caves, head back down the way you came.
All Earl Nottingham | TPWD