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EL PASO

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Texas' Sun City offers fascinating cultures, great food and fun ways to work it off in nature.


There are some places in the world that just make you feel good. You can’t explain it, you’re not entirely sure why, but something just feels right. For me, that’s El Paso.

Yes, it’s “way out there” for most Texans — close to a nine-hour drive from my home in Central Texas — but the trip to El Paso is worth every hour it may take to arrive within the city limits.

What makes El Paso so great? In a nutshell, it’s the warm and welcoming population, the incredible wealth of diverse cultures and history, the rugged Franklin Mountains with so many recreational opportunities and, of course, the food.

My history with El Paso goes back to when I lived and worked in the Trans-Pecos region. Every month or two, I’d spend a weekend in El Paso running “big city” errands that I couldn’t accomplish back home in the wilds of the Big Bend.

Those weekends became mini-vacations. Sometimes I’d relax and enjoy the comfort of a hotel, ordering takeout from my favorite spots in town. For outdoor time, there were short hikes nearby at Franklin Mountains State Park. I could easily head off to White Sands National Park for dunes fun or soak in the hot springs at Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. El Paso was my jumping-off point to head to the highest mountains of Texas in Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

With an adventure around every bend, El Paso quickly became synonymous with good times and comfort for me. That feeling still resonates today, whenever I get the chance to visit. On a recent trip, I realized that there were still more Sun City (302 days of sunshine each year) gems to check out.

I was ready to commence Mountain Time. Yes, El Paso is in a different time zone than the rest of Texas (one hour earlier).

As I head into El Paso on Interstate 10, peaks begin to erupt out of the landscape; the shadows of those sleeping giants spread across the desert floor. Anyone who thinks Texas is flat has never been here.

El Paso is the sixth-largest city in Texas and the second-largest majority-Hispanic city in the United States. Sitting on the Rio Grande, El Paso is joined by Ciudad Juárez (across the river in the Mexican state of Chihuahua) and Las Cruces, New Mexico, to make up a metropolitan area with a collective population of more than 2 million people.

Before checking into my hotel, I pay a visit to a place that evokes Hansel and Gretel, the Casa de Azucar (Sugar House). The house, just off U.S. Highway 54, is named for the pastel, confection-like décor that surrounds the small home. (Sorry, not edible.) 

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Rufino Loya wanted to create something beautiful for his wife, so, in 1973, he began carving and painting intricate designs into cement around their home. For the next two decades, he worked tirelessly to transform the building into the work of art you see today. Loya was inspired by the Catholic churches of his native Mexico, so some pieces have a religious theme while others portray flowers, leaves and pineapples, a symbol of hospitality.

There’s another architectural delight in El Paso, though it features spiritual sweetness in an academic setting. The University of Texas at El Paso is a leading research institution and one of the largest Hispanic-serving institutions in the country. It’s also home to a lovely, exotic treasure.

The campus grounds, with their sustainable design, green spaces and gardens, create an oasis in the middle of the city. The centerpiece of one green space, Centennial Plaza, is the Lhakhang, UTEP’s cultural jewel from Bhutan.

I park near Centennial Museum and walk toward the Lhakhang. Surrounded by Texas desert flora, it is a small but striking building, bright white with red and gold trim and intricately detailed Bhutanese accents and artwork around the doors and windows. While I can’t venture inside today, I still feel the intended peacefulness projected by the Lhakhang and gardens. A plaque notes the building is a symbol of friendship offered by the Kingdom of Bhutan to the people of the United States, entrusted to UTEP.

Nearby I see Bhutanese prayer flags and find a quiet spot with a small fountain among more beautiful desert plants. I take a few minutes to enjoy the moment of Zen and appreciate all the unexpected elements on this West Texas campus.

Inspired by the campus’ surprises, I take a short drive to continue my exploration of the diverse cultures and history of the city. Keystone Heritage Park, on El Paso’s west side, is a desert botanical garden and history park nestled among wetlands and bird migration flyways. More than 200 species of birds have been spotted there, including several rare species.

The 52-acre park is also an archeological site, discovered in the late 1970s by the Corps of Engineers during the construction of flood control dams. Following a thunderstorm, runoff washed away the bank of an arroyo, revealing a cut-away of an ancient pitch house. Research later revealed that the house was likely part of a larger village; carbon dating indicates it may be more than 4,000 years old.

Humans have inhabited the El Paso area for 10,000 to 12,000 years, evidenced by Folsom point arrowheads left by hunter-gatherer tribes near Hueco Tanks. The Manso, Suma, Jumano and Mescalero Apache tribes populated the region by the time the Spanish arrived in El Paso.  

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I suddenly realize I am ravenous after a day of walking that started with a trail run earlier in the morning at Dripping Springs Natural Area near Las Cruces. Time for a late lunch, and I know just the place, L&J Cafe. An El Paso institution, L&J has been around since 1927. The restaurant, originally known as Tony’s Place, provided home cooking and home brew to El Paso residents during Prohibition.

Today L&J Cafe continues the family tradition and is a favorite Mexican food spot among residents and travelers through the city. The restaurant has a Hall of Fame with notable diners such as Ethan Hawke, Martha Stewart, Sam Elliott and multiple professional athletes.

Obviously, L&J isn’t the only great place to eat in El Paso — fantastic food is everywhere. If you’re in the mood for a little nostalgia with your lunch, Rosa’s Cantina, the place made famous by the Marty Robbins tune El Paso, awaits on the far west side of town. The song’s fabled Felina won’t be there, but you’ll find friendly locals and staff and plenty of tasty tacos at the small, rustic Mexican food hotspot.

On Sunday morning I’m up early to beat the August heat for another trail run, this time in Franklin Mountains State Park. While many envision nothing but sand and tumbleweeds when they hear the word desert, clearly they’ve never seen the Chihuahuan Desert.

“The Green Desert” is lovely during the summer as monsoon rains turn even the driest vegetation to a vibrant green. When I arrive at the Tom Mays Unit Visitor Center, park staff tells me this is the greenest they’ve ever seen the park, and I believe them. Every ocotillo is covered in tiny, bright-green leaves, and all the brilliant desert grasses and bushes give the rugged mountains a softer glow.

I park at the Upper Sunset Trailhead and warm up my legs at the nearby pavilion. Mountain biking is popular at the park, but my brain can’t wrap itself around how people navigate so many rocks, washes and ascents on two wheels.

Running’s become my sport over the last few years, but I didn’t anticipate the technical challenges on the Upper Sunset Trail. It didn’t matter, though, as I walked with purpose up hills, trotted down them as safely as I could, ran the flatter sections, and laughed out loud as strong winds battled their hardest to increase my workout intensity.  


El Paso isn’t quite the size of other large cities in Texas, but it’s so rich with activities and wonders, you’ll want to set aside a couple of days to experience all it has to offer. Other El Paso destinations I’ll include on my next itinerary include Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, Rocketbuster Boots (the most eclectic handmade cowboy boots in the world), the Chamizal National Memorial and multiple museums including the El Paso Museum of Art, the El Paso Museum of History and the El Paso Museum of Archaeology.

Worth a trek way out there? With the treasures El Paso offers, it’s a big yes. Absolutamente

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