Stunning scenery at Franklin Mountains
Unique among Texas state parks, Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso sprawls across 24,000 glorious acres at more than 4,000 feet in elevation, overlooking the Rio Grande where Texas, New Mexico and Mexico collide. It holds the distinction of being the largest urban wilderness park in the United States.
Encroaching development gobbling up the slopes of the Franklins in the 1970s prompted the state legislature, at the urging of a local environmental coalition, to have the state purchase the Chihuahuan Desert high country acreage. The state park preserves the southernmost foothills of the mighty Rockies, a fragile ecology with hundreds of plant and animal species, and a slice of Texas history in El Paso del Norte, or the Pass of the North.
For more than 10,000 years, humans have lived and passed through this natural cut in the mountains carved by the Rio Grande. Franklin Mountains State Park protects the unparalleled scenic, ecological and historic features of this ancient mountain range and provides a plethora of recreational opportunities for West Texans and others venturing to this westernmost tip of Texas.
"I usually cycle closer to my house," said Albert Ramirez of El Paso, "but every once in a while I like to come out here for a change. I like the variety of terrain and the challenge. You have to work hard for your miles out here."
Lead park ranger Robert Pichardo believes fall is the best time of the year to visit El Paso and the park because of cool temperatures and plentiful sunshine, but adds any season is a good time because of the area's noteworthy cultural and natural history.
"The World Wildlife Federation has told us this is one of the best-preserved parts of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest part of which lies in Mexico," the 48-year-old native El Pasoan said. "El Paso is multicultural due to its proximity to Mexico and being home to Fort Bliss, which has Korean, Japanese, Germans and others stationed there. We once had a Chinatown and El Paso was home to Wild West outlaw John Wesley Hardin and Mexican revolutionaries like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata."
Pichardo says locals tend to take the Franklin Mountains for granted, but he tries to educate them and others about the efforts that went into preserving the parkland for present and future generations. "We have visitors from other parts of the world, such as England and Europe," he said, "who are amazed at how much open land we have in the park. And, we have some people from places like Kansas, who just come and stare at the mountains."
Many Texans, too, coming from such flatland urban centers as Dallas and Houston, are in awe of the craggy, boulder-strewn mountainsides populated by a variety of thorny Chihuahuan Desert flora. Lechuguilla, sotol, ocotillo, yucca and unusual cacti species, such as the Southwestern barrel cactus, thrive in the desert setting. Plentiful wildlife - from rattlers and tarantulas to mule deer and mountain lions - make their home in the Franklins.
Franklin Mountains State Park's wildness belies its location within the El Paso city limits. It is, for the most part, undeveloped. Opened to the public in 1981, the park originally permitted only day use. Many of the park's 20,000-plus annual visitors still visit the park just for the day - to picnic, mountain bike, hike, bird watch and photograph the striking scenery, scaly critters and awesome sunsets.
The park has no electricity, water or dump stations. There are, however, a handful of primitive campsites and five RV sites ($8 a night, plus $4 entry fee per person 13 and older) for overnight guests. Composting toilets, accessible to wheelchair-bound visitors, are nearby. In addition, 44 picnic sites, all offering a shade shelter, grill and trashcan, can be found in the Tom Mays Unit. Campsites and RV sites can be reserved by calling the park at (915) 566-6441.
On the first and third weekends of the month, rangers guide visitors to popular park locales, such as Mundy's Gap, the Aztec Caves or Cottonwood Springs. Tours typically last about two hours. Park hours run from 8 a.m. to dusk. Reservations are required.
The Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park State Park is located just a few miles off Interstate 10 West, accessible by taking the Canutillo/Transmountain Road (Loop 375) exit. Or the unit can be reached from the east side of the mountains by taking U.S. 54 north from I-10, and exiting on Loop 375 (Transmountain Road); the park entrance will be three miles after crossing the summit.
The park also features the Wyler Aerial Tramway. Visitors can purchase tickets at the tramway station to ride a gondola that will transport them to the top of Ranger Peak. The Swiss made gondolas travel on a 2,600 feet long, 1 3/8 inch diameter steel cable. While waiting to depart, the visitor can view part of the machinery and mechanism of the system through a window located on the south side of the base station. On the smooth ride to the top, the cabin attendant will describe the different cacti and rock formations along the way. Abundant wildlife, including reptiles, birds and insects, offer exciting viewing opportunities. The 4 minute ride soars above a vast canyon that is 240 feet deep in some places.
From Ranger Peak, 5,632 feet above sea level, the visitor can enjoy the view of 7,000 square miles encompassing three states and two nations. The tramway ride is a memorable experience offering a vista of the vastness and stark beauty of the southwest.
The station at the top provides accessible ramps and paved grounds leading into an observation deck with a 360 degree view. Pay per view high power telescopes enhance the experience.
Franklin Mountains State Park is one of 113 state parks that make up the Texas State Park System. For more information about the park, call (915) 566-6441. For general Texas State Park information, call 1-800-792-1112 or visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Web site: www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
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