October 2006 Park of
Franklin Mountains State Park
Franklin Mountains State Park El Paso's Crowning Glory
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.
Franklin Mountains State Park both benefited and suffered from rare, torrential rains that flooded El Paso during the summer. Over the course of a couple of weeks, 7 to 10 inches of rain - the annual average - deluged this desert city of more than half a million people. The rainfall greened up the usually sere mountainsides and stirred up the wildlife, but cut gaping arroyos on the slopes and mesas throughout the park, washing out portions of park trails and sending tons of debris onto roads. The park, which is normally open year-round, was forced to close for several days at a time because Transmountain Road was impassable. Park crews and volunteers are working to remove rubble and clear dozens of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails impacted by the runoff.
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.
A recent fall day found El Pasoans, German airmen stationed at Fort Bliss, Spanish-speaking Borderland residents, mountain bikers, rock climbers and sightseers visiting the Tom Mays Unit (one of five park units) on the western slope of the mile-high Franklins. All were curious to see what Mother Nature's fickle forces had done to their park.
"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'm not sure what it's like now after all the rain, but 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 due to 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,
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 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. Franklin Mountains State Park is one of 113 state parks that make up the Texas State Park System. For more information visit the Franklin Mountains State Park web site.
Article by Rob McCorkle