Blessed with some 300 calendar days of sunshine, El Paso, Texas has something that Canadians sorely crave in winter: long, moderately warm days of outdoor adventure. In a state known for big metropolitan cities and sandy Gulf shores, El Paso is distinctly desert. Enveloped by the Chihuahuan Desert and cradled by the foothills of the Franklin Mountains, it’s a scrubby, cactus-studded landscape that calls out to hikers, bikers, trail runners and climbers.
Here’s where and how active travellers can get outdoorsy in “Sun City” El Paso.
Franklin Mountains State Park
El Paso has a very accessible wilderness in its backyard. Visible from anywhere in the city, the Franklin Mountains preside over El Paso. Drive just 15 minutes to reach Franklin Mountains State Park—the largest urban state park in the United States. Spanning 95 square kilometres, the park is traced by a large network of multi-use trails. Depart from any number of access points for more miles of trail that can be tackled in a day—201 kilometres to be exact. Well-signed and boasting sparse and clipped flora, it’s a place that visitors can feel comfortable navigating. There’s a range of options for all abilities and ambitions, from picnicking to through-hiking.
Hikers, bikers, birders and campers should head to The Tom Mays Unit access point for a wilderness that offers a little bit of everything. From here, hikers might set off on the Aztec Caves Trail. A 1.9- kilometre out-and-back route that crosses an arroyo (dry riverbed) before pushing up an increasingly steep ascent (152 metres). Along the way, spot desert-adapted flora like mesquite trees and ocotillo. Once at the caves, enjoy the coolness of the shade while imbibing views of the Rio Grande Valley. Mundy’s Gap (6.4 km), North Franklin Peak (12.5 km), and Agave Loop (2 km) also depart from The Tom Mays Unit. Mountain bikers should BYO-Bike; Upper Sunset (2 km) and Lower Sunset (9 km) trails are inclusive of two-wheel adventure.
The most ambitious hikers can tackle the popular Trans-Franklin Mountain Trail. On this 20.6-kilometre out-and-back route with an 800-metre gain, you get the maximum park experience. Start early to beat the midday heat; this adventure takes six to seven hours round-trip (pack more water than you think you need). And of course, you need not hike the entire trail to enjoy its beauty and birdlife.
A shorter commitment, though still moderately challenging, is the 12.4-kilometre Lost Dog Trail Loop in west El Paso which gains 300 metres.
Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site
Just east of El Paso, about a 45-minute drive from downtown, history is painted on the walls of Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site. Comprised of three low mountains, this desert oasis was once sought out by Indigenous peoples like Mescalero Apaches, Tigua and the Jornada Mogollan People, thanks to huecos (rock basins or hollows) that would collect and store rainwater. It was a welcome sanctuary in the sunbaked Chihuahua Desert. Today, evidence of its history can be observed in the site's many rock and cave paintings. Hueco Tanks is a fragile, archaeologically significant site so conservation is key to its preservation. As a result, only 70 visitors are permitted at a time. Reserve a spot in advance to avoid a wait.
Most hikes within Hueco Tanks State Park are easy and inclusive, leading to pictographs and rock art. Trailheads are straightforward, leading away from the Interpretive Center. The North Mountain Trail (rated easy) and Chain Trail (moderate) are the longest pursuits—but still relatively short.
Hiking, picnicking, camping and stargazing are splendid at Hueco Tanks, and the site is reputed for its climbing and bouldering. There are (limited) opportunities for self-guided climbing, but to access spots including East Mountain, East Spur and West Mountain, you’ll need to go with an official guiding outfit.
When you go
Sip & Savour: Sharing a border with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, El Paso is an exciting place to tease the palate. L&J Cafe, Café Central, Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, Kiki’s Mexican Restaurant, Café Mayapan, Carlos & Mickey, and Desert Oak Barbeque are all savoury stops.
Shop: Kick off your hikers and slip into some cowboy boots. Whether you’re in the market for a new pair or just want to admire the type of slow craftsmanship too rarely seen in today’s apparel industry, stop by a Texan bootmaker like Rocketbuster Handmade Custom Boots or Lucchese Bootmaker.
History: Take a self-guided tour of El Paso’s century-old architecture, calling on San Jacinto Plaza, the Anson Mills building, O.T. Bassett Tower or the 93-year-old Plaza Theatre—a National Historic Building of Significance. A visit to El Paso Museum of History explains it all.
Art: Pay a visit to the inspiring El Paso Museum of Art, home to permanent collections and rotating exhibitions and workshops. Next, tour the International Museum of Art’s Western Art Gallery and admire the works of William Kolliker, one of El Paso’s most beloved artists.