Nature Notes; Franklin Mountains State Park: El Paso’s Desert-Mountain SanctuaryApache

Diana Moy is park interpreter at the Wyler Aerial Tramway, in El Paso’s Franklin Mountains State Park. The tramway showcases the mountains’ unique geology, and it carries visitors to the summit of Ranger Peak – and a panoramic view of the borderlands.

Their jagged profile announces El Paso del Norte – the Pass of the North. The Franklin Mountains are the signature of Texas’ only “mountain city.”

At 24,000 acres, El Paso’s Franklin Mountains State Park is the largest urban park in the country. It’s a unique resource – an outpost of wild Chihuahuan Desert, in the midst of a major city.

In east El Paso, the Wyler Aerial Tramway carries hundreds of visitors a day to the summit of Ranger Peak. The tramway was built for KTSM TV and radio. It opened to park visitors in 2001. The ascent showcases the Franklins’ unique geology.

Diana Moy is a ranger at the Wyler Tramway.

“As we’re going up the tramway, if you’ll look down you can kind of see the different layers, the different colors in the rocks,” Moy said. “That’s going to be the marks of different geologic times, geologic periods. We’ll have our red bluff granite – it’s the oldest rock, it’s our volcanic rock. That’s going to be mostly at the bottom. And as we go up it gets lighter and lighter in color, that’s going to be sandstone and limestone.”

Here, the region’s most ancient rocks are exposed in bands of rosy pink. The red bluff granite dates to 1.25 billion years ago – when single-celled creatures were the sum of life on Earth. These Precambrian rocks form the “basement” or stable core of Texas.

The view from Ranger Peak is panoramic.

“From the top you have a 360-degree view of El Paso,” Moy said, “and you won’t get that view anywhere in the mountains. You’ll see two nations, of course – the U.S. and Mexico. You’ll see Ciudad Juarez, which is in the state of Chihuahua. You can really see where the Rio is. On a clear day you can see 7,000 square miles. In New Mexico, you can see all the way to Ruidoso, which about two and a half hours away from El Paso.”

The Franklins were an important resource for early El Pasoans. Ranchers pastured sheep and cattle here. Miners dug for copper and tin, and quarried for gravel and quartz.

In the 1970s, conservation became a priority. A developer launched a real-estate project in the mountains. He bulldozed a trail to North Franklin Peak – at 7,200 feet, the Franklins’ highest point. He took 8 feet off the peak in the process.

There was widespread concern. City officials appealed to state legislators, and mountain lands were ultimately transferred to state ownership. Franklin Mountains State Park opened to the public in 1987. The park encompasses 37 square-miles – all within El Paso city limits.

From Wyler, and from trailheads at the park’s west and north ends, visitors can access more than 100 miles of trails. There are guided hikes to an old mine shaft. The steep, rocky trails are popular with experienced mountain bikers.

In the midst of a growing city, the park is a sanctuary for wildlife – from burrowing owls and foxes to mule deer and mountain lions, Moy said.

“I think last year or the year before we had a family of coyotes living here at the park – there were like seven of them,” she said. “We have quail. People don’t know that. Even though we’re in the middle of the city, it’s kind of like a little area for wildlife to come where they’re going to be safe, since they can’t be hunted or taken out. It’s kind of like they’re safe place here.”

For Texas Parks & Wildlife, outreach is a top priority. In an amphitheater at McKelligon Canyon, the park hosts lives music and movie screenings. There’s the Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta each fall, with food vendors, music and activities. There are guided hikes the last Sunday of each month, and attendance is surging.

There’s camping at the park’s western Tom Mays Unit. The park hosts campouts there twice a year. All gear and equipment are provided. Park staff want El Pasoans to know there’s an outdoor experience in their backyard.

“And see a lot of people don’t know that,” Moy said. “They think they have travel hours and hours to go to a camping spot. We have it here. We have it right in the middle of the city.”

In the Trans-Pecos, remote parks aren’t the only way to access the natural world. Even in the region’s biggest city, rugged desert-mountain beauty is near at hand.

Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.