At the forefront of the backcountry, El Paso brims with unspoiled outdoor activities

Originally published in

Standing atop the Franklin Mountains, unfettered and simply stunning views unfold across three states and two nations. Many hikers feel elated after climbing to this perch, some 3,400-feet above the sprawling towns of El Paso and Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez. While this climb may seem like the pinnacle of El Paso’s outdoor offerings, the region is rife with uncrowded adventures.

If you’re looking for diverse terrain, serene experiences, unspoiled and unending landscapes, and real solitude, this west Texas town is just what you need. No matter how you explore the outdoors in El Paso, you’ll find a commonality on the trails: a distinct lack of overcrowding. The area’s trails allow you to seek out, and revel in, real solitude. El Paso’s pristine spots offer you a chance to get away from it all and take in the desert scenery.

“No matter where you go around here, you’ll often have the place all to yourself,” local outdoor enthusiast and former hiking and mountain biking guide Don Baumgardt says. “Our local population doesn’t use our outdoor resources at the same rate as, say, people in Colorado might, but that means there aren’t that many people out there.”

With fabulous and diverse options for a multitude of outdoor activities, wide-open landscapes, never-ending views, and a lack of crowds, El Paso presents the perfect qualities for outdoor adventure.

By Foot

El Paso is the only municipality in Texas with mountains inside the city limits. They’re ensconced within the almost 40-square-mile Franklin Mountains State Park, one of the largest urban parks in the nation. There are over a hundred miles of multi-use trails, offering hiking options from easy to challenging.

“The hiking is exceptional around here,” says Jim Tolbert, CEO of the nonprofit Celebration of Our Mountains, which offers educational and recreational outdoor events and field trips. “There are lots of good hiking paths, and you’ve got the challenge of climbing up the mountains — or hiking the entirety of the rim, either south to north, or north to south.”

Tolbert calls out the exceptionally challenging Ron Coleman Trail, which includes rock scrambling via sets of iron chains bolted into the rock to reach the top. Hikers who reach the summit are rewarded with a surprising view.

El Paso Outdoor Attractions

Poppies bloom across Franklin Mountains State Park each year.

“Not only do you have views into three states within two countries,” Tolbert notes, “you have also stepped into a totally different ecosystem. It’s a meadow. You have climbed up out of the desert into a full-on meadow. That’s just one example of how El Paso can really surprise you, by providing these wonderful and unexpected experiences.”

For an array of hiking, running, and trail-running options, check out McKelligon Canyon, which is situated on the southeastern side for the Franklins and surrounded by high canyon walls. Trailheads for the hikes, including the Ron Coleman, begin at the end of the canyon and all are open throughout the year. The 4.8-mile McKelligon Canyon Road itself, which winds sinuously into the canyon, suits all skill levels. You’ll often see hikers, dog walkers, trail runners, and road bikers utilizing this out-and-back route that gains elevation as you head further into the canyon.

El Paso Outdoor Attractions

Franklin Mountains State Park’s highest peak reaches 7,192 feet.

The intermediate North and South Clyde’s Trails also feature low-grade, steady inclines. North Clyde Trail is less than a mile long and eventually merges into Thunderbird Trail. The North Clyde trailhead lies at the end of Tranquil Desert Drive across an open field. The South Clyde trailhead is past the end of Franklin Dove Avenue.

Outside the Franklins, the hike to Mount Cristo Ray is not to be missed. The trailhead in Sunland Park, New Mexico, leads to a 4.4-mile round-trip walk. The easy-to-intermediate climb ascends a series of switchbacks to the top. A 43-foot-tall monument with a limestone statue of Jesus stands at the apex. Sculpted in 1939, the monument has become a pilgrimage site. You may find people engaged in prayer at the base of the statue. Additionally, visitors have described the views from this vantage as incomparable and peerless. Due to the steep terrain, there is no border wall between the mountain and Mexico, so precautions and adequate security considerations are highly encouraged before embarking on this hike — just in case.

While most of the landscape around the city is high desert, two desert wetland parks provide other surprising outdoor opportunities. The 52-acre, spring-fed Keystone Heritage Park is home to almost 200 species of birds and the location of an approximately 4,000-year-old archaeological site. In the spring, the 372-acre Rio Bosque Wetlands Park is speckled bright yellow when the Fobs Bittersweet flowers bloom. Both parks offer accessible nature walks.

El Paso Outdoor Attractions

Franklin Mountains State Park is home to 80 biking trails.

By Bike

El Paso has become a regional mecca for trail and mountain biking. More than 300 sunny days per year, consistently dry and hard-packed soil, flowing terrain, stellar views, and trails for a variety of skill levels make it ideal for off-road biking. Hiking go-to spot Franklin Mountains State Park is also a destination for mountain biking, with 80 designated trails.

“The trails in northeast El Paso, accessible from the Lazy Cow Trailhead [in Franklin Mountains State Park] are some of the best around,” says Borderland Mountain Bike Association vice president Buster Arroyo. “From relatively flat trails to long climbs followed by sweet downhills, this area has it all.” The Lost Dog Trail, a parcel of land in the western foothills adjacent to the Franklins, and those in Palisades Canyon, are also popular. Within the City of El Paso’s parks system, a few trails at Billy Rogers Arroyo Park, an open desertscape, draw cyclists.

By Hand

If you prefer a hands-on approach, rock climbing is abundant in El Paso. Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site — about 40 minutes from downtown — is a world-renowned bouldering area. While actual rock climbing involves ropes and heights, bouldering is more about movement across a rock face or over a larger rock as climbers figure out the best way to traverse.You’ll spot chalk marks on the boulders where climbers have solved “problems.”

The surreal range of granite monoliths offers innumerable caverns, caves, and natural pools. The park is particularly famous for roof climbs but there are also plenty of slopers, flakes, crimps, jugs, and more. There are thousands of guided and self-guided climbs in the park, but you should note that some areas of the park are only accessible by a tour. Additionally, spots such as the self-guided area of North Mountain are limited to only 70 people per day in order to preserve the fragile desert ecosystem.

If you’re not a climber, Hueco Tanks also offers numerous hiking trails, historic and archaeological sites, and flora and fauna nourished by water from the natural pools (called huecos) that give the park its name. Don’t miss a pictograph tour to see some of the thousands of Native American cave paintings in the area. If you are looking for roped climbing, McKelligon Canyon and Sneed’s Cory (both at Franklin Mountains State Park) offer a variety of routes.

El Paso Outdoor Attractions

El Paso Trail Rides offers custom rides and camping trips.

By Hoof

“The City of the Pass” has plentiful options to trot, canter, or gallop into the wilderness. Many of the trail riding outfitters in the metro area are long-standing, family-owned businesses. El Paso Trail Rides, for example, has more than 60 years horsemanship experience and offers custom trail rides, including overnight camping trips.

Miller Horse Farm offers horseback riding for children and adults, “ride and wine” tours to a nearby winery, and rides along verdant farm roads into the wide-open desert. If you have your own horses, you might want to head a little further outside of town. Guadalupe Mountains National Park protects more than 46,000 acres of designated wilderness area (the largest wilderness area in Texas) and nearly another 30,000 acres of backcountry. About 60 percent of the trails are designated for horseback riding. The park boasts several of the highest peaks in Texas, including 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in the state, which also makes it a popular hiking destination.

‘Chez’ Chesak is an award-winning travel writer, tourism consultant and 25-year veteran of the outdoor and travel industries. He is Executive Director of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and formerly was the Vice President for Business Development for the Adventure Travel Trade Association and Executive Director of the Family Travel Association. He has been serious about his writing since about age eight. He also runs the Central States Chapter of the Society of American Travel Writers. He’s lived all over the U.S. and traveled to some 36 countries but has the most fun when he’s exploring with his wife and two daughters. An avid outdoors person, he’s happiest on a trail, on skis, or nestled into a sleeping bag. He deployed to Iraq with a U.S. Army line unit in 2005. His works have appeared in the Los Angeles Times,, Good Housekeeping, Rachel Ray Every Day, Fatherly, Yahoo Travel, Family Vacation Critic, and many others. He also does periodic travel segments for the morning show of his local FOX affiliate and on American Forces Radio.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: