West Texas Franklin Mountains
Surprise - Adventure - Legend
by Jay W. Sharp
If you take delight in discovery, you will find that the Franklin Mountains – an apparently unexceptional range embraced by the city of El Paso, in the far western corner of Texas – in fact offer a windfall of surprise, adventure and legend.
Sometimes called the southernmost end of the Rocky Mountain chain, the Franklins extend some 23 miles from the Mexican border and the Rio Grande northward across Texas a few miles into New Mexico. They span three to five miles in width, and they rise some 3,000 feet above the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert and approximately 7,000 feet above sea level. The peaks from the southern end northward to the Texas/New Mexico border make up the 37-square-mile Franklin Mountain State Park, administered by Texas Parks & Wildlife. It is the largest urban park in the nation and one of the larger urban wilderness areas in the world.
You can parallel the range on U. S. Highway 54 and Martin Luther King Boulevard on the eastern side or on U. S. Interstate 10 on the western side. You can bisect the range, east to west, over Loop 375, or Woodrow Bean/Transmountain Road, through a geologic wonderland, and you can ascend to a spectacular view, looking across El Paso into Mexico, from a tramway overlook, at the southern tip.
The Franklins have retained their wilderness character to a surprising degree, given their reach, like a mountainous peninsula, into a sprawling urban landscape. Indeed, to the south, east and west, the Franklins tower over El Paso, with a population of more than 600,000. Farther to the south, just across the Rio Grande, the Franklins overlook the Mexican city of Juarez, with a population that likely approaches two million. Together, the two adjoining cities have the largest population center on any international border in the world. Their combined population roughly equals that of Utah, and it exceeds that of the entire state of New Mexico by perhaps 10 percent.
If you like rocks, you will find in the “unexceptional” Franklins what a University of Texas at El Paso Internet site calls “a treasure chest of geological history covering over one and one quarter billion years.” It says that “the park’s easily accessible outcrops can and are being used in educational levels ranging from grammar school to the university doctoral level.” The range formed about 60 to 70 million years ago. Over the eons, it rose as a block, a mile in depth. It listed to the west, revealing complex strata of igneous rocks that tell a story of violence and turbulence and of more recent sedimentary rocks that speak to shallow, placid seas. Off Transmountain Road, on the eastern side of the range, you will see some of the rocks that formed more than a billion years ago. Off Scenic Drive, at the southern tip, and in the park’s Tom Mays Unit, on the western side, you will find fossils of the marine plants and animals that grew in seas.
Along the slopes and canyons of the mountains, you will find solid representations of Chihuahuan Desert plants and wildlife. In their rocky foothills, talus slopes and canyons, the Franklins host a plant community dominated by desert shrubs such as honey mesquite, acacia, creosote bush, four-wing saltbush and (in the drainages) desert willow; cacti such as prickly pears, chollas, hedgehogs and (uniquely for Texas) the Southwest barrel cactus; yuccas such as various narrow- and broad-leaf species; agaves such as the parryi and the wickedly thorned lecheguilla; and the more exotic plants such as the ocotillo, sotol, Mormon tea and the crucifixion thorn. In the spring and early summer – given timely thunderstorms and lengthening days – you can find dazzling blooms decorating the cacti, yuccas, agaves, ocotillo and sotol. With exceptional luck you will be treated, especially on the eastern slopes near Transmountain Road, to a landscape blanketed in yellow, courtesy of the Mexican poppies.
From late afternoon, through the night, into the early morning, the Franklins introduce their full cast of wildlife, including the smaller mammals such as rodents, various bats, blacktail jackrabbits, desert cottontail rabbits, possums, skunks, badgers and raccoons and the larger ones such as coyotes, gray foxes, mule deer and, possibly, even a mountain lion. They offer up those living symbols of the Chihuahuan Desert—the roadrunner (paisano, or “countryman,” in Spanish); various hummingbirds (summer residents from Mexico); the golden eagle (a year round resident with a great fondness for desert cottontails); the horned lizard (“horny toads,” we called them back when I was a boy in the Texas Panhandle); the non-poisonous glossy snake and the poisonous black-tail and banded rock rattlers (the latter a comparatively small but particularly venomous species that, in Texas, occurs only in the far western corner of the state); and the usual tarantulas, scorpions, centipedes and an occasional vinegaroon (a giant scorpion-looking creature that cannot sting but can pinch and can raise a vinegar-smelling stink).
The Franklins, even though they have only a few intermittent springs and a few seeps, gave home to prehistoric man, who left distinctive evidence of his passing in paintings in rock shelters and in chiseled and pecked images on boulders, for instance, along Fusselman Canyon, which parallels Transmountain Road on the eastern slopes. The Franklins, even though set in a hard dry landscape, have overlooked an astonishing parade of history, often centered on the storied Rio Grande ford, just to the south and west. They presided over the crossing, in 1598, of a Spanish expedition headed north, up the Rio Grande, to establish the first successful colony by European descendants in the Southwest. With the passing of centuries, the Franklins served as the backdrop to the pageant of colonists, missionaries, armies, Native American raiders, argonauts, settlers, merchants, prostitutes, cowboys, sheep drovers, gunfighters, railroaders, revolutionaries and others who defined the American West.
In the park’s Tom Mays Unit, located off Transmountain Road, along the western slopes, you will find several dozen shaded picnic facilities and a few designated overnight RV and primitive tent-camping sites. Headquartering here, you can take a short “nature walk” trail that will acquaint you with some of Franklin Mountains’ Chihuahuan Desert plants. On the first and third weekends of each month, you can join a TP&W tour, which will introduce you to the natural history of the park. You can hike or, in some instances, mountain bike, a choice of rocky pathways that will take you over foothills and into canyons, through the plant and wildlife communities. You can make a 1.2-mile, fairly steep climb up to spooky alcoves called “Aztec Caves,” though they had nothing to do with Aztecs. With special arrangements, you can visit an early mine, with tailings still in evidence near the entrance. You can hone your rock climbing skills at a relatively small, but testing, formation called “Sneed’s Cory,” near the entrance to the Tom Mays Unit. If you are experienced, well conditioned and well equipped, you can launch a hike up to Mundy’s Gap or to North Franklin Peak, into the higher elevations of the range and cross over into the eastern slopes and down to the only tin mine (a commercial failure, long closed) in the nation.
Leaving the park’s Tom Mays Unit and following Transmountain Road east, you will transect the range, ascending through Smuggler’s Pass and descending along Fusselman Canyon, a distance of six or eight miles. You will be following the basic route used by 19th century cattle rustlers to drive stolen herds from ranches to the east into sequestered riverine woodlands and grazing along the Rio Grande. Near Smugglers’ Pass you will pass trail heads for a couple of other, good tough hikes through the higher elevations of the mountains. Along Fusselman Canyon – named for Texas Ranger Charles H. Fusselman, killed in the area by rustlers in April of 1890 – you pass through an area inhabited intermittently by the Indians, who left commemorative images on stone of a hunter celebrating a successful kill and of symbols representing (presumably) clan affiliations. Emerging from the mountains, you pass through the road cuts that reveal a variety of rock formations, including some laid down more than a billion years ago.
Approaching the intersection of Transmountain Road and U. S. Highway 54, you will see on your left two museums—El Paso’s Museum of Archaeology and the National Border Patrol Museum. In the exhibits and dioramas of the archaeological museum, you can discover something about the life and crafts of the region’s Ice Age big game hunters, the early desert hunter gatherers, the first village agriculturists and the Puebloan tradition; and you can hike a short nature trail through the desert and explore replicas of prehistoric structures. In the exhibits of weapons, aircraft and vehicles, equipment, uniforms and photographs at the Border Patrol Museum, you can learn something about the history of the courageous men and women who patrol and protect our borders with Mexico and Canada, often under harrowing circumstances. (Brenda Tisdale, Curator of the Border Patrol Museum, told me that Mexican drug cartels have placed large bounties on the heads of our Border Patrol agents.)
At the intersection of Transmountain Road and U. S. Highway 54, you should turn south and drive the few miles to McKelligon Canyon, where you will find a road that draws you into a fold on the east side of the Franklins. On summer evenings, at an amphitheater within the canyon, you can see Viva El Paso, a historical and musical drama that depicts the history of the city. Behind the amphitheater, you will find the newly designated rock climbing site called “Flower Power Ledge.” At the end of the road into the canyon, you’ll discover the trailhead of one of the Franklin’s most memorable hikes, the Ron Coleman Trail, named for an El Paso congressman who helped protect the mountains. You can follow the trail northward, along the higher elevations, for several miles, connecting to another trail that will lead you all the way back to Transmountain Road.
Still on the east side of the Franklins, near the southern end, you will find the Wyler Tramway – in effect, a state park within a state park – which will conduct you by gondola on a four-minute ride to the top of a mountain called Ranger Peak. From an observation deck, you can see literally thousands of square miles of the harsh, arid, scrub-covered and often hazy landscape of the Chihuahuan Desert. On a clear day, to the east, you can see far into Texas. To the north and west, you can see into New Mexico. To the south, you can see across El Paso and Juarez and deep into the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Below you can see the Rio Grande, where it makes its great turn from due south to a generally southeastern course, bound for the Gulf of Mexico. You can see where it traverses the pass between the Franklin Mountain Range and Mexico’s Juarez Mountain Range. It was there that Indians, Spanish conquistadors, Mexican and U. S. armies, merchant caravans and adventurers forded the river for centuries. It was the pass that gave the city its name.
In the course of the surrounding pageantry of history, the Franklins have become imbued with a patina of ghost stories, haunted alcoves and lost treasure.
For example, the mountains harbor Cheetwah, the ghost of an Indian chief who commands a party of warrior spirits intent on destroying Spanish and later invaders of their lands. Cheetwah haunts Indian Springs, located in a V-shaped canyon on the east side of the Franklins and to the due west of the archaeological and Border Patrol museums.
Remote mountain caves in the Franklins, some people say, still hold plunder hidden by the famed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and his men. Another cave, still more people say, conceals the loot of an outlaw named Slim, who left several people buried in the floor and three people hanging from the roof of the grotto as a warning to leave his money and jewels alone. Early in the 20th century, a retired army sergeant visited the cave with Slim and reported that the three hanging victims, now mummified, still swung from the roof. The sergeant never dared tell anyone the location of the cave and its treasure.
Most famously, the Franklins still keep the secret of the Lost Padre Mine, which, according to one report, included 4,336 ingots of gold, 5,000 bars of silver, nine mule loads of jewels, and relics of the Church—the largest of the lost Spanish treasures in all of the Americas.
At one time, according to several reports, you could get a line on the location of the treasure from the northern window of the bell tower of the mid 17th century Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe mission church in the central plaza of Juarez. In a letter dated September 3, 1892, St. Louis Globe-Democrat correspondent Walter B. Stevens said, “Those who are permitted by special favor to pass the door [of the bell tower] find a stairway of logs, the ends of which overlap and form the axis of the circling steps without any other support. At the top of this freak in architecture there is small room with outlooks through the heavy walls... In the distance can be seen the Franklin Mountains, and there is the lost mine. According to the tradition one must stand in a certain position and look through a certain window in the tower and in a line with certain natural landmarks. If the conditions are fully complied with the vision will rest on the exact location of the lost mine.”
Unfortunately, you can no longer see the Franklin Mountains from the church’s bell tower. Your view would now be blocked by the twin-towered Juarez Cathedral built immediately next door.
If you intend to explore the Franklins beyond the designated camp sites, short nature walks, roadside attractions, the museums and the tramway, you should come prepared for rocky and sometimes steep trails, an arid climate, sudden thunderstorms (especially in late summer), unpredictable winds, considerable heat (from spring into the fall), considerable chill (from fall into spring), spiny plants, stinging and biting insects (though, blessedly, few insects such as mosquitoes, black flies, ticks, fleas, chiggers or no-see-um’s) and the occasional rattler. That means a hiker should come equipped with sturdy boots, durable clothes, a good hat, sunscreen, a solid walking stick, ample drinking water and emergency supplies. A trail biker should come comparably equipped, with a helmet being essential (and required by Texas Parks & Wildlife). Hikers and bikers should let someone know where they plan to go and when they intend to return. Additionally, visitors must not collect rocks, fossils, plants or artifacts.
All must observe precautions to avoid wildfire, always a threat in the desert.
My thanks to Danny Contreras and Erika Rubio, Texas Parks & Wildlife, Franklin Mountain State Park, for their help in preparing this article.
For more information and planning assistance, contact:
Parks & Wildlife
Franklin Mountains State Park
1331 McKelligon Canyon Road
El Paso, Texas 79930
Paso Museum of Archaeology
4301 Transmountain Road
El Paso, Texas 79924
Border Patrol Museum
4315 Transmountain Road
El Paso, Texas 79924
Texas Parks & Wildlife
Wyler Aerial Tramway
El Paso, Texas 79930
El Paso Convention and Visitors Bureau
One Civic Center Plaza
El Paso, Texas 79901
Phone1-915-543-0601 or (toll free) 1-800-351-6024
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