El Paso, Texas: Destination of the week
It's easy to take in this college town's desert surroundings by bike, canoe or foot.
Wed, Feb 01 2012 at 5:49 PM
GO RIDE: Franklin Mountains State Park is an ideal spot to hop on a bike and enjoy the desert landscape. (Photo: Dennis McElveen/El Paso Convention & Visitors Bureau)
El Paso, Texas, can be defined in many ways. It is a busy border crossing, the smaller of two cities that make up a cross-border metropolis (the Mexican city of Juarez is El Paso's big sister), a college town, a multicultural melting pot with a long and colorful history, and even a base for desert eco-tourism. Yes, El Paso's location amid the Franklin Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert makes it an ideal spot for nature lovers who want to move their eco-tourism excursions beyond the usual assortment of jungle canopy tours or sea turtle nesting beaches.
Not only is El Paso a convenient base for a nature-themed vacation, it also has designs on becoming a much greener city overall. In 2012, El Paso launched an ambitious program called Plan El Paso, which seeks to develop environmentally sustainable neighborhoods along major bus routes and to redevelop an old industrial area into a vibrant urban community. The plan is impressive, but there is no need to wait until it comes to fruition before booking tickets to the borderlands. El Paso has enough green features now to make a low-impact vacation possible. The varied landscapes of the Chihuahuan, the mountains, canyons and the famous Rio Grande are easily accessible from the city. It is even possible to cross the state border into New Mexico and enjoy an authentic hacienda experience. Since these natural attractions are within striking distance of El Paso, it is a great city to use as a base for introducing yourself to the nature of Texas and the Southwest.
Like many other midsized cities in the U.S., El Paso and its environs are best navigated by car. Green-minded tourists will have to weigh the ease and convenience of car travel (which will allow them to get to many nature-oriented attractions) against the environmental-friendliness of mass transit and other greener options. Traveling by bus in El Paso's core areas and near the University of Texas at El Paso campus is easy, with the Sun Metro system operating routes throughout these areas. Day passes for the Metro are available. Some routes do not run on weekends, but the system is fully operational during the week.
Downtown and college campus areas can be traversed on foot, provided walkers can deal with high temperatures on summer days. Trails in the desert and mountain areas surrounding El Paso can be navigated by bicycle. However, this car-centric city's urban roads do not lend themselves to pedaling. That said, plans for a more bike-friendly future are in the works.
El Paso's hospitality scene is dominated by chain hotels, but it is possible to find an environmentally friendly place to stay. Marriott El Paso carries its brand's eco-friendly practices. This hotel is located near the airport and also within striking distance of the U.S.-Mexico border and central El Paso. An onsite restaurant and spa make this a decent choice for people seeking an amenity-rich sleeping spot. The nearby Sunland Park Inn, which is part of the Best Western family, is another chain choice with some eco-friendly traits.
People looking for small-scale sleeping options will have to cross the border — not into Mexico, but into New Mexico. Places like Casa de Suenos and Casa de Rosie are hacienda-style inns located in the desert landscapes on the New Mexico side of the border. They are within driving distance of El Paso, but also remote enough to appease people who are in the region to experience the stark natural landscapes.
Sprouts Farmers Market, a chain that has stores throughout Texas and the southern U.S., some of which operate under the Sun Harvest name, has a location in El Paso. With a host of natural and organic products, this store is akin to Whole Foods Markets and is one of the best places in El Paso to go for organic groceries. Each Saturday during the summer and fall, Ardovino's Desert Crossing Farmers Market offers fresh locally grown produce in a more authentic setting.
Bistro and coffee shop fare is easy to come by in El Paso. Kinley's House is a coffee shop/bistro with natural and organic dishes as well as coffee drinks. Meanwhile, the Curry Leaf offers vegetarian Indian dishes to those in search of meatless cuisine. The most authentic eating experience in El Paso arguably comes from the city's taco trucks. Tacoholics runs a fleet of these vehicles that dish out simple Mexican favorites throughout the city.
To support local producers on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, visitors can head to one of the so-called festival markets. Mercado Mayapan and Mercado Central are two places to find products grown or made south of the border.
El Paso is located in an ideal place for desert sightseeing. The Northern Chihuahuan Desert is diverse both in terms of its landscapes and plant and animal life. Waterways, including the famous Rio Grande, mountains, grasslands, unique rock formations and dunes are just a few of the geographical features found around El Paso. With the sun shining five out of every six days, on average, conditions are ideal for outdoor adventures (provided you are prepared to deal with high temperatures during the summertime).
El Paso is filled with history from its beginnings as a frontier town to its current incarnation as one of the world's most important border cities. Visitors can take in this colorful past as part of a walking tour. These tours are a great way to hear and see El Paso's narrative without creating any carbon. For those who want to see environmentalism in action, the modest but green Cielo Vista Library is being constructed to meet strict LEED standards.
The UTEP campus has some green features of its own. One of the most outstanding and accessible is the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens. The museum includes rotating cultural exhibits, while the garden features an extensive collection of plants that grow in the local desert lands. A downloadable map and tour guide is available for those who want to stroll the gardens and browse the catalog of plants that grow in the Chihuahuan region.
McKelligon Canyon is a popular spot for both locals and visiting hikers. It is probably best known for its amphitheaters, but also boasts trails that wind around the canyon walls. This is one of the most easily accessible natural attractions since it sits only a few minutes from downtown El Paso. Aside from the trails, there are picnicking facilities for people who would rather sit and enjoy the views instead of exploring the sometimes-steep trails on foot. The canyon is part of Franklin Mountains State Park, a 37-square-mile expanse of protected desert land. The park is a desert tourist's dream, with more than 125 miles of trails for hikers and bicyclists (who flock to the park because of its challenging off-road routes). Ranger-guided tours are sometimes available to visitors on the weekends. Walking routes in the area range from short jaunts under a mile to eight-plus-mile hikes that pass over the top of the Franklins. Mountain biking trails are exceedingly popular as well. If you want to take to the water instead of the road, the Rio Grande is a paddle-ready river with plenty of unofficial entry points.
Though large mammals are hard to find in the Chihuahuan Desert, bird life is everywhere. The above-mentioned parks and trails are good places for binoculars-toting bird-watchers. Rogers Arroyo Park and Nature Preserve is another avian-centric site. This is an especially attractive option for frugal visitors, because entrance is free.
El Paso is a small city with plenty of green ambitions. With everything in a reasonably compact space, it is easy to take advantage of the city's conveniences while also maximizing the time that you can spend in unparalleled desert landscapes of this part of Texas.
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