This route is a desert ramble in a strikingly urban environment. It was shaped by a late start, by poor interpretation of satellite imagery and by a thwarted attempt to ascend a small slot canyon on the flanks of the Franklin Mountains. In all, a great little excursion. It is included here because a civilized stroll in Chihuahuan terrain may interest newcomers, because thwarted attempts are by no means unusual and because there aren’t many ways to better spend a cool November day than by rambling footloose in the desert.
- From University Avenue in Las Cruces, enter I-25 South.
- After 2.9 miles the interstate merges with I-10 East.
- After 16.9 more miles, take Exit 162 for NM-404 (signed for Anthony/Chapparal).
- After 0.3 miles, at the end of the ramp, turn left onto NM-404.
- After 8.1 miles, just a few feet short of a traffic circle, go right on a connector that merges into NM-213 (War Road) going south.
- After 2.6 miles, at the Texas border, the road becomes Farm To Market 3255/Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. Continue straight.
- After 4.9 more miles, at a traffic light, turn right onto Jon Cunningham Road.
- After 0.4 miles come to a T-intersection with Officer Andrew Barcena Drive. Straight ahead is the entrance for the parking lot for a city park. Park in the parking lot.
Looking at Google Maps you will see a number of roads extending from Martin Luther King Jr Blvd west toward the Franklin Mountains, north of Jon Cunningham Road. These are private roads, however, and not open to the public. I stopped at one of these ranch roads and talked with Richard, a cattleman, who was very cordial. His first concern was for the oil pan of my low-slung Camry on such roads. He pointed out that his road was in such bad shape that he was having it graded, then invited me to come back after the grading was done. (The grader drove past while we were talking). Since this guide is not private I had to decline his very kind offer.
The trailhead is a parking lot for the Chuck Heinrick Park in the North Hills neighborhood of El Paso. I did not see any trailhead services other than the parking spaces. The location is very popular with both mountain bikers and folks out walking the dog. On nice weekend days you may find it necessary to park along the flanking streets.
Although the city park is free, entrance to the Franklin Mountains State Park is not. After walking about a quarter mile from the parking lot you will enter the state park. There you will have to fill in a form on an envelope (it is a good idea to bring along a pencil) and pay. On this date the fee was $5.00, but check the state website for up-to-date information.
- Starting Elevation: 4140 feet
- Ending Elevation: 5220 feet
- Elevation Gain: 1080 feet
- Distance: 8.7 miles
- Maps: USGS North Franklin quadrangle
Head uphill from the parking lot towards the sloping concrete reinforcement-walls of a flood control dam. Just before reaching the dam, turn left and follow a path up onto the top of this embankment. Your destination is to the northwest, but first you must dodge around the flood control basin uphill of the dam. Head south on the embankment top (the first righthand path dead-ends in the basin), and follow the dam as it curves uphill . At 0.3 miles from the trailhead, reach the border of the Franklin Mountains State Park. Fill out the deposit envelope and leave your entrance fee. The road returns north until you are back parallel with the trailhead and then bends to the west. This part of the trip is a road ramble and very popular. Runners, dog walkers and bicyclists are thick on the ground.
Take a moment to get oriented as you ascend the lowest skirts of this mountain range. To the north lies the highest point of the Franklin Mountains in New Mexico, a prominence named Anthony’s Nose. This peak, shaped like the schnoz of a reclining man, soars over the end-point of this route. To get there you will be roving over the ribs and weaving up the arroyos that sculpt the bajada.
To the south you will see Mundy’s Gap and North Franklin Mountain. In the mid-ground is a small foothill, labeled on the topo-maps as point 4857. Here it is referred to as as Navigation Hill. Study this foothill as you hike since it is a very useful marker of near-the-trailhead terrain. As you ascend the slopes the road starts to bend south towards Mundy’s Gap and away from the northern reaches. So, when the road points itself at the north flank of Navigation Hill, depart from the road to the right (north) to cross a wide arroyo and rise to a rib top on the far side. On this date I scared up four jack rabbits and a lizard. This would be the only reptile noticed on the hike; a rare instance where sightings of warm-blooded organisms out-numbered the cold blooded.
Much of the magic on this hike, both black and white, lies in the needle-y, spiny, thorny, bristly, pokey, and saw-like natural flora. Here you will find all the Chihuahaun favorites: long leafed sotol, feathery mesquite and tall yucca. One genus that deserves particular mention is the stout-leafed and needle-pointed agave, sometimes called shin daggers. These grew to near lawn-like density on the tops of the lowest ribs – the sort of lawn that would force croquet to be played with medicine balls and war hammers. Another striking plant is a species of cactus (shown above) that is four or more inches in diameter but only rises an inch or two above the soil line. An online search showed some similarity to Enchinocactus horizonthalonius, also known as “Eagle Claw Cactus”. Boots make it possible to move amidst these plants. The sneaker footed will want to stay on bike trails.
Steer toward Anthony’s Nose. Even in November the desert is still scattered with flowering plants in yellow, white and purple display. The bushier of these tend to cluster in the arroyos where some of the geology of the Franklin Mountains is also on display. The fossil shown above is composed of a dense array of bumps arranged hexagonally. This seems to be the mineralized record of burrows formed by an ocean dweller named Paleodictyon nodosum, which apparently survives to this day in the deep oceans. Here in the state park, cacti and sea bottom co-exist.
At 2.1 miles from the trailhead intersect an obvious bike trail that makes long, S-shaped switchbacks as it ascends a rib between two large arroyos. Follow it uphill until it intersects an old road and turn right on the road to head north along the foot of the Franklin mountains. At 2.6 miles the road descends into a major drainage. Looking uphill you will see that this drainage collects the water from the ridgeline south of Anthony’s Nose. Head uphill in this arroyo on a pleasant, sandy bottom. Soon, however, the terrain steepens and the once broadly-sloped banks rise high and vertical as the waterway becomes a trench-like gully. Be wary. Where water has undercut the banks a loose matrix of soil is holding bowling-ball sized rocks over thin air.
Several canyons descend from the ridge line to feed into the gully. At the confluence of these canyons, find a high road cut into the mountainside that crosses the waterway. Find an exit from the gully bed and stroll on the high road to the south bank of the gully. Looking up-canyon, scan for what may be a rising system of grass covered ledges or, possibly, a road abandoned long-long ago. This apparent road stays along the south side of the canyon as the canyon rises and furrows into smaller streams. Above the furthest visible point on the road there seems to be a slot canyon. Experienced scramblers may want to ascend the slot canyon. Others will have a better time taking in the views, having a bite to eat and returning as described in the paragraph after next.
Leave the high road by climbing over an embankment and find the grass-covered ledge/road. Follow it along the canyon wall and note how the vegetation has changed. On the bajada there was some space between plants. Here they are firmly entangled, if no less thorny. Each little open grassy space is a major improvement in your circumstances. In just 0.2 miles this ledge/road system runs into a side canyon and ends. Descend into the main waterway on sloped, but solid, terrain. Push past the dense brush in the bottom of the stream and ascend steep and loose gravel to the north bank. Let the upper walls of the slot canyon be your guide as you ascend. You are almost in the slot canyon when you come to a watercourse carved into the north wall that is packed with a virtual river of prickly pear. Ascend on the sloped north wall until you reach a point where you can ford this virtual river. The next watercourse also looks pear-packed, but it is navigable. Descend to the canyon bed and you will be in the floor of the slot. A mere 50 feet up the slot there is a large vertical chalkstone with dense bushes growing on top. Skillful climbers might find a way around this blockage (there is an apparent weakness on the south side). On this date, however, this formed the turn-around point.
Return down canyon to the high road. On the high road, turn south and enjoy easy ambling on a wide tread with the Franklins towering over your right and views into suburban El Paso on your left. The road will strike a rib and make a long contour to the east, double back into a canyon, and then return to the front of the range. Here, five miles from the trailhead, leave the road southeast along a gently inclined rib that is pointed a little east of Navigation Hill. As you near its foot, swing directly towards Navigation Hill, cross a large arroyo and arrive at a dirt road. Cross this road and rise directly onto the next rib. Scout to the east and find a wide bike trail heading due south towards Navigation Hill. After hiking 6.1 miles from the trailhead, come to a signed intersection with the road back to the trailhead. Head east on the road as it rounds Navigation Hill, and follow the road back to the trailhead.
♦Do this hike on a nice winter’s day. If you’ve not been out in the Chihuahuan Desert before, then you could hardly ask for a better opportunity to ramble. There is enough company (joggers and bikers) that you will not feel totally on your own. Navigation problems are obviated by the mountains on the west, the extensive housing tracts on the east, and the mass of Navigation Hill near the trailhead. A heavy dust storm could be problematic, but that just means paying attention to the weather and weather forecasts.
♦Enjoy the back country of this state park in heavy boots and long pants. The desert is not kind to people in sneakers and shorts. I was glad to have on ballistic-fiber gators. These gators are usually sold as protection from snakes, but they also armor your shins against thorns and spines.
♦The bikers I encountered were unfailingly polite and seemingly expert. Still, even the best bikers have moments of poor bike management – it is smarter to stand aside just as you would for a horse rider.
♦As with all desert sojourns, take along some extra water. Surprisingly, I got through almost all of the 4 liters that I had brought with me. Next time I’ll bring along six.
♦The short scramble up to the slot canyon could be very uncomfortable for a new hiker; the terrain is steep and loose and prickly. It is poor location to learn climbing moves.
♦Desert hikes get very little attention and the terrain adjacent to the Franklin Mountains is no exception. A terrific overview of the biking, hiking and climbing opportunities has been posted by Outdooraholic on the Summit Post site.
♦On-Walkabout has an extensive description of hiking in similar terrain on the west side of the Park (aiming for Anthony’s Nose) that includes some very useful photos of the terrain.
♦Greg at the Greg’s Running Adventures site celebrates the terrain in the Franklin Mountains State Park from a runners perspective.
♦Devon, at Southern New Mexico Explorer, has several brief posts in which he illustrates the terrain and comments on the difficulties sometimes encountered in steep desert desert terrain and sometimes encountered in near-urban environments.