We're back in the Lone Star state again, although just barely. El
Paso is about as far west as you can get in Texas without being in
either Mexico or New Mexico.
I'm not so sure about the "passing freely across the Rio Grande" part
in the quote above -- you do need a passport to return to the
U.S. now, after all --
but this city of about 600,000 people certainly has a rich
cultural history dating even farther back than four centuries ago when
conquistador Don Juan de Oñate
claimed the region for Spain. The Paso del Norte was home to several cultures of ancient
peoples for about 10,000 years before the Spanish ever laid eyes on it.
Since then it has seen the westward expansion of pioneer America, Indian
wars and peace, Mexican wars and peace, and a relatively harmonious relationship
with sister city Ciudad Juárez, Mexico on the other side of the river:
View over El Paso of Ciudad
Juárez, Mexico and the mountain range beyond it
El Paso is the largest U.S. city on the Mexican border. Juárez is
Mexico's largest border city. Combined populations are
about two million people (note that Juárez is about three times the size
of El Paso).
In this series of entries I'll provide an update
since we left Arizona on January 2 -- the trip here, where we've
been camping, and some of the activities we've been doing.
WHY EL PASO?
We've both been here before but in recent years it's usually been
only in transit between Texas and
Arizona on our winter trips.
El Paso is a fairly popular winter destination because of its
international feel and relatively warm, dry climate.
Or so the AAA and Chamber of Commerce say!
We spent most of December in the Phoenix area. We considered spending more time in Arizona
this month but we still
haven't figured out an inexpensive place to camp for several weeks. The
regional and state parks are pretty expensive there. We need to do more research about
National Forest Service developed (cheap with our senior pass) and
dispersed ("free") campgrounds and the Long-Term
Visitor Areas (LTVAs) on BLM land near Yuma and Quartzite that are only $40 for two weeks or $180 for up to
six months. Most everything we've read and heard about boondocking in
the most popular LTVA, Quartzite, turns us off; it can be very
crowded, as this photo from the January, 2011 Highways magazine
That's not our idea of fun. We don't want just a warm, dry climate
and inexpensive camping. We also want some space, nice scenery, good trails, and a
remote feel -- but with nearby services and a good internet
connection! Not sure we're ever gonna find all that in Arizona in the winter
. . . and even less likely in southern California.
So instead of scouting around out there after ATY we headed for someplace more
familiar -- Texas!
El Paso sounded like a good place to spend a few days for several reasons: its reputed warm,
dry winter weather, lots of trails in the Franklin Mountains, its
proximity to Hueco Tanks, reasonably-priced camping at the Fort Bliss RV
Park, and several museums, missions, and other historical sites that
sounded interesting to us. After a one-day drive, it'd be a good place
to hang out for a week before moving farther east.
Nice view of the Franklin
Mountains from the Fort Bliss RV Park; that's our Cameo.
I've mentioned before about the great park system in the state of
Texas. I'd love to visit more of the almost-100 parks, monuments, and
historical sites than we've already seen. We considered several parks
with RV camping that were new to us as we made our way east toward
Huntsville SP, where we have reservations at the end of this months so
Jim can train for the Rocky Raccoon 50-mile race on February 5:
Davis Mountains, South Llano River, Pedernales Falls, Inks Lake,
Bastrop, Buescher, Garner, Lost Maples. We also considered Big Bend
We managed to find reasons to avoid camping at each of those parks
this month, however -- everything from weather that would be too
cold in January to drained lakes to trail closures for deer hunting or prescribed burns.
El Paso offered a state park three-for: Franklin
Mountains, the Wyler Aerial Tramway, and Hueco Tanks. None of those has
suitable RV sites for us, however, so we chose to camp at Fort Bliss and
visit the parks during the day.
The Franklin Mountains also form
a scenic backdrop to officers' housing at Fort Bliss.
One of our goals was to find milder weather than we had during most of
December in the Phoenix area. Silly us! Moving from 1,000 to 2,000 feet
elevation at Estrella and McDowell Mountain Parks in the Valley of the
Sun to about 4,000 feet in El Paso was not the best plan, even if
it is a little farther south . . .
Although we've had sunshine and
temperatures in the 50s and low 60s every day for the past week, most
nights have been below freezing.
So far, so good with our water pipes on
sub-freezing nights but we have to do several things when we know the
temps will be that low: put enough fresh water in the tank
to last until the weather warms up the next day (or longer), disconnect
the water hose, let the outdoor water spigot drip overnight (and/or
sometimes the indoor faucets), run the furnace to provide heat in the basement under
the bathroom plumbing, open the cabinet door that provides access to the
kitchen pipes, and aim one of our two small electric heaters toward
Cacti in the snow at Franklin Mountains SP
We should have studied the NOAA forecasts more thoroughly before
heading here and perhaps chosen a different location in early January!
But then we would have missed some interesting things in the El Paso
RV TRAVELOGUE: PHOENIX TO EL PASO
We had a dry, sunny day for travel on Sunday, January 2 but boy, was
it cold! That limited the number of stops we made to three in 8½
hours on the road -- two rest areas and a fuel stop. We drove from Estrella Mountain Regional Park southwest of Phoenix to the
Fort Bliss RV Park in eastern metro El Paso, most of it on I-10.
The freeway was in good shape. We had no traffic problems and made good time through southern
Arizona, New Mexico, and into Texas. Since it was a winter holiday
weekend there was no construction going on, nor any one-lane sections on
Traffic in Phoenix, Tucson, Las Cruces, and El Paso was light to
moderate. Through most of New Mexico it was downright lonesome!
Snow at the New Mexico-Arizona
border -- I took this photo on I-10 from our moving truck.
We didn't go anywhere near the 80 MPH speed limit on most of this
freeway. We usually drive about 60 MPH with the Cameo to
conserve fuel. You might think we'd be a road hazard going so slowly but that
Sunday the traffic was so light most of the way that our speed
wasn't an issue. We saw more west-bound RVs than semis, most likely
seeking warmer weather in southern Arizona. Now we know why they were
going west! We probably should have stayed where we were.
We saw a little bit of snow
along the road when we were above 4,000 feet, which was basically all the way
from Tucson to El Paso. There wasn't much snow on any of
the mountains we could see even though some of them were in the
We stopped at one of my favorite rest areas for lunch -- the
one at MM 320 in eastern Arizona that has lots of interesting boulders and balanced rocks:
I always like driving through that area. Parts of this freeway are
quite scenic, especially as the terrain gets hillier going eastbound.
Diesel prices were fairly consistent -- and high -- all along I-10 in
Arizona and New Mexico. We stopped at the Flying J at Lordsburg, NM
(I-10 exit 24) and paid $3.35/gallon. Flying J used to be a little
cheaper than its competitors but we haven't found that since they merged
with Pilot and changed their RV rewards card.** Now we usually look for the lowest price at stations with
adequate room to maneuver the Cameo rather than being loyal to a company
that no longer offers the same perks to RVers that it did before the
merger. Most FJs charge $10 to dump now, too; that service used to be
[** Addendum Feb. 12: Flying J is apparently improving
their RV rewards card per this entry at
rvboondockingnews.com. Guess we need to
get a new one. This is a
discount card, not a credit card.]
The jagged Organ Mountains near
Las Cruces, NM are beautiful in the late afternoon sun.
We were real happy to find diesel across from our campground at Fort
Bliss for a more reasonable $3.11/gallon that afternoon! We saw several
other service stations throughout El Paso with prices just a few cents
higher than that. Texas has had lower taxes on gas and diesel than
Arizona and New Mexico in recent years. With their newly-announced state
budget problems, however, that might change.
Note to folks in large RVs coming to Fort Bliss RV Park via I-25 or
I-10 in New Mexico: rather than crossing the
Franklin Mountains on Loop 375 (Trans Mountain Rd.) in northern El Paso,
we were directed to get off I-10 at exit 162 (NM 404) right before the
Texas border. That road is much less hilly:
Heading east on NM 404 toward the
Franklin Mountains north of El Paso
After another turn or two we were on I-54 heading south to the Fort
Park at exit 25. The campground is located between the freeway and the eastern
side of the Franklin Mountains.
I'll talk more about Fort Bliss and the RV Park in another entry. In
the remainder of this entry I'll describe some of the places we visited
in El Paso.
The city of El Paso spreads for miles in a V-shape to the east, west,
and south of the Franklin Mountains. One of the easiest (and cheapest)
ways to see spectacular views of El Paso, the Rio Grande, and Ciudad Juárez
is to drive to the overlooks on Scenic Drive, a two-mile long road located at the southern
end of the mountain range.
You can see part of the road cut through
the flank of the mountain in the photo below. Scenic Drive gets up to
about 4,222 feet, which affords some good views of the city several
hundred feet below.
This is more than the southern end of the Franklin Mountain Range.
It's also the southernmost tip of the entire Rocky Mountain chain
that stretches into Canada! There's a monument at Tom Lea Park along
Scenic Drive denoting that interesting fact.
Scenic Drive runs east-west across the southern end of the Franklin
Mountains. We started from the west on Rim Road, passing some elegant
homes overlooking the city:
There are several little parks and scenic overlooks along Scenic
Drive. We stopped at a couple of them to take photos and read historical
Sign at Murcheson Park overlooking El Paso and the
Another view of the city from Murcheson Park; it
was hard to see the Rio Grande itself.
In another entry I'll show photos of the city from even higher up
-- a mile high on Ranger Peak.
NATIONAL BORDER PATROL MUSEUM
El Paso has a wealth of art, history, culture, science,
transportation, and other museums. We've been to so many museums
during our lifetimes that we decided to visit only two of them on
this trip. I'll talk about one here and the other in the entry
about Fort Bliss.
When we were making lists of places to visit in El Paso we chose
this museum because it's so unlike any we've ever seen. In fact,
only one of its kind in the country. We spent about an hour
perusing more than a century of U.S. Border Patrol history from
Old West to present high-tech.
The museum contains interesting exhibits featuring photos, documents,
uniforms, vehicles, boats, airplanes, weapons, and other
memorabilia used by agents protecting
Project Roadrunner: fewer suspects try to
outrun fast Border Patrol cars!
One of the cars used many years ago to
patrol the Del Rio Sector
More vehicles used to protect our borders
Display regarding use of helicopters for
Jim always like to hop into the helicopters
in museums we visit; he rode in Hueys in Viet Nam.
An ultralight plane used for aerial patrols
While visiting the Southwest it's easy to think that the main
border problems we have are with Mexico. Exhibits in this museum
illustrate other points of entry that must be guarded, such as
Canada and the southeastern Gulf states.
No, we don't exactly have a border with Cuba but refugees from
that island country have a long history of entering the U.S.
both legally and illegally.
This is a crude boat that four Cuban refugees used in their
escape to the U.S. in 1994. Agents seized the boat when it
landed in the Florida Keys and handed the refugees over to the
Immigration Services. The raft is made of scrap metal, tire
tubes, wood, and canvas. It has an old Russian-made outboard
There's an even more crude metal boat shown on the left in the
When you see contraptions like this and consider that people
risk their lives in them to cross part of an ocean (not to
mention getting arrested when they reach our shore), it really
makes you appreciate the freedoms we have in this country!
One room displays the names and photos of agents who have lost
their lives in the line of duty. I was surprised to see how many
there have been, but with the escalating drug war on the other
side of the Rio Grande and other global threats to our freedom and
safety, I suppose it's inevitable that more and more names will
be added to the wall.
Various exhibits explain what it's like to be a mounted guard, how
agents track suspects through various types of terrain, and
how checkpoints work.
Since I'm a dog lover, I was particularly interested in the
displays that describe the canine units and pay tribute to the
dogs who have helped track contraband and suspects. This is one
part of that exhibit:
There are several displays of old equipment used by the agents
in the early 1900s that are in stark contrast to the high-tech
materials and gadgets they use today:
Imagine having to lug that old camera (L) or
Jim tried on several Border Patrol hats for sale in the gift
shop, joking that it'd be fun
to wear one into Walmart and seeing how many people move away
from him as fast as possible!
No, he didn't buy one of the hats. He had fun considering the
possibilities, however, and sent that
picture to several friends.
In some areas of El Paso, like on the road to the missions, we
are definitely in the minority. At the Walmart and Sam's Club at
I-10 exit 25 there were as many vehicle tags from Chihuahua,
Mexico as from Texas. And when I drove through southeastern El
Paso on the Mission Trail, I felt like I was in Mexico, not the
I wasn't nervous, just real aware that I looked like a
Border Patrol Museum is located
on Trans Mountain Road (Loop 375) near I-54 in northeastern El
Paso. It's open Tuesdays through Saturdays 9 AM. to 5 PM. It is
closed Sundays, Mondays, and major holidays. Admission and
parking are free; donations are encouraged. RVs are
welcome but there isn't a lot of room for them to maneuver.
Guided tours are offered with advance notice.
If you're in the El Paso area, we highly recommend you spend at
least half an hour in this one-of-a-kind museum. School-age kids
will enjoy it, too.
Next entry: the historic Spanish missions of El
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil