The Trans Mountain Highway continues west to I-10 but we didn't have
to go that far to reach the entrance to the north unit of the park.
TOM MAYS UNIT OF FRANKLIN MOUNTAINS SP:
CLIMBING THE AZTEC CAVES TRAIL
We got a good map of the park road, picnic areas, RV and tent
camping areas, and trailheads in this part of the park but the trail
map the ranger gave us is very sparse as far as details about the terrain,
difficulty, and distance of the various trails. I don't think it
included mountain bike trails, either.
We weren't sure what we were getting into but
decided we'd try one of the trails and turn around if it was too
Paved park road in the Tom Mays
The paved park road dead-ends in less than two miles. We checked out
two short side roads to trailhead parking areas and the RV and primitive
There are some gently rolling trails on either side of
the road but we decided it would be more interesting to hike up into a
canyon to the Aztec Caves. I marked the caves trail with a red arrow on
the map below:
We accessed this trailhead on the spur road that goes through the
primitive camping area.
Although we didn't know it when we started, we
could see the caves from the parking lot. They are high in the canyon a
little right of center in the
I loved the colorful gold shrubs and bright red prickly pear cacti that
glowed in the morning sun:
were heading mostly east, however, making it a challenge to take decent
photos as we hiked toward the caves. In the next photo I used
the roof of a covered picnic shelter to block the sun's rays.
Between the glare of the sun and the shadows it created . . . some of
the pictures I'm including here are a little weird.
The caves are behind the prism
caused by the sun in this photo.
The rocky trail climbs steadily from about 5,000 to 5,400 feet
elevation in two-thirds of a mile, becoming steeper and more rugged the
last quarter mile as the wider trail narrows down to single track.
There was still some snow on the ground in the shady canyons and
north-facing slopes. The trail was icy in several places near the caves.
That wasn't much of a problem on the ascent but we
had to be very careful descending some fairly steep
places near the cave openings. I was wishing I'd brought my trekking poles on
the way back down to the truck.
Jim is dwarfed by the colorful cave entrances below:
The caves were colorful inside, too:
We spent some time exploring the caves and admiring the views north
to the western slope of the mountain range and west to the expansive
A cool keyhole view from inside
I was able to get much better photos coming back down
with the sun behind me:
Including the time we spent in the caves, it took us about an hour
for this hike. It would have been faster without the gawking and
picture-taking. Because it was a weekday morning we saw only one other
hiker while we were on this trail.
When we got back to the truck we drove to the picnic area at the end of the road.
We saw a few more people here. I took these photos to the east, west, and north
from a ridge in this picnic area:
More trails extend into the northern part of the park (photo
above) but we didn't go back another day to explore any of them.
For a map, park video, and more information about activities,
trails, fees, hours of operation, geology, history, and wildlife in Franklin Mountains State Park, check out this official
WYLER AERIAL TRAMWAY STATE PARK
The same day we visited McKelligon Canyon we also drove to the
nearby tramway which is a separately-run unit of the state park
system but located on about 200 acres of land within the
southeastern section of Franklin Mountains State Park. (Yeah, it confuses
me a little bit, too!)
Reaching the base of the tramway is a bit of an adventure in
itself. You do not want to take even a medium-sized RV up
steep, narrow, winding McKinley Avenue! Even if you could
maneuver the street, there isn't room for RVs in the parking
The tramway features two large gondolas that simultaneously
carry about ten people each on sturdy steel cables from the base
at 4,692 feet to a viewing platform at the summit
of Ranger Peak at 5,632 feet. The views to the east on the way
up the mountain are great, but the views in all directions are
even better at the top as you walk around all four sides of the
building that houses a gift shop and snack bar.
This view from the top gives some
perspective re: how far we rode up those cables you can
see to the right. They stretch half a mile
down to the lower terminal and parking lot.
It was interesting to read the interpretive signs and look at
the machinery and main control room of the cable system at the
base as we waited for our turn on one of the Swiss-made
There is an older style of gondola on display, lots of photos of
the construction of the system, and information about how the
system operates. Jim is standing next to part of the cable
system in the photo below:
The history of the tramway is interesting, too.
It was the dream of philanthropist Karl O. Wyler, who
believed that the spectacular views from the pinnacle of Ranger
Peak should be available to the public -- not just
the folks who maintain the large radio and TV towers up there.
NBC built the original tramway in 1959 when it constructed a
transmitter antenna and service platform on the mountain. Wyler
directed this project and fell in love with the mountain's
top-of-the-world views. The tramway was privately owned and
operated until 1986, primarily to provide access for maintenance
of the telecommunications equipment. The company also allowed
public access from 1960 to 1986, when insurance costs for
liability sky-rocketed and the public was no longer able to use
After Wyler's death a significant amount of money from his estate was donated to the state of
Texas in 1999 for the express purpose of buying the tramway and
fulfilling Wyler's dream of making Ranger Peak accessible to
everyone. The Texas Parks
& Wildlife Department did extensive renovations and opened the
park to the public in 2001.
AS FAR AS THE EYES CAN SEE
The ride to the top on the half-mile long, single-span cable
system (i.e., no support towers) is smooth and takes about four
minutes. Visitors are lifted about 940 vertical feet as they
glide above the rugged terrain below. A "cabin attendant" is
on-board to provide narration and answer questions.
View of the peak from inside the gondola
It's interesting to watch not only the unfolding landscape to
the east as you ride up the mountainside, but also to observe
typical Chihuahuan Desert plants and animals (look for the
red-tailed hawks flying nearby) and layers of rock ranging from ancient
volcanic granite to more recently-deposited limestone:
View of the ridge north of Ranger Peak,
taken from the cable car on the ride to the top
We went up on a sunny but windy morning with temperatures still
in the 40s F. so we didn't spend a lot of time on top -- just
long enough to walk around the observation deck, take a few
pictures, and catch the second cable car back down.
According to the website and a brochure we got, on a clear day
you can see out over two countries and three states encompassing
7,000 square miles. The two countries and two of the states are
obvious. What is the third state??
One of the gondolas approaches the upper
I presume it's either Oklahoma or Colorado. My old eyes couldn't
The ride back down to the lower terminal was fun. When you're
going up in the gondola it appears that the gondola coming down
toward you is going faster. It seems that way when you're going down, too
-- but both cable cars always travel at the same speed,
counter-balancing each other's weight.
FEE OR FREE?
We ran into a bit of a problem with our Texas state park pass
Again, we were assuming we'd have to buy a new one to save on
entrance fees to the parks we wanted to visit this week.
However, the woman
collecting fees for the tramway was also having problems with her
computer, just like the ranger at the Franklin Mountains park
headquarters. It was the first weekday after the New Year's holiday
weekend so perhaps the TPWD system hadn't been reset for 2011??
This woman wasn't able to determine if our pass
was still valid either, and we didn't want to shell out $60 for a new
one if it wasn't necessary yet.
After several minutes a line was forming behind us to pay for
tram tickets so we told her to stop trying. It really didn't
matter at this park anyway. Whether we had a
parks pass or not, we each still had to pay a $7 fee to ride the
tramway to the top of Ranger Peak. The fee for kids age 12 and
under is $4.
Upper trailhead for Ranger Peak Trail +
view of El Paso and Juárez
It was fun to ride up to the top but in retrospect we would have
had more fun hiking up Ranger Peak Trail from the base to the top
and back down -- and we could have done that for free. We
didn't realize that was an option until we saw the trail as we
rode up the cable car. If we're ever in this area again I'd like
to hike that trail.
For more information about days and hours of operation, etc.,
click on this
link for the official TPWD
Next entry: pictographs and more at Hueco Tanks State Park
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil