The Washington Times - December 16, 2008, 01:45PM

by Nancy Sathre-Vogel, special to Donne Tempo Magazine

El Paso, Texas…El Paso is not on the top of most “must visit” destinations, but it should be on the list.  Riding into El Paso on our 20,000 or so mile journey along the Pan American Highway, we were looking forward to a break from broken bikes, challenging weather and plenty of steep Texas roads.


Arriving in the border town we found plenty of exploration and adventure — from arid desert to fertal valley, city central to open stall Mercado, from the U.S. across the bridge to Juarez to fill a weekend to a week. (Editors Note: Remember, if leaving the U.S., even walking across a bridge, a U.S. Passport is required to return to the U.S.!)

Davy and Daryl Vogel entering El Paso (Photo by Nancy Sathre-Vogel)

Once there, it didin’t take long to discover a side of El Paso, Texas most people have never bothered to see.

El Paso made its presence known on the maps when the railroads arrived into the area in 1881.  Within nine years the population had boomed to 10,000 inhabitants.  For over one hundred years, the town has attracted a steady stream of newcomers due to its nearly perfect climate and fertile green valley.

Now, El Paso boomed into a sprawling city. The expansion of Fort Bliss from a frontier post to a major military center brought in thousands of soldiers, dependents, and retirees. The industrial economy was dominated by copper smelting, oil refining, and the proliferation of low wage industries (particularly garment making), which drew thousands of Mexican immigrants.

The city now boasts a population of around 600,000.

Perhaps the main reason travelers end up in El Paso is to cross over to Juarez in Mexico and, indeed, no visit to El Paso would be complete without a jaunt south of the border where you can park downtown and simply walk across the bridge into Juarez’s main thoroughfare and the Mercado.

However this more to this area than shopping and margaritas — even though both are considerable draws!

Yselta Mission (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Mission Trail Association )

The El Paso Mission Trails take visitors along the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro along which Don Juan de Onate traveled through the Chihuahuan desert into Santa Fe, N.M (1598).  Known as the Socorro Road, the trail is a nine mile route that runs from Yselta to San Elizario along the Rio Grande River.

Here explorers will discover the history of some of North America’s first colonists and explorers that settled along this route that runs from Mexico City to Santa Fe linking missions, agricultural commuinities, sprawing estates and military forts.  Along the El Paso Mission Trail are the Yselta Mission (est. 1680) and Tigua Indian Reservation, the Socorro Mission (est. 1860) and the Presidio Chapel at San Elizario (est. 1882).

But what about on this side of the border?  A quick look around proves there is no shortage of things to do in El Paso itself.

Yselta Mission (Photo courtesy of the El Paso Mission Trail Association )

One ‘must-do’ activity is the walking tour of downtown El Paso.  This 90-minute, self-guided tour begins in San Jacinto Plaza, which is the original site of Ponce de Leon’s ranch.  The tour winds through the city’s historic downtown district and ends on Mills Street at the Kress Building – home of the famous dime store from 1938 to 1997.

Along the way, you’ll see several architecturally identifiable buildings including the restored Plaza Theatre with its twinkling-star-and-floating-cloud ceiling and the Camino Real Hotel with its stained glass dome ceiling.  You can pick up the tour brochure at the Convention and Visitors Bureau or download one.

Because of El Paso’s unique geographical position being squashed between the Franklin Mountains and the Rio Grande, there are some amazingly scenic opportunities to take in.  While there, be sure to travel Scenic Drive as it traverses the southern edge of the mountains with views of New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua.  For an even more spectacular view, take a ride in the Wyler Aerial Tramway up to 5,632 feet in the Franklin Mountains.

Want to take in a few museums while here?  El Paso has those too.  One of the most unique museums El Paso has to offer is The Border Patrol Museum with an assortment of artifacts and cool vehicles used over the years to protect America’s borders.  They also happen to have some creatively handmade vehicles designed and used by smugglers on display.

Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens focuses on the natural and cultural history of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, which includes southern New Mexico, West Texas, and northern Mexico.  Plants native to the area are displayed in their natural settings.

If you’re looking for an even more complete glimpse into the history of the US/Mexico border, visit The El Paso Museum of History.  You’ll see an alligator hide from the times when alligators lived in a pond in downtown El Paso, blacksmithing tools, an old mule-drawn wooden wagon, and other artifacts from life through the years.

The Old Fort Bliss Museum is a re-creation of the Fort Bliss post from the mid-1800’s.  You’ll experience life at Fort Bliss through authentic exhibits and outdoor displays from the post’s inception in 1849 to modern day.

Thanks to El Paso’s perfect weather year-round, outdoor opportunities abound in the area.  Visit Franklin Mountains State Park for great hiking, mountain biking, and picnicking.  Hueco Tanks State Historical Site – known for its pictographs and use as a stagecoach stop along the old Butterfield Trail – is a haven for rock climbers.  You can find climbing, hiking, rock art, and birding tours easily in the area.  If biking is your thing, stop by Crazy Cat Cyclery for route information for both mountain and road biking.

If you’ve exhausted all there is to do and see in El Paso, it’s easy to fill your days with quick and easy side trips out of the city. 

Stahmann Farms (Photo courtesy of Stahmann Farms)
One of the most popular side trips is a visit to the fertile Rio Grande Valley west of the city.  As you drive the rural farm roads, you’ll pass through miles and miles of pecan farms, chili and cotton fields, and even a few vineyards.  Be sure to stop at Stahmann Farms for fabulous edible gifts created with their famous pecans.  Stop at Zin Valle Vineyard or La Viña Winery for a sample or two.  And be sure to stock up on Hatch’s world-famous chilis while there.

Or you can head east to El Paso’s Lower Valley to follow the Mission Trail where you’ll find three stately adobe churches that stand at living testaments to the faith of Spanish and Indian ancestors.

Need a place to stay while visiting El Paso?  There is no shortage of hotels, but two easy-to-get-to hotels are the Best Western Sunland Park Inn and Studio Plus, both of which are just at the entrance to El Paso from the Rio Grande Valley.  From them, you can get to most sites in El Paso within a few minutes, yet you’re out of the hectic busy-ness of being in the city proper.

El Paso may be a long way from New York City as a tourist mecca, but it’s a wonderful place in it’s own right.  Here’s hoping you enjoy your stay!

The Vogel Family has reached El Paso and are riding hard to cross Mexico and reach South America before the New Year.  To date, they haver reached many milestones and have set world records for Daryl and Davy as the youngest cyclists to complete the Dalton and Alaskan Highwa.  Watch their journey at Family on Bikes.