Southwestern Double Dip

When the kids were very young, Chet had a job where he had to travel a lot. He was on the road every other week. I, on the other hand, have really very rarely had to travel for work. But this year, I ended up flying out the Sunday before Halloween (no trick-or-treat for me, sadly) for a two week stint in El Paso, Texas. When Chet was traveling so much it was hard because we had young kids at home. Those days are long behind us, but now we have our pseudo-child – the blog – to worry about. I’d be in Texas for “my” blog week – what would I blog about?

I needn’t have worried. El Paso is home to Franklin Mountain State Park, the nation’s largest urban park. Its nearly 25,000 acres are entirely within the city limits, and there are trails galore to explore. I did promise Chet I wouldn’t hike alone so I had to talk one of my co-workers into going on an adventure with me, but I was able to do that so Sunday morning we set off to see what hiking in the southwest was like.

I had done a bit of research the night before and decided that my best bet was to drive to the Tom Mays Unit area of the park, on the west side of the mountains. There are several trails in that area, all of them relatively short, so we’d have plenty to choose from and maybe some variety. The drive there is easy – take I10 East to the exit for the Transmountain Pass, then look for signs on the left into the Tom Mays Unit. I should note that there is a $5 per person day use fee for this area. I quickly found parking and we checked out the kiosk information to pick a trail. The signs said the Cottonwood Spring trail was a “must see,” so that’s the one we picked.  This is a .8 mile trail that leads back up into a canyon and then ascends steeply to a small spring which sustains several cottonwood trees.  The landscape in this area is very different from what I’m used to back home, of course. El Paso is located in the Chihuahuan Desert so it is very dry and mostly brown. Where there weren’t rocks, the ground was covered with scrub dotted with cactus.

The trail is rocky, but initially wide and fairly easy to navigate. About a quarter of a mile up, we saw what looked like a small door in the side of a rock wall. It was padlocked and set in concrete. I googled around later and discovered that this is the entrance to a small cave, which the park keeps locked except for when they occasionally give a guided tour. About another quarter of a mile up, the Cottonwood Spring trail takes off steeply and sharply to the right, while the Mundy’s Gap trail continues more or less straight ahead. The last .3 mile of this trail is much more difficult than the earlier part since it is much steeper and pretty much just a scree field.  There was little to no dirt – just lots and lots and lots of fist-sized wobbly rocks. It made for a difficult and tiring climb. We had a good excuse to stop and catch our breath though when we came across an old metal trough and water tank. I have no idea what they were used for, but I do know that on the other side of the mountains there were old tin mines. Wonder if it’s related? We were close to the end though – the cottonwood trees were clearly visible up ahead.

The climb up to them was steep, with the slope broken up a bit by steps made from logs. At the trees, there are a couple of benches to rest on, which I took advantage of. I have to confess that I had a bit of trouble figuring out where the spring actually was. I kept looking near the trees. My hiking companion discovered the spring, such as it was, up the slope just a bit. My favorite part of the hike, though, was taking a short side trail above the spring that led to a big rock outcropping. It wasn’t exactly mountain-goat worthy, but the views were spectacular.

For the trip back, we opted to take a slightly different route. The Agave Loop trail is a 1.3 mile trail that intersects with the Cottonwood Spring trail close to the Mundy’s Gap split, then takes a much gentler path around and down to join with it again close to the kiosk at the bottom. Here the footbed is packed dirt, which is just so much nicer to walk on than rocks! An added bonus to this route is that it passes by a favorite launching spot for a local paragliding club. We were lucky to pass through just when a guy was about to take off, so we stopped to watch the take off, then kept an eye on him gliding and wheeling through the air as we continued on down the trail.

We got back to the kiosk while it was still morning, so there was plenty of hiking time left in the day. I had picked this hike, so the only fair thing to do was to let my co-worker pick the next one. He had done some research the night before, too,  and wanted to drive up to the Dripping Springs Natural Area near Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Only about 30 minutes up I10 from where we were, Las Cruces was a good place to go find some lunch too, so off we went. We ended up driving around the quaint and historic town plaza of Mesilla before we stumbled on our lunch spot – Paisano Cafe just down the road in Las Cruces. This isn’t a food blog, but I wanted to give them a shout out – their food was delicious! After lunch, we found our way to University Drive, which turns into Dripping Springs Drive east of Las Cruces. This road leads straight to the visitor center so it couldn’t be easier to find, though after crossing onto public lands, the road is a little rough in spots. It looked like recent rains had washed a lot of dirt and rocks onto the roadway in some lower spots so I had to ease my rental Camry over the ruts a bit.

As best as I can make out, Dripping Springs Recreational Area is managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management as a part of the recently declared Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument. This is one of our newer national monuments, having been established on May 21, 2014.  Dripping Springs Recreational area itself is a smaller area, with a staffed visitors center, about 4 miles of easy trails, restrooms, and picnic areas. We paid our $5 per car parking fee, then headed out on the Dripping Springs trail. This is a 1.5 mile trail (one way) that leads up what used to be a stagecoach road to the namesake springs.  Being an old road, the trail is wide and has a gentle grade. We were surprised at the landscape. We were expecting mountains and rocks again, or at least scrub and cactus, but this was more like a grassy meadow, at least until the trail dipped back into the canyon closer to the springs.

Just as the trail starts to head back into the canyon, there is a set of small wooden buildings. A plaque explained that these were the livery for “Van Patton’s Mountain Camp,” a resort built near the springs in the late 1870s by Colonel Eugene Van Patton. A stage coach would take guests 17 miles from Las Cruces to the front of the hotel, then return to the livery.

A quarter mile up the trail, we came to a split with the trail to Dripping Springs leading to the right. The spring itself springs out of a rock outcropping above the canyon floor. There are the remains of a retaining wall that captured water from the spring into a small pool, but the pool is filled in now. Up the hill from the spring are more old buildings – these from Boyd’s Sanitorium. When Eugene Van Patton went bankrupt in 1917, Dr. Nathan Boyd bought the land. His wife had just contracted tuberculosis so he set the place up as a sanitorium.

Our final stop was a swing past the remains of the Van Patton Mountain Camp buildings. This was once a large hotel with two stories, 14 rooms, dining and recreational facilities, beautiful landscaping, and a bandstand.  What remains is just the shells of buildings in a stunning setting.

We had been warned in the visitor center that it gets very dark out here at night and that we should make every effort to be back in our car heading out of the Natural Area no later than 5. It was getting to be past 4 so we cut our explorations short and headed back the way we had come. We made it back to the car in plenty of time and started our drive back to El Paso. As we headed out, though, I had to stop and take one last picture of the Organ Mountains, so named because the vertical rocks look a bit like a pipe organ. The scenery out here really is stunning, and I’m so glad I got the chance to explore a bit!

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