Here in El Paso one of our greatest natural areas for hiking, camping and picnicking is the Tom Mays unit of Franklin Mountains State Park. Franklin Mountains State Park is the one we most love. Today many of those who know and love the park have become its defenders. Ever since it was established in 1987 many have gone on to help protect other areas surrounding the park including places like the Castner Range in the northeast Franklins and the Lost Dog Trail on the westside.
My journey at Tom Mays began over 16 years ago when my longtime friend and colleague Diane Perez and I got together and organized the Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition (CDEC). One of our most important accomplishments has been collaborating with park staff in organizing the annual Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta every year in September. It all started at the El Paso Zoo when we met with environmental leaders from across the city in the old Paraje building that has now been replaced by a new Ranch House Exhibit. Thanks to CDEC and the great working relationship we have had over the years with the Zoo and El Paso Water, we sponsored two Chihuahuan Desert Conferences at the TecH2O – Learning Center and at the Zoo. We also helped to encourage the Zoo and El Paso Water to work together on the El Paso Water Discovery Education Center. Former Zoo Volunteer and Texas Master Naturalist Sal Quintanilla often told me that the efforts of CDEC went a long way in helping many in El Paso appreciate the Chihuahuan Desert for the first time. It all started at Tom Mays and the first Chihuahuan Desert Fiesta. Today the Zoo continues to make the Chihuahuan Desert an important conservation priority. Over the past few years we have sent a zookeeper team to help conserve Mexican black bear habitat along the Rio Grande international border at Big Bend National Park, hosted a Chihuahuan Desert Conference and opened a new $16 M Chihuahuan Desert exhibit.
Tom Mays Park it is open seven days a week. At this time it is somewhat of a challenge to get there if you are coming from the west side. The Texas Department of Transportation is working on Loop 375 so to drive to the park from the west you have to drive over the pass at Smugglers Gap and as you approach the Ron Coleman Trailhead watch for a short turn-around on the left to make a U-Turn.
The park opened a new visitor center last year complete with great interpretive exhibits inside and outside and a gift shop. You can pay your entrance fee inside and park staff will help you plan your visit. When you visit the park see how many plants and animals you can identify. The free iNaturalist app that you can download to your phone can help. The Chihuahuan Desert Education Coalition has a FaceBook group where you can post pictures and get help in identifying many species.
More than 650 species of vascular plants have been reported for Franklin Mountains State Park. Among the most common and characteristic species are: creosote bush, Agave lechuguilla, ocotillo, southwestern barrel cactus, sotol, prickly-pear cactus, desert willow, skeleton-leaf goldeneye, Texas rainbow cactus and eagle’s claw cactus. The park is also home to 30 species of mammals and at least 100 species of birds. Two species of amphibians have been recorded and there are about 33 species of reptiles.
If you would like to get involved in helping more people appreciate the park there are many volunteer opportunities both at the park and with organizations like CDEC. Enjoy Tom Mays Park and the Franklin Mountains, one of the places we love.
Rick LoBello, Education Curator, El Paso Zoo
Photos by Rick LoBello