El Paso is a bustling desert town that’s a riotous mix of classic, Wild West heritage, and modern, eclectic city life. Combining the colorful traditions of the region, including Mexican and Native American influences, seamlessly is no easy feat—but somehow El Paso does it with style and aplomb. Its diverse roots can be seen in every corner of the city; from historic landmarks to dreamy desert scenery, to great food and exciting local culture.
Natural Wonders Meet Scenic Beauty at Hueco Tanks and Franklin Mountains State Park
One of the best ways to see El Paso is by exploring its most scenic areas. Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site is one of the most iconic landmarks in west Texas. Hueco Tanks is so much more than just rock hills rising up majestically from the desert floor; they are a bastion of local history and nature where visitors can discover El Paso’s past while also enjoying the outdoor beauties of its present.
One of the best ways to learn about Hueco Tanks is by exploring the pictographs and petroglyphs left behind by early visitors. The images open up a world of history, culture, and discovery where visitors can connect to the mysteries of a thousand years ago. Explore the area on your own, or book a guided tour to learn more about these historic marvels.
Outdoor enthusiasts will love the plethora of adventures available at Hueco Tanks. Rock climbing is spectacular here and visitors can request tours in advance. However, the tours do not include instruction or equipment, so be sure to plan accordingly. Hiking is another popular activity at Hueco Tanks and there are several trails to choose from, ranging from easy to moderate. Download the trails map ahead of time to plot the best route for your skill level. There are over 200 species of birds at Hueco Tanks—making it an ideal spot for bird watchers. So don’t forget to bring your binoculars to spot local species like the prairie falcon and the burrowing owl.
Rising above the El Paso skyline, Franklin Mountains are an ever-present landmark in the city. To get a closer look, head to Franklin Mountains State Park, a 27,000 acre sprawling recreation destination—and one of the country’s biggest urban parks. Early in its history, the Franklin Mountains provided sanctuary, resources, and spiritual inspiration for early settlers of the region; and today, it is known for its abundance of natural scenery and outdoor activities.
With over 100 miles of trails to choose from, both hikers and bikers will have plenty to keep them busy at Franklin Mountains State Park. Some popular trails include the El Paso Tin Mines Trail, an easy 6.6 mile easy trail known for its wildflowers; Lazy Cow Trail, one of the park’s main trails that is a great place to see desert vegetation at its best; and the Aztec Cave Trail, a moderate, 1.2 mile round trip hike with a stellar panoramic view of the Rio Grande Valley.
Rock climbing, geocaching, and wildlife watching are other popular activities at Franklin Mountains. There’s so much explore here, that some visitors may want to spend the night at one of the park’s campsites, wake up the next morning, and head back out to the trails or to do more rock climbing ay McKelligon Canyon or Sneed’s Cory before heading out to explore more of El Paso.
Filled with both history and nature, the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens is another scenic stop for any visitor to El Paso. Learn about the cultural history of the Southwest through the museum’s permanent and changing exhibits, then stroll out to the Gardens to admire the over 800 species of native flora. Afterward, head over to the El Paso Municipal Rose Garden to wander through the carefully cultivated splendor that includes more than 400 different rose varieties.
Explore El Paso’s Mission Trail For A Taste of History
The El Paso Mission Trail is a fun way to explore the city’s three iconic missions: Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario Presidio Chapel. Be sure to visit all three as they each have their own unique histories and points of interest. Explore the surrounding neighborhood and discover local gems like small neighborhood boutiques, delicious local restaurants, and other historic sights and diverse culture around every corner.
Start your tour at the San Elizario Presidio Chapel and soak up its incredible history. Built in 1877, it is known as a “centerpiece of the community.” The area grew from the Spanish Crown’s establishment of “San Elceario” in 1789, which resulting in the creation of numerous chapels in the neighborhood—most of which are no longer in existence. The chapel is a traditional Spanish Mission that is not only a tourist attraction but a full-functioning church.
The San Elizario neighborhood (known simply as San Eli to locals), is also a great spot to check out El Paso’s bustling art scene. There are many local galleries, artisanal stalls, and a vibrant market where visitors can see a variety of regional gems from artists who display everything from pottery and jewelry; paintings and photography.
The Socorro Mission is the second oldest mission in Texas. Built in 1691, it is also in one of Texas’ oldest communities. Although the original mission was destroyed due to flooding, the current mission was built in the 1840s and is a fine example of Spanish Mission architecture. Every September, the mission has an annual festival where patrons celebrate its history and honor its patron saint, St. Michael.
After visiting the Socorro Mission, stop in at Las Misiones Arts & Crafts to browse their selection of authentic Mexican goods including art, jewelry, and home decor. Afterward, stop in at Barbacoa El Original, an area food truck serving up some of the best barbacoa in the area.
The final stop on the Mission Trail is Ysleta Mission. Considered the first and oldest mission in the state. Originally established in 1680, the mission has a rich and storied history that began as a refugee camp for Pueblo Indians and has passed through various incarnations until becoming the responsibility of Conventual Franciscans who continue to staff it today. Every year on June 13 the mission is the site of the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua, where the Tigua people, the oldest permanent settlers in Texas, gather to celebrate and observe ritual days. Visit the nearby Tigua Cultural Center to learn more about the community, their culture, and their strong ties to the area.
Visit One of El Paso’s Diverse Museums
The El Paso Museum of Art is located in the downtown arts district and is a must-see for any visitor. Founded in 1959, the museum houses a permanent collection that houses an impressive permanent collection of approximately 7000 works of art—including many Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance masters; a contemporary collection of Southwest artists; and rotating exhibitions that focus on the area’s diversity, culture, and history. As a “microcosm for its border community,” the EMPA strives to demonstrate its ties to through art, education, and community engagement. From Modern and Contemporary, to Latin American and European, the EPMA is filled with art that is both impressive and thought-provoking.
The Fort Bliss Museum is a great place for history buffs who want to learn more about the local 1st Armored Division and its storied place in military history. The museum has over 50,000 square feet of exhibit space; a 180-seat theater; a large ceremonial area; and a plethora of artifacts pertaining to the Division’s history. Learn more about Fort Bliss and its instrumental role in shaping the Southwest—through exploration, mapping, and defense in numerous conflicts throughout history. Visitors to the facility must obtain a pass to enter Fort Bliss; passes can be obtained at one of the many visitor control centers with a form of valid photo ID.
Other museums in the area include the El Paso Holocaust Museum and Study Center, one of only 13 free-standing Holocaust museums in the entire country. The goal of the museum is to educate visitors about the Holocaust through education and community outreach. The National Border Patrol Museum is another interesting stop, where visitors can learn more about the history of the U.S. Border Patrol that dates all the way back to the Old West.
Discover El Paso’s Vibrant and Diverse Restaurant Scene
Being a border town makes El Paso an ideal spot to try some of the best combos of Mexican and American cuisine in the state of Texas. While travelers may not think of El Paso as a haven for foodies, the area’s delicious restaurant offerings make it a great place to explore everything from street food to BBQ—and everything in between.
Tacos rule in El Paso—and there are so many delish spots to try them. Taconeta is a relatively new spot in El Paso; however, its inventive take on the traditional, authentic fare is quickly making it a top spot in the city. Fresh, eco-friendly, and super delicious, the tacos at Taconeta are served in house made blue corn tortillas stuffed with the freshest, tastiest ingredients. Another great place to score tacos is Café Mayapan. An eclectic menu filled with homemade classics and traditional favorites, this neighborhood spot is a favorite of both locals and tourists.
Fans of fine dining will love Cafe Central. An El Paso institution, Cafe Central was originally established just over the border in Juarez, Mexico before moving to El Paso. Known for its upscale menu that is both elegant and exciting, this El Paso gem also offers live entertainment every week that only adds to its sophisticated ambiance. Looking for something a little more low-key? Then stop in for a steak at Cattleman’s Steakhouse, known as one of the best in the country. Cattleman’s also has a unique ambiance all its own—lovely desert views and classic outbuildings combine with thick, juicy steaks in this classic spot where visitors can grab a Cowboy T-Bone and eat like a real Texan.
Try the border cuisine at L & J Cafe, known locally as “The Old Place By The Graveyard.” Classic Mexican food meets dive bar in this popular spot with a local cult following. Another neighborhood favorite is Kiki’s Mexican Restaurant; always bustling and busy, Kiki’s is known for its house-made specialties like the ‘Machaca.’
From its spectacular natural beauty to its diverse history, culture, and restaurant scene, El Paso is so much more than a border town; its vibrant heritage and unique character make it a top destination for anyone looking to experience the best of West Texas.
Watch next: Behind the scenes extended moments from Venturing Out: Park 2 Park, El Paso: Conquering Mountains
The full episode premieres on September 5, 2021