El Paso, TX
The westernmost border of Texas forms a point, jutting out like the tip of a triangle between New Mexico and the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Nestled in the edge is El Paso, the fifth-largest city in Texas, built on the desert banks of the Rio Grande River amidst the red volcanic rock of the Franklin Mountains. The river defines the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, its sister city directly south.
Throughout history, adventurers and pioneers have flocked to El Paso, seeking either power, land, refuge or a rest stop between the U.S. and Mexico. Sixteenth-century Spanish conquistadors created a royal trade route, a precursor to modern shopping centers. Catholics constructed missions in the 17th and 18th centuries, many of which still stand as top attractions in El Paso.
In the ensuing decades, the area moved from Spanish to Mexican to American hands. The arrival of railroads in 1881 turned El Paso into a booming commercial gateway to Mexico. Gunslingers—like Billy the Kid—and gold prospectors filled the gambling halls, brothels and saloons, dubbing El Paso “Sin City.” Those tumultuous times contributed to the blend of Old World elegance and Wild West bravado that permeates the city today.
In downtown El Paso, visit San Jacinto Square, where fiberglass reptiles inhabit a pond once filled with live alligators that entertained guests until the 1960s. Historic buildings surround the plaza, such as the landmark Camino Real Hotel with a towering domed ceiling molded in Tiffany glass. About half a mile east of the square, Galeria San Ysidro sells antiques, furniture and art. El Paso visitors wandering through the shops can stop at one of the many Mexican-style restaurants in the area, where the local flavors of Texas and Mexico mingle with signature fiery chiles.
From San Jacinto Square, El Paso Street leads south to the Rio Grande and the Bridge of the Americas, connecting El Paso and Juárez. Day trippers with passports can simply walk across the bridge and pass through U.S. Customs to Mexico.
One of the top attractions in El Paso is Ysleta Mission, the oldest operating parish in Texas and part of the historic Mission Trail. Continuing the tour, visitors can also hit missions Socorro and San Elceario. Viewing the three still-active places of worship represents about a three-hour round-trip within a 10-mile radius.
The Franklin Mountains skirt downtown, forming the southernmost ridge of the Rockies and the largest urban wilderness park in the U.S. About a 20-minute drive from El Paso, Franklin Mountain State Park sprawls across nearly 24,000 rugged acres, with 40 miles of hiking and biking trails. The most challenging route—nine miles all told—leads to North Franklin Mountain summit, which affords sweeping views of El Paso from about 3,000 feet above. Located 30 miles to the northeast, Hueco Tanks State Historic Site features some of the best rock-climbing in the world, surrounded by desert vistas and natural rock basins that are sacred to native tribes.