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Franklin Mountains State Park

The Franklin Mountains are home to hidden springs, mines and caves.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

In a high, rugged canyon at arid Franklin Mountains State Park, a natural spring flows near the roots of two towering cottonwood trees. Trail guide Nora Butler calls the secluded oasis "El Paso's little secret."

"Visitors are always surprised to find a spring up there," says the volunteer who's also a Texas Master Naturalist. "And the view is magnificent, too. A lot of people tell me they feel like they're on top of the world."

This month, lace up your hiking boots and follow Butler when she leads another group to West Cottonwood Spring. Along the rock-studded trail, you'll wind past yuccas, prickly pear, scrubby brush and lots of jagged cliffs. You may even glimpse some wildlife, such as tarantulas, badgers or mule deer.

Two weekends each month, six educational hikes highlight different areas at the 24,247-acre park, which preserves 37 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert. For instance, when you trek up to the West Cottonwood Mine Shaft, you'll learn about a historic tin mine - the only one in the U.S. - located further east in the park. It operated from 1910 to 1915. "For that trip, bring a flashlight so you can see minerals in the walls, such as green malachite and blue azurite," advises ranger Danny Contreras. "They're very beautiful and worth the time to see. Small children and older adults especially enjoy this trip because it's only a 15-minute walk from the parking lot to the mine shaft."

Other excursions - rated moderate to difficult - take visitors part way up a slope to Aztec Caves, through an isolated canyon on the Schaeffer Shuffle trail or along Smugglers Pass far up to a mountain peak. Tour destinations vary; call ahead for schedules. "Pack plenty of drinking water because there's none available in the park," Contreras adds. "And don't forget a heavy coat, gloves and wool cap for winter hiking." Tip: Save time for a lofty ride on the park's Wyler Aerial Tramway, which glides over a deep canyon on the way up to Ranger Peak. A one-way trip lasts four minutes. From the observation deck, you can see New Mexico to the north and across the Rio Grande River into Mexico.

Franklin Mountains State Park is located on the northern edge of El Paso. Guided tours are offered first and third weekends; reservations required. Tram closed Tuesday-Wednesday. For directions and more information, call (915) 566-6441, or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/franklin.

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