Thinking of going to El Paso? Read this

TSL Staff, TechSideline.com, on December 10, 2013
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(This post was originally posted a few days ago by “El Paso Hokie” on the subscriber’s board. It’s got lots of great info, so we copied it over here as an article for reference. — Will Stewart)


Before I comment on hotels and attractions, I’ll take a moment to discuss the character of various parts of the city. El Paso is large and very spread out. The city is divided by the Franklin Mountains which run north and south, and by I-10, which runs east and west from one end of town to the other. The area to the west of the mountains is referred to as the West Side and it’s the upper income part of town. The West Side is where you find country clubs and upscale neighborhoods. The part of the West Side that straddles the Rio Grande as it runs south from New Mexico into Texas but before reaching down to Mexico is known as the Upper Valley. Because this area is essentially a flood plain, it’s a green oasis in the desert. The UTEP campus and the Sun Bowl are located on the southern end of the west side near a historic part of town with homes that date back more than 100 years to El Paso’s early roots. Downtown is also located nearby at the southern tip of the Franklin Mountains. El Paso’s downtown is experiencing a bit of revival with a number of restaurants and nightclubs springing up and there’s a baseball stadium currently under construction there for a new AAA baseball team. Directly to the east of the Franklin Mountains but still west of Fort Bliss is a part of town known as The Northeast. This is primarily a lower income area and much of the commercial business along Dyer Street caters to soldiers from Fort Bliss, so here you’re likely to see a good number of pawn shops and bars. While El Paso is a very safe city and I would not hesitate to walk in any part of town, the Northeast can be one of the rougher parts, relatively speaking. The airport is located just east of Fort Bliss, and the area east of the airport and north of I-10 is referred to as the East Side. The East Side is generally a lower-middle to middle income area. The area south of I-10 and north of the Rio Grande (“The Lower Valley”) is low income. While not very visually appealing due to its lower income status, the Lower Valley is still pretty safe.

Hotels

Hilton Garden Inn El Paso/University – This hotel offers the convenience of being located on the UTEP campus and is walking distance to the Sun Bowl. It’s also located very close to an entertainment district known as the Cincinnati District (named for Cincinnati Street) which has quite a few restaurants and bars that cater to UTEP students. Downtown is also located just a mile or two to the south.

Camino Real Hotel – Located downtown, this is a grand old hotel with an impressive tiffany dome over the lobby bar. This hotel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Holiday Inn El Paso – Sunland Park – Located on El Paso’s west side, this hotel is just off I-10, less than 10 minutes to the north of the Sun Bowl. It’s also conveniently located near one of El Paso’s nicest shopping malls and about a mile east of Sunland Park Race Track and Casino just across the state line in Sunland Park, New Mexico.

Airport Hotels – There are dozens of hotels located near the airport on Airway Blvd. and on the frontage roads where Airway meets I-10. Among these hotels are Marriott, Radisson, Wyndham and many others. The Wyndham is walking distance from the airport.

Because I-10 runs from one end of El Paso to the other and because El Paso is a bit of an isolated outpost for travelers on the interstate, there are plenty of reasonably-priced hotels all along the interstate. If you choose to go that route, I recommend something on the west side as it will be more convenient to the stadium and the west side generally has less traffic than the east side.

Things to Do

El Paso has some minor attractions within its city limits, but the best attractions are to be found a short drive away.

Attractions in Town

El Paso Zoo – It may not be the San Diego Zoo, but the El Paso Zoo has come a long way in recent years as it has undergone expansion and brought in more animals. You can find lions, tigers, bears (oh, my!), elephants, giraffes, orangutans, reptiles, exotic birds and much more.

Wyler Aerial Tramway – There is a tramway that will take you to the upper ridges of South Mount Franklin, where you can enjoy a view of Texas, New Mexico and Mexico.

El Paso Museum of Art – Located downtown next to the Camino Real Hotel, this is an excellent museum for a city of El Paso’s size. Among other things, the museum features the Kress Collection, which includes a large number of Renaissance Period art works.

Franklin Mountain State Park – With the largest urban park in the country, the Franklin Mountains offer great opportunities for hiking and desert biking. Note that there is some wildlife in the mountains, including cougars, bobcats and mule deer. I’ve done quite a bit of hiking here myself, but the only wildlife I’ve ever encountered has been a few coyotes. There are a number of trails that will take you well up into the mountains, but bring plenty of water and warm clothing as it’s not uncommon for hikers to linger too long and end up needing rescue after dark. To take advantage of the mountain trails, you can either take the entrance into the park from Transmountain Road (the highest paved road in Texas), or simply bypass the park entrance and stop at an unpaved parking lot near the peak of Transmountain Road where there is a small sign marking the Ron Coleman Trail.

Hueco Tanks State Park – Located just outside the city limits on the east side, the cliffs and rock formations attract serious cliff climbers from all over the world. For those who may be a little less ambitious, there are hiking trails and you can find Indian petroglyphs in various places in the park.

Fort Bliss – I don’t think they do tours here, but the base is open for visitors if you want to drive around and check it out.

Golf – With relatively mild weather even in December, winter golf is certainly an option. For those who have country club memberships with reciprocal privileges, play the course at the Coronado Country Club on the West Side. Located along the slopes of the Franklin Mountains, the course is awesome. There’s also the El Paso Country Club, which is located in the Upper Valley. For those interested in public golf courses, El Paso has several to choose from, but the two best are: (i) Painted Dunes, which is located north of the Northeast part of town, and (ii) Butterfield Trail Golf Club, which is a new Tom Fazio designed course near the airport.

El Paso Mission Trail – History buffs may enjoy exploring three Spanish missions located in El Paso’s lower valley. The earliest of these missions, the Ysleta Mission, dates back to 1682 and is the site of the longest continuously operated church parish in Texas. Located right next to the Ysleta Mission is the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, established by the Tigua Indians. The Tiguas operate a casino and an entertainment center that occasionally brings in some big name acts. A few miles further to the east are the Socorro Mission and the San Elizario Chapel. The San Elizario Chapel is located in the small, lower valley town of San Elizario, which was once one of the stomping grounds of Billy the Kid. In addition to numerous art galleries, San Eli sometimes has reenactments of the time Billy the Kid broke INTO the local jail in order to help a friend escape.

Scenic Drive – There is a road that winds along the southern tip of the Franklin Mountains that provides a nice view of the city. There is one very small parking area where you can pull off and walk out to an observation area. This is a great place for photos of downtown, particularly at sundown.

Cattleman’s Steakhouse at Indian Cliffs Ranch – Technically, this place is in Fabens, Texas, about 30 minutes east of downtown, but we claim it as our own. It’s an award-winning steak house located on a real working ranch out in the middle of the desert. The ranch has also served as a movie set for quite a few Hollywood movie productions, and they have a small zoo on the grounds where you can see rattlesnakes, prairie dogs, goats, longhorn cattle, peacocks and a few other animals. This is a very popular place.

Sunland Park Race Track and Casino – Located just across the state line from El Paso’s west side, you can find thoroughbred horse racing here from fall to early spring. They also have a small casino.

Western Playland – Located right next to the Sunland Park Race Track and Casino is Western Playland, an amusement park that families with kids might find of interest.

UTEP Campus and Sun Bowl Stadium – The Sun Bowl is one of the most unique stadiums you will ever visit as it was blasted into the rocks in the foothills of the Franklin Mountains. Likewise, the UTEP campus is unique in that it is the only university campus in the U.S. that features Bhutanese architecture. UTEP will also be hosting the Sun Bowl basketball tournament on December 28 and 29 at the Don Haskins Center, which is an arena that seats over 12,000.

Chamizal National Park – Along the north banks of the Rio Grande there is a national park which was created to mark a settlement made in the 60’s with Mexico concerning disputed territory following changes in the course of the river. The park has an indoor theater and an outdoor amphitheater, but I don’t think there will be anything special going on here around the end of December.

Out of Town but Nearby Excursions

Carlsbad Caverns National Park – This is a MUST SEE. Located a little over two hours east of El Paso and just north of the state line is Carlsbad Caverns. The caverns are huge and the descent into the caverns and meandering about the large rooms deep within will take several hours. The formations are spectacular. This is a great day trip. As an added bonus, along the way to Carlsbad you will have a photo opportunity as you pass by El Capitan, the signature mountain peak of the Texas Guadalupe Mountains. You will also pass by Guadalupe National Park, but December is not a good time for exploring this park, so simply continue a little further until reaching Carlsbad Caverns.

White Sands National Park – Located less than two hours to the north of El Paso is the largest gypsum dune field in the world. If you have an interest in landscape photography, this is a MUST SEE. Ideal times for photos are at sunrise and sunset, but wandering around the dunes is fun any time of day. You can sometimes see families using plastic disks to ride down the slopes, just as if they were sledding on snow-covered hills.

Snow Skiing in Ruidoso, New Mexico – About two hours to the northeast of El Paso (about one hour east of White Sands) is the mountain town of Ruidoso, New Mexico, where you can snow ski at Ski Apache on the slopes of Sierra Blanca, a mountain that climbs nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. Ruidoso is a ski destination during the winter and a cool mountain getaway during the summer and it has a quaint downtown that caters to hordes of tourists from throughout the region.

Old Mesilla – Only a half hour north of El Paso in Las Cruces, New Mexico is the village of Old Mesilla, which was another of Billy the Kid’s old stomping grounds. There is a small town plaza here surrounded by art galleries, tourist shops and restaurants. One of my favorite Mexican restaurants, La Posta, can be found here and I highly recommend checking it out.

Hatch, New Mexico – Another 45 minutes northwest of Las Cruces is the tiny town of Hatch, which is world-renowned for its green chile. Unless you’re a serious foodie, there’s probably no reason to venture here, BUT, if you want to try the best green chile cheeseburger on the planet, then check out Sparky’s restaurant. This little place features an eclectic collection of statues and antiques and they almost always have live entertainment (generally blues or country) on the weekends. Check their web site for details. Note that during the winter they are only open Thursday through Sunday.

Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – DON’T GO HERE. There was a time when Juarez was a great place to take visitors, but that ended about eight years ago. While things have improved significantly over the past two years, it’s still too dangerous to visit.

Safety

Since I’ve already brought up the subject of Juarez, I feel compelled to address concerns that people have about their safety in El Paso, which is located right across the border from Juarez. If your impression of El Paso is based on what you see on television programs like The Bridge or Breaking Bad, then your understanding of El Paso will be way off the mark. I can assure you that conditions in Juarez and El Paso are like night and day. While Juarez is a dangerous place, El Paso is very safe. In fact, El Paso has been recognized for the third consecutive year as the safest large city (>500,000 population) in the country. El Paso has also been ranked as either first, second or third safest city every year since 1997. While bad things can happen anywhere, you will have a hard time finding a safer urban location than El Paso. To put things in perspective, I did a little research on homicide rates in El Paso versus Richmond, and what I found was that El Paso averages approximately 2 homicides per 100,000 population per year whereas Richmond averages approximately 18 homicides per 100,000 population per year. Think about that for a moment. The homicide rate in Richmond is not just a little higher than in El Paso, it’s NINE TIMES HIGHER! And that’s after a significant decline in the Richmond homicide rate, which was over 47 per 100,000 as recently as 2004.

Weather

El Paso’s average high and low temperatures for December are 58 and 33, respectively, but visitors this time of year should be prepared for anything as December weather can change on a dime. It can be sunny and 70 degrees one day and snowing the next day. Plan accordingly.

Final Thoughts

I know El Paso’s not a glamour destination and the players would rather be on the beach somewhere in Florida, but the Sun Bowl committee always does an excellent job of scheduling special events to keep the players entertained. Nevertheless, there have been a few times over the years when a player from a team invited to the Sun Bowl has made disparaging remarks about El Paso before they’ve even set foot here. The local news media is always on the lookout for those kinds of comments and when they happen, I can guarantee that the local media will go into a frenzy. That very thing happened last year with USC and I remember it happening with SMU when I attended my very first Sun Bowl game in 1983. While El Pasoans are a very friendly bunch, they will turn quickly against a team that insults our town and the offending team can expect to get showered with a loud chorus of boos. In the 1983 game, which featured SMU and Alabama, it didn’t matter that SMU was a Texas team; the crowd cheered loudly for the Tide and booed the Mustangs at every opportunity. People like myself who witnessed it first-hand still remember it 30 years later. For those that choose to visit our city, I hope all will take the Hokie Respect campaign to heart and will be good ambassadors for Virginia Tech.


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