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A Tourists' Guide to El Paso

By Randy Limbird

(This article appeared in a slightly different version in the San Jose Mercury News for Stanford fans traveling to the 1996 Sun Bowl.)

Downtown El Paso

The Mission Trail

Military history

Day trips

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Historically, El Paso is an afterthought to Texas, a war prize captured from Mexico 150 years ago this week by Col. Alexander Doniphan and his Missouri Farm Boys.

This land west of the Pecos didn't join Texas until 1848, three years after Texas had become a state.

Geographically, El Paso is also an oddity. It is closer to Los Angeles (790 miles) than to Texarkana (794 miles).

So if you're going to El Paso thinking you're headed for the heart of Texas, take a closer look at the map. Welcome to Baja New Mexico.

What visitors will find is America's quintessential border city, a fascinating juxtaposition of First and Third Worlds where two metropolises come face to face, where you can walk across the bridge from the center of one city and directly into another. El Paso is more bilingual and bicultural than any other major city in the United States, with a history that stretches back 400 years.

Much of the flavor of that history and culture can be experienced even by the tourist who has just a few hours to spend in downtown El Paso.

Those staying longer can plan a full day to explore the major historic sites, including a drive along the Mission Trail that takes visitors to churches in continuous use for more than three centuries. Anyone with an interest in the armed forces might want to spend an extra day just visiting several El Paso area museums that specialize in military history.

For those on an extended visit, El Paso serves as the perfect hub for a host of day trips, from skiing to caving, rock climbing to bird-watching.


Downtown El Paso

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You've flown into El Paso for other business, but you've got the morning free. What can you see in a few hours?

Start with an early breakfast at the Camino Real Paso del Norte Hotel, a restored 1914 landmark famous for the Tiffany dome above its elegant bar. Across the street you'll find the newly erected 14-foot statue of Fray Garcia, the Franciscan priest who founded the first mission at the Pass of the North in 1659.

The new cornerstone of Downtown El Paso is the El Paso Museum of Art, which opened in August 1998. The 100,000 square foot facility house the museum's famous Kress Collection, the Tom Lea Gallery of Southwestern Art and various traveling exhibits. It's across from the Civic Center.

Catch a downtown trolley and do the mural tour on San Antonio Avenue. Major murals at the old federal courthouse, the federal building and the new County Courthouse provide three artists' interpretations of the history and heritage of El Paso.

El Paso Street leads south to the pedestrian bridge into Juarez, Mexico. You'll experience the transition into Mexico several blocks before as you pass storefronts plastered in Spanish-language signs. The bridge takes you to Avenida Juarez, a gateway for tourists lined with souvenir shops. Liquor stores offer discount prices on major labels (you can take back a liter duty free, but pay the state tax). Within easy walking distance is the Guadalupe Mission founded by Fray Garcia, next to the Juarez Cathedral.


The Mission Trail

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In 1598, Don Juan de Oñate blazed the Camino Real through El Paso during the conquistador's expedition to colonize what is now New Mexico. In his wake arose several settlements of Spaniards and Native Americans. The churches that served them still stand, united by Socorro Road in El Paso's Lower Valley.

Ysleta Mission was founded to serve the Spanish and Tigua Indians who fled northern New Mexico after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. The Indians have maintained their tribal identity, and today operate the new Speaking Rock Casino next to the Mission. Nearby on Socorro Road is the Tigua Cultural Center, with several gift shops and a small museum.

The Socorro Mission was built in 1692 and, like nearby Ysleta Mission, destroyed by floods and rebuilt. A few miles down Socorro Road is the former county seat of San Elizario, established in 1789 as a Spanish fort to protect the Camino Real. Its chapel, commonly called the San Elizario Mission, faces a small town plaza that retains a quiet, historic charm.

The return trip can include a stop at the El Paso Museum of History, just off the freeway east of the city. A perfect dinner after a day of sightseeing is at La Hacienda Restaurant on Paisano Avenue west of downtown. The restaurant serves a full course of history with each meal of traditional Mexican cooking: It's the former home of pioneer Simeon Hart, who founded a mill at the site in 1849. The hacienda also overlooks the Rio Grande near the spot where Oñate first forded the river, and one of the early sites of Fort Bliss.


Military history

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Fort Bliss, now located next to El Paso's airport, is home to three military museums: one targets air defense (for which the base is a major training center); another recreates the old Magoffinsville Post of 1858; and a third details the history of the non-commissioned officer.

If you're hooked on aviation history, the War Eagles Air Museum in Santa Teresa, N.M., a few miles west of El Paso, has an outstanding private collection of World War II and Korean War era "warbirds." There's also a small museum open weekdays at White Sands Missile Range north of El Paso.


Day trips

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Two national parks lie along the highway connecting El Paso to Carlsbad, N.M. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, home of the highest peak in Texas, is about 100 miles east of El Paso. Another 30 miles and you're at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The caverns' "Big Room" is a constant 55 degrees, so it doesn't matter what time of year you visit.

Only 35 miles east of El Paso on the Carlsbad Highway is Hueco Tanks State Park, an international mecca for rock climbers. The park also is renowned for its Indian rock art.

Less than two hours northeast of El Paso is White Sands National Monument, near Alamogordo, N.M. The glistening gypsum formations are a photographer's delight, as well as a natural playground where children love to slide down the soft dunes on makeshift sleds.

On the other side of Alamogordo is America's southernmost major ski resort, Ski Apache. Operated by the Mescalero Apache tribe, the ski area offers plenty of beginning, intermediate and expert runs on the north face of 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca. A little over three hours from El Paso and you're on the chairlift; lodging is available in Ruidoso, N.M.

If you'd rather stick to the modern version of the Camino Real, Albuquerque is only four hours north of El Paso and Santa Fe is another hour away. During winter months, a favorite stop en route is Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, where you may spot a few whooping cranes amid the thousands of migratory birds.

Copyright 2003 by Cristo Rey Communications. E-mail to epscene@epscene.com