About my blog

Welcome to my trail running site. I enjoy being on the trail where I can take in nature and clear my mind. I prefer running in the mountains, but anywhere rural will do. I have completed four 100 mile trail races and many other ultramarathons. I'm a member of Team Red, White and Blue. "Enriching the lives of America's veterans."

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

North Franklin Peak via the S. Ridge

No Hike for Old Men. I first read this article in the Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine when I first moved to this region years ago. While I'm not exactly an old man (almost), I became alarmed after reading it, but equally intrigued.  The article chronicles a traverse of the Franklin Mountains ridgeline here in El Paso, TX. Some of my running buddies also want to hike the entire ridge sometime this Fall so I have been out exploring some routes in the Franklin Mountains State Park.

Mammoth Rock and S. Franklin Peak
Trans Mountain Hwy below the ridge.

The Franklin Mountains, the largest urban wilderness park in the US, are about 23 miles long rising over 7000' above sea level in places. They are very rugged covered in sharp prickly vegetation and inhabited by rattlesnakes, a runner's worst enemy. While there are many trails in the park, no official trails exist on the ridge except for several miles of the Ron Coleman Trail that includes a section of chains to assist your ascent to window rock. Other parts of the ridge have infrequently traveled routes, but they are sketchy at best.

Read my post: The Window

The mountain range that runs South and North is split in the middle by Trans-Mountain Hwy that carries travelers East and West. At the top is Smuggler's Pass where I started my hike to the top of N. Franklin Peak (7192') via the South Ridge. I started all alone in the early morning just before sunrise and was a bit nervous because I really didn't know if I could make it all the way to the peak using this route. It's only about 2.5 miles along the ridge and, once at the top, you pick up a well traveled trail that takes you down to the Tom Mays Unit of the state park.

Barrel cactus bud
Cholla cactus
From the highway, I picked a gully to ascend to reach the main ridge. I brought trekking poles because I knew it would be steep in spots. We had heavy rains the night before and a small trickle of water was still flowing down the gully making the footing slippery. It was hard going and I had to skirt around some ocotillo cactus and other spiny plants. Soon I made it up to the ridge though and was greeted by a stray billy goat who has been living up there for at least several years. TPWD says he escaped from a ranch or was released intentionally by an unknown person.


Anyway I picked up a trail for a while, but thought it was going in the wrong direction so I went off on my own route that I figured was the main ridge line. The weather was nice and cool so far, but summers in the Desert Southwest can get brutally hot during the day. Pretty soon fog started to roll in as it was burning off the valley below making visibility almost nil. I bushwhacked around a large rock outcropping and arrived on a saddle and picked a line that I thought was the main ridge. The fog made it impossible to tell which direction I was traveling in though so I decided to check my Avenza Map App on my phone. I had downloaded a geospatial map of the Franklins so I could see my position on the map to ensure I didn't get lost. Well, I'm glad I did, because I was on a side ridge going in the wrong direction (East). A tough steep ascent got me back on the main ridge and I continued north.

A stand of New Mexico Agave
Wildflowers abound during the rainy season
I was hoping to find a trail because in studying Google satellite images I could see a faint path following parts of the ridge, but I couldn't find it. Everything was quite overgrown though because of all the recent rainfall. The ridge is very rocky with lots of tall grass, ocotillo, barrel, cholla and prickly pear cactus. Shin dagger (lechuguilla), sotol and other agaves made the travel difficult and I was constantly skirting around plants and rocks searching for the best path forward. Since the plants  were so overgrown I couldn't always see where I was placing my feet and was quite afraid of stepping on a rattlesnake as they are very active following rain. This is the last place I'd want to encounter a snakebite because I was all alone and people rarely travel this route. For that reason, I  used my poles to poke around in the brush as I went.

The ridge I climbed.
Pincushion cactus
The scenery was spectacular though with the fog rising up out of the valley and Mammoth Rock in the distance. I could see all the way over to Juarez, MX and the city of El Paso wrapping around the mountains below. The desert explodes with life during the monsoon season and the usual brown vegetation turns a lush green and the ocotillo cacti that look dead all year even grow leaves. These spindly plants with their wildly growing stalks remind me of Medusa hair.

Ocotillo in a rock garden
NOT N. Franklin Peak
I continued following the ridge and came to a tall pointed peak thinking it was my destination but after consulting my map, discovered  I had barely covered one measly mile. I started to climb wondering what obstacles I might find on the other side. I slogged on, clinging to the western side of the ridge, but came to some precipitous drop offs so I had to go up a very steep rocky slope to find safer passage. Once I reached the top I continued on easier ground and the peak, with it's iconic antennae, came into view. I could also see the neighboring Indian Peak that has a rusted metal hut on top. I've never visited that one since it is on the former Castner Army artillery range that was being considered for a National Monument. Signs warn of unexploded ordinance so I stay off that mountain lest I have a really bad day.

N. Franklin Peak!
Indian Peak
I continued picking my way through brush, over rocks and around boulders and finally reached the base of the peak. I was hoping to find a trail or other easy access to the top, but it didn't happen. I had to scramble up a steep rocky cliff like face using my poles and hands in places finally coming to the short talus slope that surrounds the peak. It was a tough climb, but well worth the effort. I was greeted by a swarm of lady bugs (Convergent lady beetles) that migrate to a bush on the peak year after year. The view was as stunning as ever so I rested for a short period and took some photos.

The rest of my morning was straight forward. I ran down the standard route along a rocky trail and old dirt road to reach my water cache near the parking area in the park. The hard part was running back up Trans Mountain Rd to reach my car. The highway was loud and smoggy with cars and tractor trailers climbing the mountain. Although there is a wide shoulder on the side of the highway, I rarely run this road because people drive too fast and there are many accidents. I actually ran on the other side of the guardrail in the dirt for safety. The heat was really getting to me at this point too so, in hindsight, I should have parked near the state park gate and ran the highway early in the morning when there was less traffic.

Collard Lizard
I hope to continue hiking more sections of the Franklin Mountain ridge line in the future. We are so lucky to have such a gem here in the center of our city. Our state park has nearly a hundred miles of maintained trails and is teeming with wildlife, unique plants and interesting geology. There's even the Wyler Aerial Tramway that will take you up to the ridge at Ranger Peak (5632') if you don't want to bushwhack through cacti, dodge rattlesnakes, fall into Spanish bayonet, trip on shin dagger or otherwise worry about being eaten by a mountain lion, stung by scorpions or swarmed by killer ladybugs.

 See you on the trail. 

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