EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – Whether you are a lifelong El Pasoan, a transplant or a visitor to the Sun City, you might be surprised to know that you are just minutes away from one of the world’s largest urban wilderness areas.

What? Where?

Well, it’s Franklin Mountains State Park — almost like a familiar old friend that we sometimes forget about or take for granted.

At nearly 27,000 acres, Franklin Mountains State Park is surrounded on three sides by the City of El Paso and the fourth by the state line with New Mexico.

The Tom Mays Unit of the park is what most people think of. It is easily accessible off Interstate 10 and Transmountain from West El Paso.

It features a new visitors center and interpretive center. It also has some of the park’s most popular hiking and biking trails and offers camping and picnicking sites.

“People can come out and just enjoy the space, getting away from the city, away from the hustle and bustle a little bit,” said Lydia Pagel, interpretive ranger for the park.

“It really feels like you are out in the middle of nowhere, even though you might only be 15 minutes away from your house,” she said.

If it’s been a while since you have been to the park, its visitors center opened in July 2020 in the middle of the pandemic.

“We are really excited to have it and we are still learning all of the things we can do with it,” Pagel said.

The visitors center complex includes a stage and a campfire area. Next Saturday, May 13, the park will have a special “s’mores” program from 2 to 4 p.m. at the visitors center. With your park admission, you will be able to make their own s’mores, a tasty tradition for people who grew up camping with their families.

The s’more event is part of the Texas State Park system’s centennial celebration and is just one of the events that Franklin Mountains SP will be doing this year, Pagel said.

As a protected wilderness area, Franklin Mountains offers 150 miles of hiking and biking trails. Some trails are also suitable for riding horses, Pagel said.

The Tom Mays Unit also offers camping and picnicking, with 5 undeveloped sites for RVs (no hookups).

What you can’t do in the park is hunt, shoot guns or drive your vehicle off-road, Pagel said.

The Tom Mays Unit contains one of park’s most popular and iconic hikes, the 1.2-mile loop to Aztec Cave. It can be quite steep and sometimes slippery but leads to a spectacular view and a natural rock shelter.

In the future, the park is planning to create a new route up to the site that is less slippery, Pagel said.

If you are worried about the ascent, less challenging trails include the Agave Loop Trail and the Beginners Loop, both about 1.2 or 1.3 miles.

There is also a Nature Trail that is three-quarters of a mile, relatively flat and includes a bird blind for wildlife viewing.

Pagel says if you are considering coming out during the hotter spring and summer months, to come prepared – bring lots of water, wear a hat and wear sunscreen.

If you bring your dog, make sure to bring lots of water for your furry companion, too. Dogs have died at Franklin Mountains from the heat, Pagel said.

Planning a trip

Easiest Access: Tom Mays Unit off Interstate 10 and Transmountain

Fees: Day use is $5 per person age 13 and older; free for 12 and younger. Camping is $10 per night for a single site, plus $5 entrance fee for each person; $20 for a double site and $30 for a large group site.

Visitors center: Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Tom Mays section of park closes promptly at 5 p.m. You could end up with your vehicle locked in if you don’t leave on time.

Special summer hours for day use: 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday in Tom Mays Unit. Dawn to dusk in rest of park. Make sure you buy your visitors permit in advance online if you are visiting before the visitors center opens or you can pay at a self-serve kiosk, often called an Iron Ranger.

Other areas of park: Day use fee still required. Use self-serve kiosks.

Information: visit https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/franklin-mountains or call (915) 444-9121. To purchase your day permit online, go to texasstateparks.reserveamerica.com.

Photo exhibit

What: “The Land That Shaped Us: Stories at Texas State Parks.”

When: June 3-23.

Where: International Art Museum, 1211 Montana Ave.

Grand opening: 3 to 5 p.m. June 3.

Why: Celebrate 100 years of Texas State Parks by exploring this photo exhibit and sharing your own stories at state parks.