During a spring morning, the distinctive calls of Scaled and Gambel’s Quails echo through the rocky ravines, while the cascading song of a Canyon Wren pours from a cliff accompanied by a background chatter of White-throated Swifts that zip through piercing blue skies. Denser stands of brush hide the shy Crissal Thrasher, while neatly marked Black-throated Sparrows are more extroverted, boldly singing from the top of a bush. Tiny Verdins busily construct intricately woven nests, and Pyrrhuloxias add a splash of color to the desert.
Hiking trails, ranging from easy to difficult, offer opportunities to explore the rich birdlife of this slice of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Tom Mays Nature Walk is a 1-mile loop that offers mostly level access to the flora and fauna of the desert. The popular Aztec Caves Trail rises gently for about half a mile toward a set of caverns once used by Native Americans, and wetter areas here provide lush vegetation attractive for passerine migrants.
For birders wanting to experience the backcountry and more challenging terrain, the extensive Lost Dog Trail and Sunset Loop enter further into the mountains. The trail to the highest point in the park at North Franklin Peak is short but steep and offers fantastic views. Keep an eye out for raptors. For birding at a less-strenuous pace, a bird blind is available, and various seasonal springs offer productive observation points.
At a Glance
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Northern Chihuahuan Desert. Arid grasslands and creosote bush dominate the lower reaches whereas moister canyons harbor shrubs, juniper, and oak. Seasonal springs with cottonwoods.
Mountainous desert between 4,000 and more than 7,000 feet. Rugged with an extensive trail system crisscrossing all available habitats and climbing to the tops of prominent peaks.
More than 140 species, with additional species waiting to be found. Year-round: Scaled and Gambel’s Quails, White-winged Dove, Greater Roadrunner, White-throated Swift, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Rock, Canyon, Bewick’s, and Cactus Wrens, Curve-billed and Crissal Thrashers, Black-throated and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Canyon Towhee, and Pyrrhuloxia. Spring: Common Poorwill, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Ash-throated Flycatcher, and Scott’s Oriole. Fall: Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds, Gray and Dusky Flycatchers, vireos and warblers, Western Tanager, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting. Winter: raptors, Lesser Goldfinch, Black-chinned and Brewer’s Sparrows, Green-tailed Towhee, and Lark Bunting. Rarities: Golden-crowned Sparrow.
When to go
Year-round for many desert species. Winter is excellent. Spring and fall migration have the highest diversity.
More than 120 miles of hiking trails offer access throughout the park; many birding sites are easily accessed along paved roads or shorter walks. A bird blind with log feeders and a spring is located 1 mile from the Westside entrance and attracts a wide variety of species. Several lookout points offer stunning views across the mountains, desert, and the city of El Paso. Campgrounds, restrooms, and picnic areas available in the Tom Mays Unit.
State park. Fees: $5 daily for adults, children 12 and under free. Camping available; reserve online. Transmountain Rd. and the access road, shorter trails, and campground areas in the Tom Mays unit provide the easiest access.
Bring sturdy hiking equipment: comfortable shoes, layers for sudden changes in weather, a wide-brimmed hat against the harsh desert sun, backpack, and plenty of water. A compact camera will be ideal to document the fascinating flora, including many cacti and succulents, typical of the Chihuahuan Desert.
For more info
Franklin Mountains State Park
Keystone Heritage Park
Keystone Heritage Park
About 10 miles south of Tom Mays Unit, at 4200 Doniphan Dr. Small wetland park that has hosted more than 200 species, including waterbirds, shorebirds, and several locally rare species. Excellent during migration.