By Jenny Burden
Riding a bike in Texas means you’ve got thousands of miles of geographically, ecologically, and topographically diverse trails and roads ready to explore. From the dense piney woods, to the rolling hill country, to vast, beautiful deserts, Texas truly has it all for riders seeking adventure, year-round good weather, and killer food choices for post-ride recovery.
As a cyclist who calls this amazing state home, I am here to tell you that if El Paso is not on your bucket list, you are truly missing out. Located at the very western tip of Texas, bordering Mexico and New Mexico, El Paso is not what you probably think it is. There is the desert, and of course the occasional tumbleweed, but there are also beautiful mountains, a mighty river, miles of uncongested gravel and paved roads, and some seriously premium XC and enduro mountain biking trails. There are also friendly locals, affordable places to stay, and if you claim to love Mexican food, necesitas practicar tu español, because la comida will not be beat!
The day job I have the joy of working, that thankfully also pays the bike bills, is with Texan by Nature, a nonprofit that partners with conservation projects and programs across the state to offer consultative services, free of charge, helping them increase their impact via marketing, coalition building, increased investment from partners, and more. In 2020, we chose the Paso del Norte Trail for one of our programs and, naturally, I called dibs immediately. After about 10 months of working to help them expand their audience, highlighting the incredible potential impact a 68-mile trail network could have on the region, it was time for a COVID-safe site visit to film a video highlighting the project, meet the incredible leaders making it happen, and I figured while I’m there, why not ride a bike?
What started as a quick conversation with a corporate partner based in the region that I knew shared my passion for bikes turned into the brilliant and fun idea to put together a group for the first ever end-to-end ride of the proposed route. Soonafer, I found myself on a plane (planes! Remember those?!) with my bike packed away in my Airport Ninja bag, headed to El Paso to explore the trail myself.
Background: The Paso del Norte Trail
Serving a population of 2.7 million in the region between El Paso and their sister city of Juarez, Mexico, the Paso del Norte (PDN) Trail has a vision to improve environmental, economic, and public health conditions for Texans, and their neighbors, from all walks of life. This project is a community-driven, collaborative effort to develop a county-wide trail in El Paso County.
The roughly 68–mile span of the PDN Trail is divided into ﬁve distinct districts, each broadly deﬁned by their unique geographical, historical, and cultural context, as well as various amenities and attractions. The PDN Trail provides essential connections for community members to businesses, attractions, parks, and downtown areas, including the University of Texas at El Paso, Ascarate Park, the University Medical Center, and the El Paso Zoo. Connector trails and loops provide additional access to natural areas and outdoor spaces such as Franklin Mountains State Park and the Rio Grande River. The PDN Trail provides breathtaking views of the Franklin Mountains and showcases a variety of natural landscapes and terrain, including floodplains, deserts, rivers, mountains, and wetlands. To enhance the native landscape surrounding the trail and create oasis for urban wildlife species, project leaders have also installed habitat enhancements such as Burrowing Owl tunnels, bat boxes, bioswales for stormwater management, edible plants, and more.
The goal of Paso del Norte Trail is to create a regionally signiﬁcant landmark that promotes active transportation, preserves the history and culture of the region, highlights the Rio Grande river, supports economic development and ecotourism, provides educational and volunteer opportunities, and makes healthy living the easy choice for this unique, binational community.
If you live in a community that contains extensive trail networks, make sure you send a thank you to the leaders who made that happen. Trail construction is complex, requiring cooperation and funding from many stakeholders, enthusiasm from the community, and buy-in from decisionmakers. The process is long, but the investment is always worth it for the added quality of life value brought by trails.
The Inaugural PDN Ride
When you go from Central to Mountain time, it makes a 4:45a wake-up easier, but only slightly so. Our plucky band of riders met at a University of Texas El Paso parking lot to load up bikes and bodies into a van (thank you, Sun Cycles EP for transporting the bikes safely!) to make the trek to the eastern border of the county in Tornillo. Although many of us already had our vaccines, we still were sure to wear masks and stay distant when safely possible, with me of course sporting a Texan by Nature mask with my Texan by Nature kit, because hey, ABB – always be branding! As the sun rose on the horizon, I could only think to myself that it was really dumb to assume it’d be moderately warm in the high desert in March. The 41 degrees F temperature meant my fingers were already frozen at mile 0.
Before the start of our ride, I shared my love of Tailwind with the group, handing out sick packs of Green Tea Endurance Fuel and my personal favorite, Lemon. Af first, prizes of water bottles and buffs went to those who were willing to answer my Texas trivia questions. (Do YOU know what year Spindletop blew? The state flying Mammal? How many ecoregions exist across the state? Some people probably did, but not before sunrise!) When they tired of my nature-nerd inquiries at the early hour, I just passed them out to the rest of the group, making sure everyone had a little fuel in their pockets for the day ahead. I know I had two bottles full + two stick packs in my jersey pocket!
Since the trail is not complete, our route encompassed both paved trail where it exists, and roads or levees where it has yet to be constructed. Tornillo is a quiet agricultural area that made for a nice calm start to our journey, and the flat, level landscape provided plenty of time to warm up. Well, warm up the legs, because my fingers froze in my Handup gloves until the sun finally thawed me out around mile 10.
As we pedaled closer to El Paso, traffic picked up and we began reflecting on just how life-changing trails for that side of the county could be. Current walkability is disjointed and road-dominant, making it difficult to connect neighborhoods and business districts safely. While many of us were experienced riders comfortable with the road, when we did reach the first portion of the completed trail, with its wide paved surface, signage, and amenities, the stark contrast and lack of traffic noise was almost deafening in the sudden peace.
The safest, most enjoyable parts of the day were without a doubt the ones spent on the trail. We refilled bottles, chatted with new friends, spotted wildlife, and enjoyed the fresh air and sunshine as we progressed, mile after mile, ever westward. We made stops at the Playa Drain Trail, Ascarate Park for an interview discussing the trail with the local news station, and the Texa Tech Health Sciences Center to grab a bit of drone footage and a nice restroom stop, courtesy of the Health Sciences School President and Medical School Dean who joined us for the ride.
This trail is not epic in the traditional cycling sense, with massive climbs or technical features. It is easy and accessible by design, ensuring all skill levels and abilities can enjoy recreation and transportation along the route. What it lacks in challenge it makes up for in scenery. The Franklin Mountains that dominate the city landscape (a mountain range INSIDE city limits!) draw you in and watch over you on every mile. The Rio Grande river dances around riders, first one side, then the other, blurring the lines between Texas, New Mexico, and blending into Mexico, which glides by in brilliant color as you leave town and follow the segment of Texas Department of Transportation paved path along the highway, linking with the levee system on the state line. When we ran out of pavement, we took our bikes along these levees that still irrigate agricultural lands throughout the county when the river flows from Elephant Butte, putting a little gravel in our travel.
After the levees, we hopped on the final segment of the trail, 12 miles of paved path winding along arroyos and through park land, wrapping up what ended up being a 7 hour day. While certainly not fast, it was absolutely fun. By the end of the ride, we were toasting with cervezas and planning the next adventure, hoping to bring even more people along to explore the route next time. Although the ride was an absolute blast, I was definitely stoked to see our Podium FInish sag truck waiting at the trail end for a final check-in as we waited for the van to pick us up and take us back to our vehicles. The post-ride Rebuild Recovery, followed by ceviche and tacos, hit the spot. A day well spent, indeed.
The Importance of Trails
Trails improve the quality of life for the communities they connect. Of the myriad of benefits, PDN’s planned route highlights the ability of trails to:
- Connect people to nature: Accessible trails connect people to nature, which positively affects their health and promotes a conservation mindset. The collaborative team working on the trail strives to ensure the PDN Trail is a trail for everyone, meaning it is safe and accessible to community members of all ages and abilities. Upon completion, the trail will provide greater opportunities for walking, hiking, and biking for users of all abilities to connect in the ecologically and culturally diverse border region of Texas.
- The landscaping along the trail will employ only native, desert-adaptive plants with the effect of conserving natural resources, like water, and will support the biodiversity and wildlife populations in the region.
- A safe, secure, and scenic trail will provide scenic views of the wetlands and connect trail users to multiple species of cranes, ducks, and other birds that pass through the region during migrations.
- Transportation Alternatives: Upon completion, the PDN Trail will provide safe alternative transportation opportunities and recreational access to open space, rivers, mountains, and parks to over 2.1 million people in El Paso County and Ciudad Juarez. Trail users and community members will have safe connections to schools, parks, businesses, and downtown.
- Economic Value: Trail systems also bring economic value to their communities through increased property value, economic opportunities for local businesses engaging with the trail, improved public health, and overall greater “livability” for residents.
- The PDN Trail provides indirect economic value through educational and recreational activities, such as the regular weekly rides hosted by Podium Finish, a local bike shop and café.
- The trail provides direct economic value through increased property values and increased property tax revenue for municipalities. Trail development directly creates jobs associated with the planning, engineering, construction, and maintenance of the trail.
- Eco-tourism and bicycle tourism has the potential to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars per year via spending at hotels, restaurants, retail, and cultural attractions.
- Additional economic value includes increased marketing opportunities and business for local businesses.
- Trail users and community members in general see indirect economic value through improved public health benefits associated with active lifestyles and reduced automotive dependency.
- Over time, municipal entities will realize reduced street maintenance costs due to reduced automotive travel and effective, on-site handling of stormwater through expanded green infrastructure.
Put simply, an investment in trails is an investment in the community as a whole. Trails create equitable access to nature, increase quality of life for residents, elevate the attractiveness of an area for corporations and businesses, and improve public health outcomes. They are literal and figurative lifelines with excellent ROI. We at Texan by Nature will be following the progress of this project, and encourage municipalities across the state and country to replicate this idea in their own communities!
The ride, and of course the trail itself, would not have been possible without the help of local community advocates, who proudly advocate for this trail each and every day. A huge thank you to the following for hosting, navigating, planning, and of course, fueling a wonderful adventure: