El Paso, Texas, and its sister city Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, flank the Rio Grande at the meeting point of three states: Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua. With a population of over 2 million, this border community is the largest urban area in the vast Chihuahuan Desert.
El Paso itself has a unique and dramatic layout: the historic core lies at the base of a rugged mountain range, the Franklin Mountains, and newer parts of town wrap around the eastern and western foothills. The upper slopes of the Franklins are preserved within the 27,000-acre Franklin Mountains State Park. The City of El Paso owns many thousands of acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the park. Arroyos, channels carved into the slopes of the mountains by the flowing water of countless years, provide important wildlife corridors that connect the mountains with the Rio Grande.
The once-mighty Rio Grande was dammed and channelized early in the 20th Century. Its flow has been altered to meet urban and agricultural water demands, so the lush wetlands and bosques that formerly graced the river valley are now virtually gone. Some regional wetland habitat restoration efforts offer glimpses of the Rio Grande’s former splendor: Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, Keystone Heritage Park and Mesilla Valley Bosque Park.
Away from mountains and river spread the seemingly endless expanses of the enigmatic Chihuahuan Desert, the largest of North America’s four deserts. Only a small portion of this desert crosses north into the United States; its immense bulk lies in Mexico, reaching far south to the vicinity of Zacatecas and San Luis Potosí. Far from the wasteland many casual observers judge it to be, the Chihuahuan Desert is a place of extraordinary biological diversity, isolated sky-island mountains, and unexpected oases—a little-known “inner frontier” for our continent.