Friday, February 5, 2010

The Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is a dark red formation in El Paso's Franklin Mountains that stands out as one of the area's most distinctive features. The Thunderbird spreads its wings on the west side of South Mount Franklin, high above Coronado High School, for which it serves as the namesake for the school's mascot. Geologically, the Thunderbird formation is volcanic, formed of rhyolite about 950 million years ago. It sits above a precambrian sedimentary layer of Castner marble formed about 1.2 billion years ago that is the oldest exposed rock in Texas. A dissertation from UTEP explains more than most people would ever want to know about the Thunderbird's geology. This afternoon I walked, and scrambled, to the base of the Thunderbird.

From the point I took the picture above, it's another 45 minutes of hard uphill slog and scramble to the base of the Thunderbird. If there ever was a continuous trail, most of it was probably washed out in the big storm of 2006. At times you have to go up the stream bed, which is pretty rough.

The stream bed passes through a narrow point between two cliffs. Looking back, you can see the Coronado Country Club, the west side of El Paso, El Paso's upper valley, and Santa Teresa (New Mexico), with Mexico in the center of the horizon and the southern end of New Mexico's Potrillo Mountains on the right side of the horizon.

After you pass through the gates, the canyon opens up a little before it splits into the canyons that outline the Thunderbird's north and south "wings."

If the route to the base of the Thunderbird is something of a ramble and scramble, the routes up the north and south canyons look much more daunting. This is the canyon for the north wing.

Even in the more open canyon at the Thunderbird's base, the canyon walls are spectacularly rugged and wild.

From Thunderbird Drive, a round-trip hike to the base of the Thunderbird takes about two hours. This is a serious walk, requiring good boots, heavy long pants, and desert hiking awareness. There are a lot of difficult plants. On the way down, I noticed prickly pear needles sticking out of the leather on one of my boots, and I had to pick a bunch of needles from my jeans, too. Some parts of the route require modest clambering over the larger rocks in the stream bed. With few exceptions, the terrain around the canyon is impassible.

It's an interesting hike, though, with great canyon formations on the way up and beautiful down-canyon views to the Rio Grande valley on the way back. You may even see some wildlife. As I cut over to the trail home that runs east from the upper water tower, I startled a large jack rabbit who bounded out of view before I could get to my camera.


  1. What a great examintion of the Thunderbird. Thanks David!

  2. Thanks for the write-up David, I hiked up and over the T-bird this morning with some friends. Rough going in parts, but passable.

  3. Thanks for this - lived right there on the mountain, never considered climbing it. Interesting coincidence on the name of this blog, given that one of the foremost historians of El Paso is Leon Metz.