More than Missions
Exploring El Paso’s Lower Valley
Story by Lisa Kay Tate
he Mission Trail is one of El Paso County’s greatest treasures, and the Lower Valley missions and Tigua reservation are some of the area’s most visited sites for good reason.
However, there’s a little bit more to El Paso’s Lower Valley. The Lower Valley and its surrounding neighborhoods are home to numerous cultural and natural sites, unique local businesses, well-used park areas, and some favorite shopping areas and roadside landmarks.
El Paso Scene asked a variety of area residents what some of their favorite “off-mission” sites were in the Lower Valley. This list is far from a comprehensive, but a good beginning point to encourage readers to begin their own exploration of the historic area that stretches from Fox Plaza and Ascarate Park at its north end to San Elizario, Clint and Fabens to the south.
Fox Shopping Center and Mercado
Where does the Lower Valley officially begin? There’s no precise definition, but the major intersection at Paisano and Alameda (now home to one of the city’s largest roundabouts) is as good a starting point as any.
There you will find Fox Plaza, home to one of the area’s most popular Sunday flea markets, which also hosts live entertainment, movies and other special events year round.
There is also an inside mini-mall area with 30 specialty shops and additional vendor spaces. The Mercado itself has more than 50 shops.
Plaza Property Manager Jeannette Negrete said the market has become a very familiar part of El Paso’s retail landscape.
“One of the reasons we are successful is we have become a household name,” she said. “The market has been going on for 40 years now, and the shopping center has been here for 55 years.”
The market has 400 vendor spaces, with an average of about 300 to 350 of the spaces occupied each weekend. The market is also more than just a large mass of vendor booths, Negrete said, as it has all the trappings for a fun weekend field trip. The vendors are joined by family games and carnival attractions like a carousel and mechanical bull, and live music and entertainment.
“This is not just a place to come buy stuff, it’s a place to take the family and come and spend some time,” Negrete said.
Just down the road on the north side of the Lower Valley is El Paso’s largest public-use recreational park, Ascarate Park on Delta Drive.
Country residents voted in favor of a special tax in 1937 to create the park, which was built with the help of more than 200 workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps and finished in 1940. The park is named after a pioneering ranching family.
The park covers 400 acres with an 18-hole golf course, pro shop and family-owned restaurant; a 48-acre lake with a boardwalk, boat rentals and aquatic center; community garden; playground facilities, sportspark, trails and picnic areas and recently added a splash park. Admission to the park is free on weekdays, with $2 to $5 a carload entrance fee on weekends and holidays.
From 1960 to 2006, the park was home to Western Playland Amusement Park, which relocated to Sunland Park, N.M.
The park is the site of several 5K races and fishing events, and hosts a variety of youth sports such as Aqua Posse’s annual swim meet, Kid’s Fishing tournaments, and Greater Tee golf events. Special events include the Sun City Fair each spring, Sun City Music Festival the first weekend in September, summer movies on the lake, and Christmas lights during the holiday seasons.
The park’s more than 70 years of history in the area was commemorated with a historical marker in 2015.
El Paso County Commissioner for Precinct 2 David Stout emphasized the park’s significance to the city to local media at the time of the marker’s dedication.
“Ascarate Park is a huge part of El Paso,” he said. “I have spoken to a number of people who remember coming here when they were children and are now bringing their children. Ascarate Park is part of everyone’s history and this marker is just a great addition to showcase that history.”
Bronco Swap Meet
It is hard to get more nostalgic and eclectic than visiting one of El Paso’s largest weekend flea markets.
The 9-acre site at 8408 Alameda has more than 300 vendors, both indoors and outdoors, selling everything from antiques, collectibles to original art and food items. People often visit with families just to spend a day walking around a colorful, lively environment.
Even today, the big Bronco head, first created in 1950 for the Bronco Drive-In Theater by Luis Jimenez Sr. (the father of the sculptor who created “Los Lagartos” at San Jacinto Plaza), is a familiar icon for area residents, even those who never visited the market.
The Bronco Drive-In had its grand opening on Oct. 14, 1949. The single-screen drive-in, which had a 600-car capacity, closed its doors in 1975 as a theater but has endured much longer as a flea market, with the old Bronco head still very much intact. It’s open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily Tuesday through Sunday. The Bronco Dance Hall is also on the former theatre’s site.
Area resident Suzanna Corazon said there are many great finds at the market, including handmade items.
“I remember coming up here with some friends, buying these cool special made shorts and clothes this one lady used to make,” she said. “There is more out here than you would expect.”
The Brass Shop
Many of the Lower Valley’s locally owned and operated businesses have been part of the area for several years.
One example is The Brass Shop, 7360 Stiles Drive, a spot that may not be on every tourism brochure but is often recommended by anyone who has been there.
The shop was founded by El Paso entrepreneur Bob Herndon in 1976, and his family has kept it going since his passing in 2012. The official name of the store is Herndon’s Wrought Iron Furniture, but area residents affectionately just call it “The Brass Shop.”
The large store, which features brass, wrought iron and aluminum furniture and other items, is a photo opportunity in itself, with its expanse of brass and novelties.
Many area residents and travelers have left recommendations encouraging people to visit the shop.
“You can spend a whole day going thru all the unique stuff they have,” one local guide, Wando Lugo, wrote. “Love this store!”
El Paso County Sportspark
The sports park on North Zaragoza, is home to several competitive baseball programs, and was first built in 1986 on the city’s Far East side.
According to the park’s history, “the complex was originally designated to accommodate men’s softball and soccer, and was “the first park in the area to host over 100 baseball teams.”
The county purchased the park in 2002. In 2012, El Paso County Commissioners had hopes of El Paso County Sportspark on Zaragosa becoming the “premier sports facility of its kind for far west Texas and surrounding areas.” Renovations begun is 2012 were delayed for years due to contractor disputes, and the park finally reopened in 2016.
Today, it is still home to several competitive baseball programs, for youth and adults, as well as softball and T-Ball. There are 10 ballfields hosting thousands of athletes and spectators each season, and the county is still making plans to improve facilities and its programs.
More upgrades are planned, according to the park’s master plan, include improvements to the entrance, new clubhouse and t-ball concession, batting cages, family restrooms, administrative offices and handicapped accessible pathways.
Rio Vista Farm
Rio Vista Farm has been part of the Lower Valley since 1915, and was first built as the city’s second county “poor farm,” intended for the care of elderly and indigent children. By the 1930s, it expanded to also accommodate families during the Great Depression.
Helen O’Shea Keleher and her mother Agnes O’Shea administered the farm for 50 years, and left a “wonderful legacy of a caring, familial-type institution,” said Gary Williams, El Paso Community Foundation senior program officer.
From 1951 to 1964, the farm was a significant processing site for the Bracero Program (which provided for temporary migrant farm workers from Mexico). Williams said only two of the site’s buildings have been lost over time; most of the others remain intact for visitors to see. It was declared one of the state’s most endangered places by Preservation Texas in 2015, and by 2016 the National Trust declared it a National Treasure.
Rio Vista Farm is at 800 N. Rio Vista Road in Socorro, about a half-mile east of North Loop.
“It is still surrounded by 200 acres of farm land and the original brick 1915 building and the Mission Style adobe buildings across the street make for an impressive sight and harken to another era in the Mission Valley,” Williams said.
The farm is currently used as a community center to serve Socorro, and plans are underway to restore additional buildings for re-use as a library and for additional community programs.
“You can truly understand its importance as a place where people were cared for and its importance as a Bracero processing center add to the local and national significance,” Williams said. On the one hand, it is a living testament to people caring for others less fortunate and in the case of the farm workers, a reminder of the hard work and challenges faced by farm workers and their families. Today, it continues to serve a positive purpose as a community center for the City of Socorro.”
Rio Bosque Wetlands Park
One of the best sites for nature lovers in the valley is Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, managed by UTEP’s Center for Environmental Resource Management. The address is 10716 Socorro Rd, but access is from Pan American Drive, 1½ miles from Americas.
The 372-acre city park has three trails ranging from 0.6 miles to a 2.4-mile loop, all starting at the visitor center.
Each month the site offers free, guided walking tours of the park, highlighting the birds and other plants and animals on site. Brochures are also available for self-guided tours. Visitors can also give back to the park by taking part in regularly scheduled volunteer workdays and faunal monitoring.
“Rio Bosque Wetlands Park offers visitors a chance to take a walk back in time and get a sense of what our river valley might have looked like several hundred years ago,” said Rio Bosque Wetlands Park manager John Sproul. “With its developing wetlands and riverside forests and its abundant wildlife, Rio Bosque is a site totally unique in El Paso.”
Another nearby natural area, Feather Lake Wildlife Sanctuary at 9500 North Loop, has been closed in recent years due to lack of water.
Ramirez Pecan Farm
While the pecan orchards between El Paso and Mesilla remain the best known, the Lower Valley is also a major grower of one of this area’s major cash crops.
The Lower Valley can boast Ramirez Pecan Farm, a family run farm at 13709 north North Loop in Clint, purchased by Air Force veteran Guadalupe (Lupe Jr.) Ramirez, whose entire family has become part of the farm’s legacy and business.
The farm hosts events throughout the year, including their popular Pecan Harvest Festival the first weekend in December, that welcome the public to pick their own pecans from the orchard and enjoy vendors, country style activities and food. They also host weddings and other events among the orchards, as well as ladybug releases and Earth Day celebrations.
“During the summer we are open Monday, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 1 to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,” Ramirez said, “but always call ahead (at 851-2003) as we are a family farm and often are out working the farm.”
They also venture into Downtown every Saturday for the Art and Farmers Market in Union Plaza.
Spray park and other improvements
There are currently eight spray parks in El Paso County, but the Lower Valley’s Pavo Real Recreation Center on Alameda is home to the first “enhanced spray park.”
Like other city spray parks, Pavo Real has a splash pad with water spouts, a dump bucket and similar features, but also has two large water slides and a separate spray park for dogs, making it the only dog-friendly spray park in the city.
All the spray parks are open 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily through October.
“I think the Pavo Real spray park is a great place for a free to low-cost family outing,” said Stacey Wright, community center supervisor – Aquatics for the City of El Paso Parks & Recreation. “There is a spray park and dog spray park that is free to the public to use. It has slides for the kids to enjoy.
“Families come, cook out and enjoy the day at the park. There is a pool next door to enjoy as well,” she said. “It’s fun to see all the families enjoying the park!”
El Paso City Rep. Henry Rivera, elected in May to represent District 7, which encompasses much of the Lower Valley between Hunter and Zaragosa, cited the spray park as an example of quality-of-life improvements in the area that encourage people to enjoy the outdoors.
“In addition to the historic Missions Trail, residents and visitors in the Lower Valley now have many new activities to enjoy including the Independence Drive Hike and Bike Trail, where visitors can ride their bikes and take a walk along a shaded and lighted pathway without having to worry about vehicles running them over,” Rivera said. “This recently completed bicycle and pedestrian corridor which is in front of Shawver Park will be augmented in the future with another pathway which is currently in development La Playa Drain.”
Other pending projects, Rivera added, include improvements to Thomas Manor Park and Lionel Forti Regional Family Aquatics Facility.
And yes, go to the Missions!
While it is certainly possible to enjoy the Lower Valley without a stop along the Mission Trail, the trail will always remain one of the most popular destinations in the entire El Paso area, not just the valley. For those who haven’t yet discovered the Mission Trail, here are some of the most popular sites along the Mission Trail, which of course, includes the Missions:
• Mission Ysleta — Spanish and Tigua Indian refugees from northern New Mexico founded the community in the 1680s. The first mission was built in 1692 and rebuilt completely in both the 18th and 19th centuries.
• Mission Socorro — The first adobe structure in Socorro was built in 1692, and like nearby Mission Ysleta, was destroyed by floods in later centuries. The current structure dates back to 1843, with additions completed in 1873.
• San Elizario Chapel — Established in 1789 as a Spanish presidio, or fort, to protect the Camino Real, San Elizario was the first county seat of El Paso. The church was built in 1877, replacing a church built about 25 years earlier. Technically, San Elizario Chapel is a presidio church, not a mission. The surrounding area features an extensive historic and arts district with 17 historic sites, the Los Portales Museum and Visitor Center, numerous galleries. Information: SanElizarioHistoricDistrict.com.
San Elizario is also the Mission Trail Art Market in Veteran’s Memorial Plaza the third Sunday of the month June through November, as well as German Christmas market in December.
• Licon Dairy — The dairy’s gift shop popular for its homemade asadero cheese products is located at 11951 Glorieta Road in San Elizario. The dairy also features an extensive petting zoo and regularly stocked fishing hole. Admission is free, with a nominal charge for fishing hole use.
• Tigua Indian Cultural Center — Located on Yaya Lane, east of the Ysleta Mission. The center features a museum on the Tigua tribe, Native American dances Saturdays and Sundays, and Indian bread on sale at the center, made Saturday mornings. Also featured are family-operated gift shops. Nearby Speaking Rock Entertainment Center offers live music nightly, including mariachi, tribute bands and touring acts.
For more information, visit the El Paso Mission Trail Visitor Center at 6095 Alameda, or contact 790-0661, 851-9997 or visitelpasomissiontrail.com.
Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications