As part of our quest to see all of the national park sites, we finally made it to El Paso, Texas on Christmas Day 2019. With just one park site, Chamizal National Memorial, we didn’t stay long. In fact, one day in El Paso was just about perfect. Even though it was a short stay, we quickly fell in love with this city.
If you’re coming from the eastern United States, like us, getting to El Paso isn’t exactly easy. Yes, there is an airport and flying in certainly would be a good option. We always love a good road trip, though, so that’s exactly what we did! Our trip started in Tallahassee, FL after an early Christmas visit with my family. From there, it took two days of driving I-10 to get to El Paso. It was a long drive, but it was definitely worth it!
Our visit to El Paso was part of a nearly two-week Christmas road trip through the southwest. We’ve been yearning to visit this part of the country for a while but the distance from home and summer heat have kept us away until now. Two weeks isn’t nearly long enough for all the national parks in the southwest region but at least it’s a start.
Whether you’re on a national parks quest or just looking for a fun weekend getaway, El Paso is a great place to visit. Our itinerary for one day in El Paso covers historic sites, scenic views and where to eat and drink.
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Where to Stay in El Paso
As the sixth-largest city in Texas, you will have plenty of hotel options in El Paso. We found a great rate at the DoubleTree, located right in downtown, and were very happy with our choice. The hotel is located not far off the interstate which made it easy to get to. It is also walking distance to several downtown must-see attractions.
Perhaps the only negative to the DoubleTree was the tight parking garage, especially for anyone driving a large vehicle like our truck. That is a somewhat common problem for any downtown hotel, though, so it wasn’t completely unexpected.
We arrived at the hotel early in the evening on Christmas Day and were pleasantly surprised to find the onsite restaurant, Fire, open for dinner. Traveling on Christmas Day is always a bit of a gamble but this year it wasn’t a problem at all for us.
San Jacinto Plaza
After dinner, we walked just a couple of blocks from the hotel to San Jacinto Plaza, a historic park in the heart of downtown El Paso. Taking up a full city block, the park is a great place to relax and breathe in some fresh air.
At Christmas, the park is covered in lights and other decorations making it an even more popular destination. When we arrived on Christmas night, we found the entire park covered with people snapping photos and admiring the sights. From white lights lining the trees to a giant ornament-covered tree, there were plenty of photo opportunities throughout the park.
In the center of the plaza is an alligator statue, a throwback to when live alligators lived in a small pond in the park.
After taking a few pictures at San Jacinto, we wandered around a bit checking out all the lights and WinterFest festivities. The ice skating rink was somewhat tempting, but we were tired after a long day of driving and decided to just head back to the hotel.
We started our one day in El Paso with another walk through downtown. After two days of driving, we really wanted to get in a little exercise! Our first stop was, again, just around the corner outside the Museum of History to see the Digital Wall, aka DIGIE (Digital Information Gateway).
This interactive touch screen is the only one of its kind in the United States. It includes photos and videos covering El Paso’s history and culture. This is a great place to learn more about the city and find other things to do in El Paso.
We spent a few minutes playing around with it and looking at information on our next stop, the Magoffin Home State Historic Site. Whether you’re interested in finding information or just playing around with a unique digital landmark, DIGIE is a great place to start your visit to El Paso.
The Digital Wall is located outside the Museum of History but we did not visit the museum. In fact, I don’t think it was even open the morning we visited.
Magoffin Home State Historic Site
To learn more about El Paso history and architecture we took a tour of the Magoffin Home State Historic Site. The adobe structure dates back to the 1870s and is a near-perfect example of Territorial-style architecture.
Mexican-born Joseph Magoffin lived much of his life in the United States and even served in the US Civil War while living in Kentucky. He later helped to develop the city of El Paso, bringing railroads and utilities to the area.
Magoffin and his wife, Octavia, built this home in 1875 and three generations of Magoffins lived in the home for more than 100 years. The vast majority of the furnishings are family pieces. On the tour, we enjoyed learning about the history of the family, how they helped shape El Paso and seeing the changes in the home over its 100 years of housing the family.
The Magoffin Home is located about a mile from the DoubleTree. It took us about 30 minutes to walk each direction. The walk itself was very easy and we enjoyed getting to see a bit more of downtown El Paso.
Chamizal National Memorial
At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, the United States gained much of its current western land. At the same time, the two countries established the Rio Grande as the Texas-Mexico border. Unfortunately, massive flooding in the 1860s changed the course of the river sparking a dispute over the international border.
The area in question was originally Mexican farmland known as the Chamizal tract. A “chamizal” is an area where the Spanish scrub bush chamizo grows. Over the years, both countries worked to establish a permanent boundary, straightening the river channel in the process.
This, of course, was not an easy process and still left the ownership of the original Chamizal tract and the newly created Cordova Island in question. It took nearly 100 years but in 1962, US President John F. Kennedy met with Mexican President Lopez Mateos to finally resolve the dispute.
Ultimately, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Chamizal Convention in 1963. This treaty settled the dispute, a four-mile-long concrete-lined channel was built and the two countries exchanged parcels of land. Chamizal National Memorial celebrates this peaceful settlement and fosters cultural understanding.
Things to Do at Chamizal National Memorial
The 55-acre park sits on the US-Mexican border, with clear views of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Inside the visitor center, you’ll find a short film, exhibits on the dispute and friendly settlement, gallery space and a theater. The grounds have several walking trails and an amphitheater.
You’ll find cultural performances throughout the year, including a summer concert series at the outdoor stage. Unfortunately, there were no events while we were in town.
Expect to spend about 30 minutes viewing the exhibits at the visitor center. Be sure to pick up the self-guided trail tour brochure to help you better understand the Chamizal story as you walk the park grounds. The park trails are easy to navigate and provide a great place to get some exercise and enjoy the views of this once disputed land.
Plan to spend at least an hour at the park; you could easily spend more time enjoying a picnic or walking the park grounds.
Lunch at Chico’s Tacos
Following our visit to Chamizal NM, we were ready for some lunch. I turned to the Visit El Paso app to search for a local favorite and came up with Chico’s Tacos. This no-frills restaurant boasts itself as “an El Paso tradition” and has been featured on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate.
We opted for their signature dish, rolled tacos. A single order is served with three rolled taquito-style tacos drenched in a soupy red sauce and smothered in shredded cheese. The tacos were tasty if a little difficult to eat. I was most impressed at how crispy the tacos stayed even while soaking in the sauce.
You will need cash but you won’t need much of it. We got two “single orders” and two medium drinks for less than $9. Even though the restaurant was busy, the line moved fast and we received our food much quicker than anticipated.
I don’t know that I would say this was the greatest lunch I’ve ever had, but it was something unique and tasty. Whether you stop in for their signature rolled tacos, a hamburger or a hot dog (uniquely served on a hamburger bun), Chico’s Tacos is a great local restaurant to check out.
National Border Patrol Museum
Located on the northern outskirts of El Paso, the National Border Patrol Museum is the only one of its kind in the United States. The museum shares the history of the Border Patrol and its operations. Displays include vehicles and weapons both used and seized by agents.
You’ll also see pictures and interesting artifacts from some of the more interesting illegal border-crossing attempts.
This small museum is free and will keep you entertained for about an hour.
From the Border Patrol Museum, we continued west across Transmountain Road back to I-10. There are a few turnouts along the way, with picnic tables and nice views of El Paso from above.
If you’re interested in a little hiking, there is a parking area where you can get out and stretch your legs. There are also a couple of picnic areas along the road. Since we had walked all over downtown El Paso earlier in the morning, we skipped the hike but did stop for a quick picture of the city.
Along this road, you feel lightyears away from the city but it’s really only about 10-15 minutes outside of town. It really is a great place to escape the city.
Our next stop was Ode Brewing on the northwest side of town. This was a great place to kill a couple of hours and enjoy some tasty beer. We didn’t get any food, but the menu did look interesting.
I had the Juicy J (an East Coast Pale Ale), which is brewed with Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe hops. While I typically don’t like “hoppy” beer, I have discovered that I like these hops and the complex, fruity notes they produce.
Grant enjoyed the Porch Pounder Pils and the Hueco Wit (a Belgian Wit). He described both of these beers as easy-drinking and refreshing.
On our way to dinner, we decided to check out the official Scenic Drive of El Paso. Seriously, the road is actually named “Scenic Drive” on Apple Maps and Google Maps.
I’ll be honest, after driving across Transmountain Road we were a little skeptical that Scenic Drive would live up to its name. We were wrong. It actually was a better drive.
From Mesa Road, where Ode Brewing is located, you’ll take Kerby Avenue to Rim Road through an older neighborhood with small but well-kept homes. As you turn to Scenic Drive, the houses become much bigger and nicer. Quickly, though, you’re driving on the edge of the mountain overlooking the city with dramatic views.
A small parking area and overlook park provide amazing views of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. What makes this view better than those along Transmountain Road is the distance. From Scenic Drive, you are literally on the edge of town and can clearly see just about everything in town. You can even see the “big red X” of Ciudad Juarez, which is located on a piece of land that was exchanged in the Chamizal Treaty.
The drive is a great one and well worth the 5-10 minutes that it takes to get there from downtown El Paso.
Dinner at Cattleman’s Steakhouse
To finish off our day in El Paso we drove out to Cattleman’s Steakhouse for dinner and one last bit of exploring. Located about 30 minutes south of town at Indian Cliffs Ranch in Fabens, Cattleman’s Steakhouse is more than just a restaurant. It sits on a working ranch which is home to a large variety of animals and scenic desert vistas.
Indian Cliffs Ranch
We arrived early, shortly after 4:00, to give ourselves time to explore the ranch before sitting down to an early dinner. As we wandered through the grounds we saw all kinds of animals – rabbits, sheep, goats, deer, bison, llama, longhorn cattle, rattlesnakes and many different kinds of birds including peacocks, ostrich, pheasants, prairie chickens and several we couldn’t identify.
This ranch really is a great place to explore and enjoy an afternoon. A small lake and badlands-style terrain make it easy to see why a number of movies have been filmed here.
There were a good number of people wandering around the grounds, but it really wasn’t too busy. I imagine that changes with warmer weather. It also probably helps that we arrived early.
At dinner, I got a sirloin and Grant opted for a New York strip. All entrees are served with a side (we both chose for a loaded baked potato). Additionally, you’ll get unlimited ranch beans, pineapple coleslaw and bread served family-style.
I have to say, the steak was one of the best I’ve ever had. There was nothing fancy about it, but it was cooked just right and the flavor was perfect. A close second in terms of taste was the ranch beans, which had a chili-style sauce. Both the steak and the beans were a great complement to the bottle of Malbec that we enjoyed with our meal.
Cattleman’s Steakhouse was a great finish to our one day in El Paso and I highly recommend it for dinner, great desert scenery and entertainment.
A Quick Return for the Sun Bowl
While not part of our official one day in El Paso itinerary, we did have the opportunity to return a few days after our original visit for the Sun Bowl. It was pure coincidence that we planned to still be in the area, in southern New Mexico, and were able to fit in a day trip back to El Paso for the Florida State vs. Arizona State football bowl game.
As a Florida State alum, the outcome of the game wasn’t what we hoped for (Arizona State won 20-14) but we did have a good time. This actually was the first FSU game and first bowl game for Grant! Hopefully, our next football game together will have a better outcome.
Final Thoughts on Our One Day in El Paso Itinerary
Before our visit, I really wasn’t sure what to expect from El Paso. Sitting right on the border of both Mexico and New Mexico, on the far west side of Texas, I figured it would have its own identity, separate from the rest of Texas. I certainly was not wrong.
El Paso definitely is not like most other cities in Texas. It is not necessarily a better city or a worse city; it’s just different. El Paso holds more of a southwest flair, which we enjoyed.
We found El Paso to be a very clean and welcoming city. As we walked through downtown, we saw little to no trash or graffiti. The roads and highways were well-maintained. I even commented on how nice the interstate was as we drove into town.
For us, one day in El Paso was the perfect amount of time to see the highlights and enjoy the city. If you’re looking to do a lot of shopping or have any other specific interests, you could certainly spend more time here. El Paso is a great city with a lot to offer.
There are two state parks in the immediate area with opportunities for hiking, biking and other outdoor adventures. Within a couple of hours, you’ll find three National Parks: Guadalupe Mountains, home to the highest peak in Texas and Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands in New Mexico. While only White Sands NP was on our itinerary for this trip, we’ll certainly visit the others one day and would love to return to El Paso when we do.