First stop on the road trip: the Davis Mountains

First stop: Davis Mountains (JULY 7-10)

View of the Indian Lodge and Davis Mountains State Park
View of the Indian Lodge and Davis Mountains State Park, taken from a vantage point during one of our hikes

The Davis Mountains hold a special place in our hearts.  Roughly equidistant between Big Bend and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks, the Davis Mountains are situated in the huge, sparsely-populated area of deep west Texas.  We came out here many times in our 20’s and early 30’s.  The first time we visited, several years before we we were even married, it was with Dale’s parents, and we returned numerous times after that, mostly to camp.

Our return this year was our first visit in probably fifteen years, and I have no idea why we ever stopped coming.

Before I go further, I should clarify: the name Davis is used several times to label various locations and landmarks.  First, there’s the town of Fort Davis, which grew up around a frontier army post called Fort Davis, and both of these sit in the Davis Mountains.  We stayed in Davis Mountains State Park, which sits just minutes outside of the town of Fort Davis.  All of the above is situated in Jeff Davis County.  The mountains (and town, and fort, and county) are all named after Jefferson Davis, U.S. Secretary of War and later president of the Confederacy; he ordered the construction of the army post to combat Comanche and Apache attacks on travelers crossing through the region.

Alright, back to why we love this place:

I’ve seen several references that describe the Davis Mountains as the “Texas Alps,” and I’m not sure about all that, but this area definitely has its own magic.  One website describes the Davis Mountains as a “sky island” because it sits high above and is surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert.  Elevations start at 3500 and, with Mt. Livermore, peak out at 8378 feet.

The undeveloped, pristine landscape stretches for hundreds of miles, and the mountains are rugged, with sparse, scrubby vegetation and dramatic rock formations.  All of this amazing terrain was formed about 35 million years ago by enormous, prolonged volcanic eruptions that exploded with a force 10,000 times greater than that of Mt. Saint Helens.  The subsequent lava flows created the striking striated rock formations and towering peaks that we saw throughout our stay.

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This is the most unadulterated region of Texas, with limited pollution of any kind—air, noise, or light.  There’s a reason why the Davis Mountains were chosen as the site for McDonald Observatory—there are no big city lights to mute the views of the night skies.  El Paso is 200 miles away from Fort Davis, Dallas, 501 miles, and San Antonio, 402 miles.  The closest city of any size is the oil town of Odessa, and it’s 149 miles away.

There is civilization here, but in small doses.  Charming little towns are sprinkled throughout the area, but the acreage of these settlements is way out numbered by that of wide-open spaces.  Fort Davis, for example, stretches just one mile, and most of the businesses along the main road (Highway 118) are family-owned.  The town had changed hardly at all in the intervening years between our visits.

 

The largest building in Fort Davis, the County Courthouse
The largest building in Fort Davis, the County Courthouse

Amenities in the region are limited.  Cell phone reception was spotty in town and completely absent in the mountains.  There are no Starbucks, no Walmarts, no mega grocery stores.  Fort Davis has only two small grocery stores, but the store that we frequented, Stone Village Market, had wifi, a deli, friendly staff, and locally sourced food.  In fact, as we were purchasing a dozen eggs one day, the cashier pointed to a woman walking out the door and said, “These are her eggs.”  She turned and smiled and said, “You won’t find any fresher.”

Things to do in Fort Davis

We toured Fort Davis army post of course and also went to McDonald Observatory, which sits atop Mt. Locke and has some of the largest telescopes in the world.  We spent several hours there, taking a tour of the telescopes and going to a solar viewing, and then we returned later that evening to attend a Star Party.  What a fantastic experience!  I’ll talk more about both of these sites in upcoming posts.

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We also took a few beautiful hikes.  There are excellent hiking opportunities all over the region which put you up close and personal with all of that rugged terrain.  (I feel obliged to mention that you should bring bug spray and sunscreen and keep an eye out for the four varieties of rattlesnake that inhabit West Texas!)  Davis Mountains State Park has 2709 acres and four miles of hiking trails, one of which connects to Fort Davis (the army post).  We hiked the Montezuma Quail and Indian Lodge Trails through the mountains overlooking the park.  We had 360 degree views from the top and enjoyed the terrain’s various shades of grey, red, brown, and pink.

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Fort Davis offers a few other interesting sites that we didn’t get to visit: the Overland Trail Museum, the historic Prude Ranch, and the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center, home to the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.

Area excursions

There are plenty of things to do in the surrounding area if you’re willing to take short day trips and branch out into nearby communities.

  • Meandering scenic drives: we did a portion of the 75-mile Scenic Loop Drive, which runs along the highest public highway in Texas (starting elevation is 5000 feet and peaks out at 6260 feet).  The drive has a total elevation gain of 3146 feet and is popular with bicyclists.  The views were stunning, and the colorful rocks glowed.

There are other “official” scenic drives as well, including the river road to Big Bend and also the Pinto Canyon Road (FM 2810 and FM 170), which supposedly offers a true West Texas experience.  Only a portion of the path is paved and there’s no cell phone service, so a reliable four-wheel-drive vehicle is required, but the drive apparently offers fantastic views of the Chinati range (highest peak is Chinati Peak, 7728 feet).  Keep in mind, though, that if you don’t have time to drive one of these scenic routes, a trip on almost any backroad in the area will lead to amazing scenery.

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Madera Canyon as seen from a roadside picnic area on the Scenic Loop Drive
  • The area is renowned for the variety of wildlife to be found here, including pronghorn antelope.  We saw mule deer and white-tailed deer.  And look out for javelina, which one of the park rangers called “suicide pigs” because of their tendency to cross roads with their entire family of piglets in tow.
Phainopepla (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
  • Over 400 bird species can be found in the West Texas region.  Dale and I managed to check off eleven species on our life list in just three days, including bucket-list species like the prairie falcon and the burrowing owl as well as a bird we’d never heard of, the phainopepla, a silky fly catcher that can only be found in the southwestern U.S.

We discovered the burrowing owl on a drive along an isolated highway.  The mother hovered near its burrow, and two adorable babies frequently popped their heads out and peeked at us.  Priceless!

Burrowing owl family (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
  • Historic little towns dot the area, include Alpine, Marathon, Fort Stockton, Presidio and Terlingua, to name a few.
  • West Texas has become a bit of an art mecca, with the little town of Marfa in the center of it all (more on that in our next post).
  • Balmorhea State Park, where between 22 and 28 million gallons of water flow from the San Solomon Spring everyday, is incredibly popular.  Several of our fellow campers went swimming everyday in the CCC-constructed, spring-fed swimming pool.
  • Carlsbad, New Mexico, with its mind-blowing caverns, is 161 miles north of Fort Davis.
  • Big Bend National Park, Texas’ jewel and the most biologically diverse park of any in the national park system, is 134 miles away from Fort Davis.
  • Guadalupe Mountain National Park is a favorite of ours.  In a remote area of the Texas/New Mexico border, it contains Texas’ highest mountain, Guadalupe Peak, at 8751 feet.  Climbed it! (years ago)

About the park

We camped in Davis Mountains State Park, which sits nestled in the mountains.  The campsites are large, with plenty of space between you and your neighbors.  Shade may be a problem; we drove around and carefully analyzed the sites based on amount of trees contained within, and we still found ourselves dealing with direct sun at certain times of the day.  Bugs abound, and, while we didn’t experience the scorching 100-degree days that most of Texas suffers because we were in the mountains, it was still hot and also, because of the frequent rainstorms, humid.  Thank goodness the park had decent showers!

If you don’t want to rough it, the park has the historic and adorable Indian Lodge, constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

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The Indian Lodge at sunset

 


I’m guessing that the isolation of West Texas isn’t for everyone.  The long stretches of territory unbroken by civilization or conveniences may make some people claustrophobic or at the very least disoriented.  There’s an element of deprivation when you come to West Texas.

And yet the desolation and silence offers a peace that’s hard to find elsewhere.  After several stressful weeks of planning and packing prior to our road trip kick-off, Dale and I both felt the tension dissipating as we neared Fort Davis.  The openness of the terrain allows you room to breathe and the opportunity to slow down.  Don’t try to do too much on you’re visit here; if you do, then you’re missing the point of West Texas.