Davis Detour

Big Bend National Park of southwestern Texas — awesome, adventuresome and scenic as it is
— simply isn’t one of those places to visit on the spur of the moment by making a quick
detour off the interstate. It’s enormous in size, and the distances between towns a bit
threatening. That’s especially true when you read warnings about filling the tank before
venturing out on these roads because it could be 60 miles to the next gas station, with no
pay phones or cellular service. So what’s the other option? That’s easy. Just head for the
equally enjoyable and much more convenient Davis Mountains. This much-less-publicized area
lies 100-plus miles north of Big Bend, and it’s a reasonable detour — 39 miles from
Interstate 10. Here, you can camp, tour historic sites and stargaze, all within minutes of
towns, restaurants and gas stations. In other words, you can combine adventure with
comfort. For our family, the heart and soul of the Davis Mountains is the
5,000-foot-elevation Davis Mountains State Park, where nights are cool and afternoons often
windy. You won’t find lush vegetation here. The land can appear stark to someone used to
thickly forested mountains. And, except for the summer months, it’s very, very dry. Yet it
attracts visitors by the thousands, from hikers who want to climb its scenic trails to
throngs of bird-watchers. Bird-watching, in fact, is so big an activity that banding
sessions are held throughout the spring and summer, even into the fall. With about 2,700
acres, there’s plenty of space for everyone. Campsites are nestled against mountain slopes,
and full-hookup sites include cable television. The park features an interpretive center
and several hiking trails, including a four-mile trail that connects with the trail to Fort
Davis National Historic Site. Skyline Drive, which winds to the highest ridges, provides a
panoramic view of the park and the mountains, including the domes of McDonald Observatory,
just 13 miles farther up. This is the first drive our family takes after we’re settled at
Fort Davis. The views are not to be missed. But next on our list is the observatory.
Located on the summits of Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes, on the highest paved highway in
Texas, the McDonald Observatory offers numerous opportunities to learn about the stars. The
visitor information center, the check-in point, is open daily except on certain holidays.
Access is limited, so leave your motorhome at the campsite and drive your dinghy to the
observatory. A guided tour lasts two hours and includes live video of the sun. There is
also a self-guided tour map available at the center. The most popular program is the star
party held every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at sunset at the public observatory behind
the visitor center. Here, you can see the moon, planets and other celestial objects through
large telescopes. No reservations are necessary. Officials suggest bringing binoculars and
dressing warmly. On Wednesday evenings nearest the full moon, visitors can look through the
107-inch telescope on Mount Locke and learn about current research. Reservations, however,
are required, usually several months in advance. When McDonald Observatory’s first
telescope, with its 82-inch mirror, was dedicated in 1939, it was the second-largest
telescope in the world. In 1969, a 107-inch telescope was opened in an adjacent dome. This
is the one today’s visitors see. The observatory keeps the building open, so visitors can
go to the fifth floor and get an upclose view of the telescope through large windows. The
third telescope, dedicated in 1997, is located on another peak nearby. Its primary 432-inch
mirror is the largest in the world. Fort Davis is the closest town to the observatory and
the state park, and much of it has been restored to its 19th-century appearance. It’s a
good place to stop for a snack and rest while you’re traveling through the Davis Mountains.
To see all of Fort Davis National Historic Site takes time and a good bit of walking. Since
it was designated a historic site in 1961, Fort Davis has been restored. Some 50 of its
post-Civil War buildings and remnants of earlier structures are said to be more extensive
than those of any other Southwestern fort. The fort was made necessary by the influx of
thousands of people on their way to the gold fields of California. Wanting to avoid winter
snows and rugged mountains, they sought the Southern route, the then-new San Antonio-El
Paso road. Unfortunately, that road intersected the Indian trails that led southward into
Mexico. The Apaches and Comanches came through on their way to southwestern Texas and
northern Mexico. West of the Davis Mountains, the Mescalero Apaches had their own trails,
and east of the mountains was the Great Comanche War Trail. Raids were especially frequent
in autumn. By 1854, construction of a fort was authorized. A box canyon was selected near
the crossroads of the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail and the Chihuahua Trail. The canyon,
however, enabled Indians to watch from the steep cliffs and creep, undetected, to within
yards of the fort. The fort was abandoned during the Civil War and occupied briefly by
Confederate troops. Then it was wrecked by Apaches and lay deserted. Not until 1867 did
federal troops return. A new fort was built, this time on the plains outside the canyon.
Fort Davis was one of the first posts in the West at which African-American troops served.
Indians, who admired the buffalo’s courage, called them “buffalo soldiers,” with respect.
The fort stayed active until 1891. A visitor center and a museum are open daily, and
tourists can see a variety of buildings, including officers’ quarters and the old hospital.
In the summer, costumed interpreters conduct tours and demonstrations. The historic site
also includes a picnic grove and nature trails. While stargazers, bird lovers and history
buffs center their attention on the heart of the Davis Mountains, they usually can’t resist
seeing another nearby attraction. Located less than 30 miles south of Davis Mountains State
Park, Marfa is a small town with an unsolved mystery. By day, tourists like to visit the
old El Paisano Hotel, which housed the cast and crew of the 1956 movie Giant, starring
Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, during its filming in Marfa. By sundown,
tourists are found at a roadside stop on State Route 90 just east of town. This is no
ordinary rest stop; it is the viewing area for the ghost lights of Marfa. For more than 100
years, strange lights have flashed south of the highway, and no one has ever come up with a
proven explanation. The lights have been seen almost every night, at all times of the year
and in all kinds of weather. Some people think the lights are from car headlights, but they
were first noticed by a man driving cattle in the 1880s, long before cars came here. Other
explanations that have been offered through the years include static electrical
illumination, escaping gases, ball lightning, “bent light” and mirage effects. Whatever
they are, the “ghost lights” have made Marfa famous. There is even an annual Marfa Lights
Festival on Labor Day weekend. From Marfa, it’s only a short drive east to Alpine, the
largest city in the area and the gateway to Big Bend National Park. Nestled between the
Davis Mountains to the north and Big Bend National Park to the south, and almost a mile
above sea level, Alpine is the home of the Museum of the Big Bend. In addition to
historical exhibits, the museum features the Chihuahuan Desert Cactus Garden. Of course,
you don’t just drop in on the Davis Mountains without passing other attractions. If you’re
coming from the Carlsbad Caverns area, you can drive through Guadalupe Mountains National
Park, where eight of the nine highest mountain peaks in Texas are located. The park’s
McKittrick Canyon is world-renowned for its beauty, and park rangers conduct guided nature
walks there. The park is located just south of the New Mexico state line, east of El Paso.
If you’re traveling on I-10, you can turn south toward Fort Davis at Balmorhea. Four miles
west of the town, on State Route 17, is Balmorhea State Park, with the world’s largest
man-made swimming pool. It’s built around a spring that supplies 26 million gallons of
water per day at a constant year-round temperature. RV camping is offered at the park.
Driving west on I-10 from Texas Hill Country, you’ll see Fort Stockton, one of the oldest
settled areas in West Texas, dating back to 1534. The Chamber of Commerce offers guided
tours of the area. And, if you want to see more of this expansive region of Texas, there’s
always Big Bend National Park.

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