The following article is part three of a six-part series of a tour through the Big Bend Country region of west Texas. Coming up: The McDonald Observatory, Marfa and Marathon. Previously we visited Monahans Sandhills State Park and Balmorhea State Park.
The drive down state Highway 17 into the Davis Mountains from Balmorhea is a scenic and beautiful precursor to what is probably the best drive in all of Texas -- that along state Highway 118 between our next two stops Fort Davis and the McDonald Observatory.
First up is Fort Davis, an old, pioneer town that about 1,000 people call home. The town sits nestled in the Davis Mountains at about 4,800 feet above sea level. The town is home to the Fort Davis National Historic Site -- an Indian Wars-era U.S. Army post from 1854- 1891 that was strategically located in a canyon near Limpia Creek "to protect emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and on the Chihuahua Trail," according to the National Park Service.
Until the Civil War, the soldiers stationed at Fort Davis spent much of their time chasing down Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches. But when Texas seceded from the Union, the post was abandoned until Confederate troops found it and made it home. It was a Confederate post for a year until the Union once again took control, and then once again abandoned the post. In 1867, Fort Davis was reoccupied by the U.S. Army and then began to grow into a major installation -- which at the time was playing host to about 400 soldiers.
Several of the buildings at the fort have been restored and refurnished and can be seen up close on a self-guided tour. Park staff and volunteers are currently working on refurnishing a section of the partially restored hospital. Today, Fort Davis is considered among the best preserved 19th century frontier forts in the U.S. as well as one of the best preserved "Buffalo Solider" forts in the west.
Outside the walls for the fort, Fort Davis is a small town dotted with ocotillo fencing, no traffic lights and an abundance of quaint shops, restaurants and hotels where visitors can lazily spend the day. You'll need to be flexible though, as many of the shops and restaurants are only open during certain hours and days of the week. So, spending time in town can be somewhat hit and miss as far as what businesses may actually be open.
Just a short drive up 118 from Fort Davis is Davis Mountains State Park, where the peaks will get you up near 6,000 feet. There is plenty of RV and camping space at the state park, but there is also a lodge for those whose creature comforts tend to shy away from sleeping outside in a sleeping bag. If you long for a bit more of the true cowboys experience, look into staying at the nearby Prude Ranch.
Aside from gazing at the vistas from the peaks of the Davis Mountains, there is surprisingly plenty to do when staying in the area. There are more hiking trails than you could likely walk between those at the state park, the fort and surrounding areas. If you'd like to learn more about the desert vegetation, check out the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center & Botanical Gardens just a short drive out of town. There is also horseback riding, gliding, shopping, hunting and star watching. One of the truly great things about this part of Texas is being able to see the stars and Milky Way in a way that cannot be duplicated in DFW. It's highly recommended if you want the best nighttime viewing experience on your trip to plan to travel when the moon is new or no more than a quarter lit.
Finally, there's always the Scenic Loop Drive to keep people entertained. The loop is a 75-mile trip that is said to be the most beautiful drive in all of Texas. The scenic loop leaves out of Fort Davis along the Limpia Canyon and heads out near the McDonald Observatory and into Madera Canyon (a great spot for a picnic lunch) and then turning back toward Fort Davis along Mt. Livermore and Sawtooth Mountain. On the loop, you'll hit close to 6,700 feet above sea level near Mts. Locke and Fowlkes (the site of the observatory). Bring a camera, there are plenty of spots where you can safely pull over and take some pictures.
With so many small towns nearby, Fort Davis makes for a great launching point for a several-day stay in West Texas if you didn't want to try a few different small motels. Alpine, Marfa, Balmorhea, Marathon and Big Bend are all a short drive away. Next week, we'll head out along the scenic loop for a star watching party at the McDonald Observatory.