Spring 2008 Forward to a Friend

The High Desert Charms of Fort Davis
by Liz Carmack

Road to Observatory
Photo: Courtesy of Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce


The Davis Mountains Loop is a 74-mile scenic trek west through the second highest mountain range in Texas.

I first visited the town of Fort Davis (population: 1,400) after a camping trip to Big Bend National Park, which spans 801,000 acres south along the Rio Grande and the Texas-Mexico border. In search of civilization and creature comforts, I had my choice between the 1913 Hotel Limpia, with its homey decor and outdoor heated pool, and the 1883 Historic Veranda Inn, whose adobe walls stand amid blooming gardens. Both are a stone’s throw from the recently restored Jeff Davis County Courthouse, built in 1910. The courthouse grounds remain fenced with turnstiles, originally installed to keep roaming cattle off the grass. A handful of restaurants line Main Street, including the Hotel Limpia Dining Room.

Hotel Limpia

Photo of Hotel Limpia: Courtesy of Hotel Limpia

In 1854, the U.S. cavalry established a post northeast of the town’s current location to protect travelers and mail coaches from raiding Apache and Comanche Indians. The community was founded soon after. By the early 1900s, those with respiratory complaints considered Fort Davis a healthful destination because of the dry mountain air. Texas Gulf Coast residents also traveled here by train to escape long summers of heat and humidity in the days before air conditioning.


Photo: Courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife

The town has changed little since. Although it can be hot here in the summer (the mean high temperature is 90 degrees), humidity is low, and evenings cool down enough for open windows and strolls along the quiet streets. Except for the occasional blue norther,1 winters are generally mild and sunny. The mean low is 30 degrees.


The Davis Mountains Loop is a 74-mile scenic trek west through the second highest mountain range in Texas. It starts and ends in Fort Davis. Traffic is scarce, though you’ll occasionally see another motorist or a cyclist. Roadside parks provide excuses to stop and enjoy the view. The peaceful scenery consists mostly of rounded peaks of grassland spotted by small forests of juniper, oak, and pine. During an August drive, I was surprised by the lush vegetation until locals explained that late summer was the rainy season.

Begin your drive north on State Highway 17. Three major attractions are all within the first 20 miles, and each is worth a lengthy visit:

  • Fort Davis National Historic Site is one of the best examples of a restored fort in the country. Furnished buildings include the cavalry barracks, an officer’s quarters, a kitchen, and the commanding officer’s home. An easy four-mile (round trip) nature trail affords a picture-perfect overview of the fort and its parade ground.
  • Davis Mountains State Park offers hiking trails and a scenic drive. It also attracts birders from around the world who come to spy native and migrating species, from western tanagers to Montezuma quail. The pueblo-style Indian Lodge provides accommodations. It was constructed in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Picnic areas and campgrounds are also available.
  • McDonald Observatory, operated by the University of Texas, is a leading astronomical research center. Two of its three telescopes are easy to spot on the drive. The visitor’s center includes a gift shop, café, exhibit hall, and multimedia theater. Day and evening programs and tours are available (no reservations). For evening programs, dress appropriately. Nighttime temperatures can drop by 20 degrees.
McDonald Observatory

The Chihuahuan Desert extends from Mexico, through this area of west Texas, and into southern New Mexico. Learn about it as you tour the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens, four miles southeast of Fort Davis on State Highway 118. The beautiful, 1-3/4-mile hike along a small stream in Modesta Canyon is my favorite and takes trekkers through an unexpected variety of terrain and plant diversity. Pick up a trail guide and borrow a walking stick at the visitor’s center. In summer, you must dodge dozens of hummingbirds who congregate at its many feeders. Don’t leave without a hat, sunscreen, and water.

Scenic Fort Davis

Above Two Photos: Courtesy of Laurence Parent Photography

For me, a trip to Fort Davis is not complete without an afternoon spent relaxing at Balmorhea State Park, 35 miles north on State Highway 17. The park’s 77,000-square-foot artesian spring pool is a gem-like oasis in the surrounding Chihuahan Desert. I recharge my batteries in the crystal-clear, chlorine-free waters and watch schools of fish, including the endangered Comache Springs pupfish, swimming along the rocky bottom. San Solomon Springs, which supplies up to 28 million gallons a day for the pool, has been a travelers’ respite for thousands of years.

1 A blue norther is a weather event typified by a quick-moving cold front that lowers temperatures, is accompanied by precipitation, and is followed by blue skies.

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Exploring West Texas’ Big Bend Region

Rugged beauty and remoteness are the two most attractive features of the Big Bend region of west Texas. If you’ve journeyed there to visit Fort Davis – which is about 200 miles from the nearest commercial airports at El Paso and Midland – you might as well extend your adventure by making a few additional stops.


Touted by some as west Texas’ own budding Santa Fe, this small ranching and tourist center is home to the Chinati Foundation’s contemporary art museum and a handful of galleries. During art openings, Marfa (www.marfacc.com) is overrun by city folk from Houston and both coasts who arrive to soak up the desert ambience.

Hotel Paisano

Photo of the Hotel Paisano: Courtesy of Liz Carmack

Take an evening drive to the Marfa Mystery Lights Viewing Area, approximately eight miles east of town on U.S. 67/90, and look south across the uninhabited desert. You might spot the strange floating orbs seen by settlers as early as 1883. So many motorists were stopping along the highway here each night that the Texas Department of Transportation built this roadside park complete with a viewing deck and restrooms.

Stay at the Spanish-revival style Hotel Paisano, built in 1930 and designed by Henry Trost, the famed architect of the Southwest. James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and other Giant cast and crew members stayed at the Paisano in 1955 while filming near town. The hotel’s shop is extensive and includes quality housewares, furnishings, and gifts. Dine alfresco in the hotel courtyard at Jett’s Grill.


The largest of the Big Bend region’s communities (population: 6,147) is Alpine (www.alpinetexas.com). Home to Sul Ross State University, Alpine is a stop on Amtrak’s Texas Eagle passenger service. It has a historic downtown with several antique stores, cafés, and art galleries.

Exhibits at the Sul Ross State University Museum of the Big Bend include artifacts reflecting the four distinct cultures that shaped this area – the Native Americans, the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the Anglo-Americans.

The local arts scene includes the Theatre of the Big Bend. One of the most memorable performances I attended was a staging of South Pacific in the community amphitheater. A lightning show added a dramatic backdrop as thunderheads rolled over the Davis Mountains miles away.

Front Street Books on Holland Avenue is a great spot for picking up books about the region. A few doors down, stay at the Holland Hotel, which opened in the early 20th century to serve travelers attracted to the region’s then-booming mining industry. The hotel’s Edelweiss Restaurant and Brewery is a favorite with locals.


With only 450 residents, tiny Marathon (www.marathontexas.com) surprises visitors by offering a well-appointed historic hotel complete with a small spa, a gym, and a fine dining restaurant. The 1927 Gage Hotel’s accommodations include a hacienda-style addition, a heated outdoor pool, and a beautifully landscape courtyard.

Gage Hotel

Photo of Gage Hotel: Courtesy of Liz Carmack

Old Fort Pena Colorado, built in 1879 to protect area residents from Indian raids, is five miles south of town. It’s now a public park where you can see foundations of the original post structures and picnic or bird-watch near a pond fed by a natural spring.

Both Marathon and Alpine are jumping-off points for entering Big Bend National Park. The drive to the park is long, but well worth it.


This huge park along the Texas-Mexico border offers 201 miles of trails, ranging from short, easy nature walks to challenging treks for experienced hikers and backpackers. The terrain varies from the Chihuahuan Desert to the canyons and floodplain along the Rio Grande to the woodlands of the Chisos Mountains Basin at 5,400 feet.

Camping is allowed in the back country with a permit and at three developed campgrounds. Be prepared to drive several miles within this park to reach the headquarters, its visitor centers, the campgrounds, trailheads, historic homesteads, and other sites. The first time I visited Big Bend, I was overwhelmed by its size. Even after a half dozen trips to Big Bend, I’ve not seen it all.

Summers can be brutally hot on the desert floor and along the Rio Grande. Expect cooler temperatures year-round at the historic stone cabins, motel-style accommodations, and campsites in the Chisos Basin.

Park rangers provide guided hikes and programs at the park amphitheater throughout the year. See the park Web site (www.nps.gov/bibe) or call (432) 477-2251 for reservations and more information.