Posted by on Mar 12, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 32 comments

There was a time when we dreaded the 800-mile slog across Texas, especially the desolate 550-mile stretch between El Paso and someplace we considered worth visiting—say, Austin or San Antonio.

But that was before we unearthed the gems of West Texas. There is beauty and peace in these wide open spaces, quirky towns scattered about, and interesting characters who call this far-flung region home. We cross Texas almost yearly in our travels from Oregon to Florida, and I’m happy to say we no longer dread the journey—in fact, we’ve found much that entices us to return.

Cruising down the highway in the company of tumbleweeds

In late December, we parked ourselves for a few days at Davis Mountains State Park. We’ve been here before and had good memories of the park and the surrounding little towns of Fort Davis, Marfa, and Alpine. This time, we had some serious winter weather, with temperatures dipping into the 20’s at night. But the days were sunny and bright, and we had a good time hiking and exploring Fort Davis and the nearby towns of Alpine and Marfa.

There are miles of beautiful trails at Davis Mountains State Park, most of them steep and rocky

The CCC boys were busy at Davis Mountains State Park in the 1930’s, including building this shelter overlooking Fort Davis

On the old CCC Trail to Fort Davis

Built of handmade adobe bricks, the Indian Lodge was one of the projects of the CCC and is still used as lodging for park guests

A brand new luxurious birding pavilion is a great place for morning coffee and birdwatching

Early morning birding at Davis Mountains State Park

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet arrives for a peanut butter breakfast

Just a few miles from the state park is Fort Davis National Historic Site, considered one of the finest examples in the country of a frontier American Southwest military post. From the mid-to-late 1800’s, army personnel stationed here protected settlers, mail coaches, and traders en route between El Paso and San Antonio.

Many of the buildings have been restored (including a state-of-the-art frontier army hospital) and the excellent new visitor center presents stories of the settlers and the Apache and Comanche that called this land home.

On the trail overlooking Fort Davis

Fort Davis Officers Quarters

The newly renovated visitor center at Fort Davis

Apache Kiowa moccasins

Sunset in the Davis Mountains

Ten miles up a winding mountain road from the state park is the McDonald Observatory, one of the most highly regarded observatories in the world. The Davis Mountains boast some of the darkest, clearest night skies in the country.

Several years ago we attended a star program at the observatory; this time, we returned for a daytime tour that included seeing some of the enormous telescopes up close (including one of the most powerful telescopes in the world) and a real-time viewing of the sun.

Many of the scientific details from the tour have already escaped me, but I do remember the quote by Albert Einstein that was written in large script on the wall of one of the observatories: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science.”

(Book your tickets for observatory tours ahead and book online. The tours often sell out, and the tickets are cheaper online.)

The sundial at McDonald Observatory

Witnessing the birth of stars in a faraway star nursery

The original McDonald Observatory, built in the 1930s

Bright shiny new observatory containing the powerful Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Explaining the inside workings of an enormous research telescope

Marfa, Texas

Marfa has definitely been “discovered” since we first visited back in 2012. The vibe now seems more hip and less quirky, but it’s still an interesting place to visit for a few hours, especially if you enjoy wandering and photography.

Founded in the early 1880s as a railroad water stop in the middle of nowhere, Marfa has become a haven for artists and urban escapees.

We were happy to see the Food Shark still in operation. On our first visit to Marfa, we were delighted by the delicious gourmet Mediterranean food offerings of the funky silver food truck. Five years later, the truck looks even more decrepit. But our Greek salads were fresh and tasty, made with organic greens, fresh herbs, feta from a local goat dairy, and homemade hummus. Another lesson in “do not judge by appearances.”

Marfa, Texas

The Presidio County Courthouse, built in 1886

An adobe church against the always cobalt skies in Marfa

In the courtyard of the historic El Paisano Hotel, circa 1930 (paisano means roadrunner)

The lobby of El Paisano Hotel decked out for the holidays

Checking out Spare Parts in downtown Marfa (a vintage Western wear store)

Local designer clothing and local poetry on the walls of Communitie Marfa

The Food Shark

Lunch in the funky courtyard of the Food Shark. The big bus is a dining car—a new addition to the Food Shark compound.

Alpine, Texas

The biggest town in Far West Texas, Alpine (population 6,000) is the jumping off point for Big Bend National Park. We spent a day in town exploring and stocking up at the excellent Blue Water Natural Foods store for our upcoming week in the national park.

While we were at it, we paid a visit to the small, very good, and free Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University. And enjoyed an excellent lunch at Reata Cowboy Cuisine.

Downtown Alpine, Texas

Postcard murals in Alpine

Museum of the Big Bend on the campus of Sul Ross University

Inside the Museum of the Big Bend

A traveling shrine carried by Spanish missionaries

Reata Cowboy Cuisine in Alpine

Cowboy decor at Reata

Contender for the best Tortilla Chicken Soup we’ve ever had

About the campground:
Davis Mountains State Park was established as one of the first Texas State Parks, and it’s one of our favorites. The setting is beautiful, the night skies are wonderfully dark and star-filled, the sites are spacious, and there is a network of excellent hiking trails that range from easy to challenging. If you enjoy birding, you’ll appreciate this park. A couple of lovely birding pavilions provide a comfortable spot for watching the birds that come to the well-stocked feeders and water features.

Sites range from no-hookup to full-hookup, and there are bathhouses with hot showers and a dump station. There’s no cell service in the campground, but take the scenic drive to the top of the mountain overlooking Fort Davis and you’ll have excellent coverage (it’s also a great place for sunset).

A bonus is that Davis Mountains State Park is ideally located for exploring Fort Davis (a short trip down the mountain), the McDonald Observatory (about 10 miles up the mountain), Marfa (25 miles southwest) and Alpine (25 miles southeast).

Davis Mountains State Park Campground

Next Up: It’s Really Big, And Really Beautiful: Big Bend National Park