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