There’s nothing like a blistering summer day in Texas to make me start looking for the nearest exit. Fortunately, it is possible to get out of the heat without ever leaving the state. I know a getaway where a three- or four-day weekend is like a breath of fresh air: the Davis Mountains, the one place that stays cool while the rest of the state swelters.
Actually, this coolest spot in Texas used to be hot millions of years ago, when two volcanos blew their stacks and restructured the countryside into the Davis Mountains. What keeps the West Texas range from becoming high and dry like the taller Guadalupe Mountains to the north is a vast network of sparkling springs that turn into nourishing little creeks. Fragrant piñons with breezes blowing through them are all I can think about as I motor west along Interstate 10 on a mercilessly hot summer day, when the sun’s scorching glare can burn your legs and arms through the car windows. Just ahead I see the shadowy contours of the Davis range mounding at the horizon; relief lies less than an hour away.
Balmorhea State Park, just outside Balmorhea on the edge of the mountain country, is my first stop. The white-stucco, red-tiled San Solomon Springs Courts look refreshingly pert after hours on the road. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1940, the park was one of the last places the U.S. Cavalry bivouacked before World War II made horses obsolete. The cavalrymen were supposed to be preparing for desert warfare, but they must have enjoyed the joke: Only on a map does Balmorhea look as if it’s in the desert. In real life, however, it’s an oasis that thrives on the bounty of San Solomon Springs. Water from the springs pours into the world’s largest outdoor spring-fed swimming pool here at the rate of 22 million to 26 million gallons a day. As I trundle a huge rented inner tube to the U-shaped pool, the 72-degree crystal-clear water looks alluring. Turtles, cray-fish, and—infrequently—harmless water snakes think so too, so don’t be surprised by an occasional nibble. A canal from the springs winds through the park, bubbling over dams, under bridges, and around the motel’s courts.
After I make my splash, it’s time for the thirty-minute southward commute on Texas Highway 17 to mile-high Fort Davis. The road heads straight up into the bluish haze of the mountains, then meanders alongside Limpia Creek (with plenty of picnic spots) until it eases into the amiable outskirts of Fort Davis. This tidy lair (population: 1,212) looks like the quintessential mountain town: Its main street is lined with wide-porched Victorian buildings.
A storm is gathering, so I head downtown toward the Hotel Limpia. White mission rockers on the front porch and the upstairs gallery and a sun-room invite guests to sit a spell. Innkeepers Joe and Lanna Duncan have refurbished the ten rooms and two suites in the two-story Victorian building with cheery floral linens and pseudo-antique furniture mixed with some authentic pieces. The original metal ceilings are still in place. Eight more rooms are available across the street in the equally quaint Limpia West. My second-story room looks out onto the back courtyard, a charming affair with rose bushes, begonias, coreopsis, and petunias in gaudy blossom. The bracing late-afternoon downpour, accompanied by an impressive lightning display and grumbling thunder, washes away the afternoon heat.
After a quick visit to the nearby Paisano Gallery to admire Jim Bones’s luminous photos of Big Bend and to see Dawn Jagger’s tabletop retablos, I have barely enough time for the spinach salad at the Limpia’s dining room before the after-sundown star party at the McDonald Observatory, fourteen miles away.
Texas Highway 118, the state’s highest public road, leads to Spur 78, the turnoff to the observatory atop 6,791-foot Mount Locke. With some of the darkest nights in the U.S., the observatory’s view is, well … stellar. Tonight Jupiter glows, the Milky Way cuts a swath straight above me, and a satellite inches its way across the starry dome. I put my jacket on—even though it’s summer, I’m chilly. By August, nighttime temperatures dip into the mid-forties; in the daytime, expect highs in the upper eighties and lower nineties, with almost nonexistent humidity. By the time I return to the Limpia, it’s midnight. Something about the mountain air strikes a perfect balance between energy and exhaustion—I’m not tired (in fact, I feel great), but sleep hits me in the blink of an eye.
My second day in Fort Davis is a full one, and to start it off right, I have breakfast at Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains State Park. Four miles from town and light-years away from the rest of the world, this retreat is my favorite destination on earth. And I’m not alone—rooms at the pueblo-style hotel are booked months in advance. The rooms that are part of the original structure, which was also built by the CCC, have eighteen-inch-thick adobe walls, viga and latilla ceilings, fireplaces, and handmade cedar lodge furniture. The lodge’s Black Bear Restaurant has an anomalous resemblance to a private school dining hall—but with a better view. Food is a bargain: A breakfast of three huge, fluffy biscuits with gravy is a mere $1.95.
The park has many hiking options, ranging from novice to serious. Those who want to try their mountain-goat imitation should drive up Skyline Drive, a sweep of switchbacks along the back of the North Ridge. At the pinnacle, park your car and get an eye-opening view of the countryside’s volcanic calderas. As I thread my way along a narrow 2.5-mile path down the North Ridge, red-tailed hawks swoop close. An hour or so later I arrive at the Fort Davis National Historic Site.
At the mouth of the box canyon at the base of Sleeping Lion Mountain, the old fort is a lively restoration. Once a key post in the Southwest, it now rings (thanks to a sound track)