How to eat easy, play hard, and sleep well in the Davis mountains.
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 pinons 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, crayfish, 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 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 three suites in the two-story Victorian building with cheery floral linens and pseudo-antique furniture mixed with 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, 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 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.
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 still rings (thanks to a sound track) with the sounds of the cavalry: blaring trumpets, stomping feet and hooves, clattering weapons, and rumbling wagons. The fort includes adobe barracks, brick officers’ quarters, a hospital, and a commissary. Costumed interpreters re-create the life of the Buffalo Soldiers, a garrison of black cavalrymen stationed here in the 1880’s.
After the hike back to the car, I head for the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute’s visitors’ center, four miles south of Fort Davis. On the five hundred acres is a collection of more than five hundred species of plants native to the Chihuahuan Desert. The outdoor arboretum has examples of every family of tree and shrub that grows in the desert. A four-thousand-square-foot propagation greenhouse holds nearly two hundred species of cacti and succulents, making it one of the largest collections in the world. I’ve probably walked all over the minuscule Turbinocarpus pseudopectinatus in the wild, but here it is, in its tiny glory. Clayton Williams is a patron of the institute, so you will find the Modesta Canyon Nature Trail, an easy hike to a hidden spring at the mouth of a wooded canyon, and Clayton Overlook, the highest point on the property.
The plan for the waning afternoon is a drive on the Scenic Loop, a 74-mile tour of the highs and lows of the Davis Mountains. It ranks with the River Road from Terlingua to Presidio as the state’s most scenic route. I turn the car onto Texas Highway 166 and head out on what looks like the road to nowhere. As the road angles north, the desert flats get knobbier and more chaotic—detritus from the two Oligocene volcanos. The loop reveals a fetching variety of scenery, from the deserty vista of the flats to benign round green-and-beige hills dotted with deep green scrub brush. The landscape begins to get rough and tumble around 8,206-foot Mount Livermore and Sawtooth Mountain. By the time I turn south onto Texas Highway 118, I have to remind myself that this is indeed Texas—cool air and jutting mountains bristling with evergreens notwithstanding. From there the road descends across breathtaking mountain rigors until it begins to slope through dimpled hills.
About six miles west of Fort Davis is the Prude Ranch, a one-hundred-year-old working ranch that is now also a guest ranch. The jovial volubility of owner John Robert Prude appears to have been directly imparted to staff and guests alike. With tennis courts, a swimming pool, horseback riding, hayrides, and a rodeo arena, where staff and locals hone their skills until the wee hours of the morning, the ranch has nonstop goings-on. During the summer the Prudes help close the generation gap—youngsters attending the ranch’s summer camp comingle with regular guests and elder hostel patrons. At breakfast the next morning I note that the Prudes have conscientiously allowed for separate dining areas for adults and children. But the wood-paneled, Saltillo-tiled hall resounds with happy campers’ conversations, and it seems only right that I sit with the kids: I’m eating like a camper anyway. An all-you-can-eat buffet leans toward the hearty—sausage, blueberry muffins, eggs, French toast, Cream of Wheat, orange juice, and coffee or tea. I’ll need it—my third day’s schedule includes a day and part of a night in Marfa, 26 miles south.
One of the whimsicalities of Marfa is that the street signs are few and far between and addresses tend to be descriptive. Marfa’s best-known landmark is the old El Paisano Hotel, famous for housing the cast of the film Giant. The lobby’s heavy-beamed ceiling and tiled floor leave a cool Moorish impression. Capacious, rambling suites are startlingly furnished a la Graceland: Some have small wrought-iron balconies overlooking the indoor pool; others have their own patios. If you’ve been missing smoked-mirror ceilings, swag lamps, and shag carpeting, the Paisano awaits at bargain prices.
Back in my car, I head out for the best dead-end road in the state: Farm Road 1112. Take your golf clubs with you because the road halts at the Marfa Municipal Golf Course, a nine-hole bent-grass oasis that is the state’s highest—you’ll add a few yards to your drive here. The 360-degree panorama of the Davis and Chinati mountains makes me want to hit the road again—this time south down Farm Road 2810, the back door to Ruidosa and the spectacular River Road. The road gently undulates ever downward through rolling hills and dales. After 35 miles, it begins to slink sinuously until the pavement peters out and a gravel road takes over. You won’t need four-wheel drive to complete the journey, but you’ll probably want to drive slowly. The last 20 miles drop into a box canyon. The entire route is notorious as well as beautiful; its inaccessibility is said to have encouraged occasional illegal transactions.
It’s past lunchtime when I get back to Marfa, but not too late for a handsome plate of cheesy enchiladas at Carmen’s Cafe. The modest exterior won’t prepare you for the friendly interior: a counter, booths, and a dining room mural depicting local history. Thick, crunchy homemade tostadas and muy caliente green sauce will get you set for doing Marfa up right. Coconut pie is the appropriate dessert.
If everything I’ve heard about the late Donald Judd’s artistic establishment, the Chinati Foundation, is true, my afternoon will be enigmatic, if nothing else. The foundation has refurbished vast warehouses in the compound that was once Camp Marfa. Originally established to house cavalry, it was renamed Fort D. A. Russell in 1930 and during World War II was manned by mechanized cavalry units and served as a prisoner-of-war camp. Now in its third incarnation, it is home to the largest permanent exhibit of art in the world—according to Judd. The opinionated New York artist, who moved to Marfa in 1971, believed art should remain where it was created. Judd has achieved his vision. Along the highway, fifteen boxlike concrete configurations stand in a grassy field, their formal surfaces in mute contrast to the wild terrain. One hundred aluminum sculptures in two artillery sheds reflect Judd’s obsession with form. In a warehouse downtown are huge balls of crushed and welded auto parts by John Chamberlain. Some of the works left me wondering, “Why?” There’s really no answer, so I simply make my own mark in the Zen sandbox in the middle of the floor.
The art tour puts me in the mood for more of the inexplicable, so as night falls, I drive nine miles east of town to a picnic area and a wide circular drive that accommodates the many tourists who come to see the Marfa Lights. The phenomenon has been variously described as campfires, swamp gas, phosphorescent minerals, static electricity, St. Elmo’s fire, and ghosts. As I face the remote Chinati Mountains to the south, I’m not sure what—if anything—there is to see. Suddenly, a single glowing light materializes. It floats like a modest beacon, bobs eerily, and then winks out. Another soon appears, erratically wafting through the dark night. It is the perfect finale to a full day. As I head back to the Prude Ranch, I vaguely recall that I came out here to take a break from the heat. But I got more than I bargained for: a long weekend that was cooler than I could ever have guessed.
How to Get There
The Davis Mountains are two and a half hours by car from either El Paso or Midland-Odessa. In Alpine, rental cars are available from Alpine Auto Rentals (432-837-3463, or 800-894-3463).
Where to Eat and Stay
Butterfield Inn on the square in downtown Fort Davis (432-426-3252). four Victorian cottages with fireplaces and jacuzzis. $80-$150.
Carmen’s Cafe on U.S. Highway 90 at the east end of Marfa (432-729-3429). Open Monday through Saturday 7-2 and 5-9.
El Paisano Hotel 207 N. Highland in Marfa (432-729-3669). $99-$210.
Hotel Limpia on the square in downtown Fort Davis (432-426-3237 or 800-662-5517). $89-$195.
Indian Lodge Davis Mountains State Park, four miles northwest of Fort Davis on Texas Highway 166 (432-426-3254). $90-$135.
Prude Ranch six miles northwest of Fort Davis on Texas Highway 118 (432-426-3202 or 800-458-6232). Guest lodges, $85; family cabin (sleeps four), $64-$75; ranch bunkhouse (sleeps eight to twenty-four), $20 a bed, $26 with linens.
San Solomon Springs Courts Balmorhea State Park, four miles southwest of Balmorhea (432-375-2370). $60 ($80 with kitchen), $7 each additional adult.
What to See and Do
Balmorhea State Park Four miles southwest of Balmorhea on Highway 17. Entrance fee $7, camping $11-$17.
Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute Visitors’ Center four miles south of Fort Davis on Highway 118 (432-364-2686). Open Monday through Saturday 9-5. Free.
Chinati Foundation Fort D. A. Russell in Marfa. Take U.S. Highway 67 south half a mile past the intersection with U.S. Highway 90 (the Immigration and Naturalization office is on the left), turn right, then take a left at the gatepost and historical marker (432-729-4362). Open Wednesday through Sunday 10-5 and by appointment. $10 adults, $5 students and seniors.
Davis Mountains State Park four miles northwest of Fort Davis on Highway 118 (432-426-3337). Entrance fee $4-$5, camping $8-$20.
Fort Davis National Historic Site Just north of Fort Davis on Highway 118 (432-426-3324). Open daily 8-5. $3.
McDonald Observatory Fourteen miles northwest of Fort Davis on Spur 78, just off Highway 118 (432-426-3640). Guided tours daily at 11 a.m. (March through August) and 2 p.m. (year-round); self-guided tours daily 10-5. Star parties Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday thirty minutes after sunset. Solar viewing daily at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. (year-round). $8-$10.
Marfa Municipal Golf Course Three miles east of Marfa at end of Farm Road 1112 (432-729-4043). Open Tuesday through Sunday 8:30-7:30. Greens fees $12.25-$17, carts $8.50.
Scenic Loop Take Highway 17 south from Fort Davis until it joins Highway 166; proceed north until the road intersects with Highway 118, then head south on 118 back to Fort Davis.