I’ve lived in Texas for many years. I’ve gotten to travel to a lot of different parts of the state in that time, and I feel like I know it fairly well. I’ve even been to West Texas before. But I had never seen anything like the Davis Mountains, at least not in Texas. Rolling hills kind of reminiscent of the Hill Country only thousands of feet higher, but also true mountains, sheer volcanic cliffs, conical peaks that are clearly volcanic, desert foliage, and barren landscapes all added up to an experience that made me feel like I was… somewhere else. Not Texas.
The Davis Mountains are ensconced roughly halfway between Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Big Bend National Park (which I still have yet to visit, shamefully), a few hours southeast of El Paso. That’s hundreds of miles from where I live, so it was a full day’s drive out there. I chose to go because we were in the midst of the flaming hot August of 2019, I didn’t really have anything to do for a few days, and I just wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, that was cooler, at least at night. The Davis Mountains represent the only significant area of land in Texas over 4500 ft/1371 m and have the coolest summers in Texas (average August low for Fort Davis is 61 F/16 C, which is a lot nicer than most places in Texas)!
I can’t say the drive out there was very exciting. I knew everything east of Sweetwater, but had never been beyond that on I-20. About the most interesting parts (which I had seen before) are the areas just east and west of Abilene that look very stereotypically “Texan”: mesas, red dirt, scrubby vegetation, and oil derricks. If you saw a cowboy driving a herd (which does still happen), it wouldn’t look out of place. But the real scenery didn’t begin until I actually got to the Davis Mountains. You can see them from a long way off, jagged dark peaks sticking up from a flat horizon. It’s a long, winding approach on a lonely road, but I soon started seeing landscapes I had never seen before in Texas.
There are a number of things to see and do in the Davis Mountains: a scenic state park, where I camped and hiked; a driving loop showing all the different sides of the area; the McDonald Observatory, which I toured; a 19th-century frontier fort, Fort Davis, and several small towns and county seats nearby, including the town of Fort Davis, Alpine, and the somewhat famous Marfa. I’ll cover each item in turn.
The state park has a CCC-built lodge, very handsome and quite extensive, but I didn’t stay there in order to cut costs. My hiking trail head was right next to it, so I took a minute to walk around it and stick my head in. The sitting room reminded me of something you would see in a Spanish Parador.
My hike offered some spectacular vistas and showed me just how tall some of these mountains are.
Looking toward Mount Livermore, the highest peak in the Davis Mountains at 8378 ft/2492 m. It’s not the highest peak in Texas, but it is the most isolated – it’s 95 mi/154 km to higher ground. It is possible to hike it, but you have to book it in advance, which I didn’t.
The loop drive around the Davis Mountains (consisting of state highways 166, 118, and a short stretch of 17) shows off some truly breathtaking and grandiose scenery. A thunderstorm popped up on me out of nowhere while I was on this drive, and knocked the temperature down to 60 F/15 C, which if you’ve ever been in Texas in August feels amazing!
Near the end of the loop, I pulled into the McDonald Observatory (which includes the highest paved road in Texas) and got a very interesting tour of one of the observation domes and the giant Otto Struve Telescope, which was built in the 1930s and was the 2nd-largest telescope in the world at the time.
I also bought a ticket for a Star Party that evening, which was going to be a guided tour of the stars in some of the darkest skies in the Lower 48. I love astronomy, so I eagerly returned after dark. Unfortunately, it completely clouded over that evening, so they gave us all a rain check. The next night, of course, it was perfectly clear, but they only hold the Star Parties on certain days of the week, so I didn’t have a chance to go back. So I’m still hanging on to that rain check in the hopes that maybe I’ll go back someday.
The actual Fort Davis is an interesting complex, quite sprawling, and with rugged cliffs in the background. The fort includes the same barracks/officers’ quarters/magazine/commissary/mess hall/infirmary/jail that I’ve seen many other places, but it’s a neat site nonetheless. It’s also directly on the (still visible) 19th-century road from San Antonio to El Paso
My second full day there I drove from Fort Davis to the towns of Alpine and Marfa, which make a convenient little triangle. Each of the three is a county seat (of Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio counties, respectively), so I got to see more county courthouses to boot. Saw some more gorgeous scenery on the way there.
Alpine is a cool little town, with a pretty courthouse, lots of historic houses and churches. I got a great macchiato at Cedar Coffee Supply, a light, neat coffeeshop right near the old part of town. There’s also a university there (Sul Ross State) with an attached Museum of the Big Bend, which provides lots of interesting information about and maps of the region.
Driving from Alpine to Marfa, I drove through bleaker, more alien terrain:
I also passed by the area where the Marfa lights are supposedly seen. Not much to see during the day, but you can see for a long way, almost all the way to Mexico. I thought about returning after dark to see if I could see the lights, but it was far enough from my campsite I decided not to.
Marfa was honestly kind of disappointing. I don’t really know what I expected – sculptures and art installations strewn about town? – but all the art’s in the Chinati Foundation, which costs I think $20 to get into. I passed. The downtown itself is pretty neat, with a handsome courthouse and the beautiful, historic Hotel Paisano, where the cast and crew of the movie Giant stayed during filming in 1955. It would be a cool place to stay, for sure. There are lots of highly-rated restaurants, but they apparently all close at 3 pm (which was right when I got there), so I didn’t get to sample any of them. Honestly, if you have money to blow and are really into avant-garde art, you’d like Marfa. If neither is true of you (like me)… it’s just a fairly neat small town, no more.
No, I did not go see Prada Marfa. It’s a ways away in the opposite direction I was headed, not in Marfa itself, and didn’t seem worth it.
The town of Fort Davis is very small, so there’s not a tremendous amount to see, but there’s an interestingly-colored county courthouse, a few old houses and civic buildings, and a gorgeous historic high school. The natural setting is the main draw for this town, with the dark volcanic rock cliffs forming the backdrop to the entire town. There is a very neat photography gallery, called Wild Rose Gallery, with a friendly artist named Robert who will be happy to talk to you about his fantastic photographs. There’s also Hebert’s Caboose Ice Cream Shop, which is tasty ice cream and malts served in an actual retired caboose that you have to climb up into.
Again, I can’t emphasize enough how incredible the scenery is in the Davis Mountains, and how unlike the rest of Texas it is. In some respects (mainly the scrubby juniper bushes and oak trees) it’s similar to the Hill Country, but the huge mountains in the background are nothing like it. If, like me, you’ve lived in Texas for years but have never made the trek out there, I highly recommend it.
On the long drive back home, I did stumble upon a few gems, including remains of the old red-brick paved Bankhead Highway and a classic service station: