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West Texas travel guide: This is what you need to do when you visit mile-high Fort Davis

Davis Mountains State Park
Davis Mountains State Park (Briana Zamora-Nipper)

Modern life comes with its conveniences but it’s also got its fair share of stress. Chances are your phone’s constantly buzzing with breaking news, work emails, traffic alerts and the like. And even if you’ve only occasionally peeked at your phone, the stress of so many alerts and updates may have left you feeling a bit burnt out. An escape from the hubbub of city living could probably do you some good.

Short of chucking your phone out the window (we can dream), you’re best bet at an escape is traveling so far from civilization (and its cell service) your phone, and the world events it won’t stop chiming on and on about, cease to pester you.

Enter Fort Davis, a sparsely populated West Texas town set high in the breathtaking Davis Mountains. The scenic destination is near several must-visit West Texas attractions including a stunning state park, a historic military post, a world-class astronomical observatory and the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. Oh, and as if you needed yet another reason to visit, Fort Davis reps the coolest average summer temperatures in the state.

Stating the obvious for any new Texas Transplants: Be warned, Houstonians -- Fort Davis does not make for a good weekend getaway destination. It’s quite a ways away from the Houston area. And when we say quite a ways away, we mean it’s literally on the other side of the state. A trek any of these Fort Davis attractions will take you at least nine blissful hours. So if you want to visit the highest town in Texas (it’s situated about 5,050 feet above sea level), plan to set aside some vacation days, download a solid road trip playlist and get ready to log some miles on the road.

Here are some of the must-visit Fort Davis attractions for your trip itinerary:

Explore Texas history at one of the best surviving examples of a frontier military post

Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis

In the mid 1850s, as West Texas settlements increased, raiding in Mexico and along the San Antonio-El Paso Trail became a way of life for Apaches, Kiowas and Comanches, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In order to protect Texas settlers, U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (who later served as president of the Confederacy) ordered the construction of the Fort Davis army post, which operated from 1854 until 1891.

Come 1961, the federal government declared the fort ruins a National Historic Site in 1961. The National Park Service has since restored and preserved the fort, which is considered one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars’ frontier military post in the Southwest.

Visitors have access to six furnished buildings restored in the 1808s period, 20 additional buildings and some 100 ruins. Occasional bugle calls add to the ambiance.

Several hiking trails on site offers views of the fort and connect to the Davis Mountains State Park.

Take a hike

Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis

Davis Mountains State Park is in the Davis Mountains (we know, quite a shocker), the most extensive mountain range fully contained in Texas. At a mile above sea level, the park’s terrain, flora and fauna differ from the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert below. Increased rainfall and cool mountain temperatures encourage greenery and support abundant wildlife. The 2,709-acre park offers plethora of activities. Here, visitors can hike, backpack, mountain bike, ride their own horse, take a cenic drive through the mountains, go camping, stargaze, geocache and study nature.

Davis Mountains State Park was one of the earliest projects built by the Texas Civilian Conservation Corps, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Between 1933 and 1935, the CCC built many of the facilities still used in the park today, including the Indian Lodge (more on that later) and the scenic five-mile Skyline Drive, which ends at a stone overlook structure featuring the park’s iconic “picture window.”

The Davis Mountains State Park at Fort Davis, TX 79734. For more information, visit tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/davis-mountains or call (432) 426-3254.

Rejuvenate at an isolated oasis nestled among the mountains

Indian Lodge, Fort Davis

Color yourself a weary West Texas traveler in need of respite? Take refuge at Historic Indian Lodge, an isolated oasis set in the Davis Mountains State Park where guests can set down their screens (unsurprisingly, cell service is less than stellar out in the middle of nowhere), stretch their legs, breathe in the fresh air and rejuvenate in the natural world.

Built in the thirties by the Civilian Conservation Corps to attract early automobile tourists, the mountain lodge resembles a multilevel pueblo village and recalls the indigenous architecture of the Southwest -- think thick adobe walls, cane and log ceilings, hand-carved cedar furniture (built by the CCC in the shop at Bastrop State Park), river cane latilla ceilings and a plaza-like exterior courtyard. Additional rooms and a sparkling turquoise pool were in the late-sixties.

As if it’s stunning architecture weren’t alluring enough in and of itself, the scenic villa is perched atop a canyon, offering stunning, panoramic views of the Davis Mountains.

Try this: Situated nearby, the lodge’s namesake trail, Indian Lodge Trail, offers a short yet challenging climb. The view from the top is well-wroth the toil.

Indian Lodge is located at 16453 Park Rd. 3 inside the Davis Mountains State Park at Fort Davis, TX 79734. For more information, visit tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/indian-lodge or call (432) 426-3254.

Glimpse the Lone Star State’s “stars at night” through some of the world’s biggest telescopes

McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis

Located high in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, just northwest of Fort Davis, McDonald Observatory offers astronomy enthusiasts daily tours, evening viewings and weekly star parties using huge telescopes. Built in the 1930s, the observatory is run by the Astronomy Department at the University of Texas. It has several high-powered telescopes that allow viewers to look deep into the night sky. When it comes to stargazing in Texas, you truly cannot get a closer view.

Oh, and a word of warning: If you attend a star party, bring a sweater. Yes, even in the summer. It gets pretty chilly up there.

The McDonald Observatory is located at 3640 Dark Sky Drive in Fort Davis, Texas. For more information, visit mcdonaldobservatory.org or call (432) 426-3640.

Calling all train buffs and ice cream addicts! Hop aboard Herbert’s Caboose for a tasty trip

Hebert’s Caboose Ice Cream Shop, Fort Davis

All aboard who’s coming aboard! Did the West Texas heat give you a hankering for something sweet? Hop aboard Hebert’s Caboose Ice Cream Shop. The converted caboose dishes out sweet scoops of Blue Bell ice cream daily from 12 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the summer.

Hebert’s can be found near the entrance to Fort Davis National Historic Site at 1250-C N State Street, Fort Davis, Texas 79734. For more information, visit the ice cream shop’s Facebook page or call (432) 426-3141.

Cool off in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool

Balmorhea, Toyahvale

Okay, so this literal West Texas watering hole isn’t technically in Fort Davis BUT it’s (kind of ) close by and well worth the drive.

Built by the The Civilian Conservation Corps back in the 1930s, the swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park is a much-beloved West Texas attraction. The treasured Texas swimming hole, the largest spring-fed pool in the worls, is up to 25-feet deep, covers 1.3 acres, and holds 3.5 million gallons of water. It’s also home to numerous species of aquatic animals, including two small, endangered desert fishes- the Pecos gambusia and the Comanche Springs pupfish, according to the TPWD.

Aside from its most well-known attraction, the historic park features picnic sites, an outdoor sports area and playground, 34 camping sites, and the San Solomon Springs Courts, motel-style retro lodging built by the CCC.

Those who wish to visit should note that some light construction is still ongoing in the pool area, according to TPWD. Additionally, the San Solomon Courts motel, campground, and cienegas remain closed to the public.

Day passes are available for purchase on the Texas State Parks Online Reservations Center but are limited. Day passes can be purchased up to 30 days in advance. TPWD urges visitors to purchase passes in advance online before driving to the park.

Balmorhea State Park is located at 9207 TX-17 in Toyahvale, about 32 miles north of Fort Davis in West Texas. For more information visit the park page on the TPWD website or call (432) 375-2370.

Honorable mentions

  • Davis Mountains Scenic Loop: A choice activity for those who aren’t averse to logging more miles on the road. Seventy-five miles long, the 1.5-to-2-hour route leaves Fort Davis on Texas 118, proceeds up Limpia Canyon past Mts. Locke and Fowlkes and the McDonald Observatory and then into Madera Canyon. After a left turn on Texas 166, the road passes Mt. Livermore and Sawtooth Mountain, then gradually descends, with broad views to the Sierra Viejo Mountains along the Rio Grande to the south. As you return to Fort Davis on Texas 166, the Puertacita Mountains and Miter Peak are straight ahead. The highest elevation on the Loop is about 6700 feet.
  • Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute & Botanical Gardens: An alluring locale for those who want to stretch their legs, immerse themselves in nature and don’t mind the Texas Heat. Here, visitors can stroll through the fenced Botanical Gardens or take on an adventurous hike on one of several hiking trails -- which range from the strenuous Modesta Canyon Trail that leads into a hidden canyon featuring a year-round spring to the moderate Clayton’s Overlook Trail which provides a 360-degree hilltop view.

More:

Searching for more things to do in the Lone Star State? Visit our things to do page.


About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team as a community associate producer in 2019. During her time in H-Town, she's covered everything from fancy Houston homes to tropical storms. Previously, she worked at Austin Monthly Magazine and KAGS TV, where she earned a Regional Edward R. Murrow award for her work as a digital producer.