January 6, 2011

Davis Mountains State Park, Fort Davis, Texas

The Davis Mountains in West Texas are one of the easternmost Sky Islands of the Basin and Range Province. Located about halfway between the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Park, the Davis Mountains are actually the largest mountain range in Texas and contains the state's highest peak outside of the Guadalupes. When you arrive in the Davis Mountains, in many ways you are officially entering "The West" in terms of vegetation and climatic patterns.

A view from Skyline Ridge across the Chihuahuan grasslands

We'd been to both Guadalupe Mountains NP (2003) and Big Bend NP (2009), but never to the Davis Mountains. So, while we were driving that long stretch on I-10 from Austin to El Paso, we decided to swing south on a little detour to Fort Davis to check it out. We camped at Davis Mountains State Park and had a wonderful time.

Walking on Skyline Ridge

Davis Mountains State Park is a 2700 acre park that contains a nice campground located in a sheltered canyon. From the campground you can hike 1.5 miles to the top of Skyline Ridge to enjoy panoramic views of the landscape all around. You can also drive up the Skyline Drive for this view. From the summit, you can see the McDonald Observatory (3rd largest complex in the U.S.) and the 8,300 foot Mount Livermore in the far distance, as well as, Fort Davis NHS and the town of Fort Davis to the south.

McDonald Observatory atop 6700 foot Mount Locke
This area is part of the Chihuahuan Desert. But, at 5,000 feet, the landscape is characterized by sub-montane grasslands. The area gets most of its rain in summer in the form of monsoons off the Gulf of Mexico, while the winter is very dry, since Pacific storms have a hard time getting past the Sierra Madre and other mountain ranges to the west. In sheltered north-facing slopes and canyons, live oaks and junipers can be found.

The campground can be seen in the canyon below

Davis Mountain State Park makes for a great homebase for exploring the area. If camping is not your thing, then there is a really nice adobe style hotel in the park called Indian Lodge. It also contains the Black Bear Restaurant, which serves decent food at reasonable prices. It was in the 60's and 70's when we were there in December (30's at night). But, because of the 5,000+ foot elevation of the park, the summer temperatures are reasonable with highs in the 80's and occassional low 90's, while everywhere else in Texas is sweltering with 100's.

Indian Lodge below and McDonald Observatory in the distance

We camped here three nights. We drove to the top of Skyline Ridge the first night and then hiked to the top the next afternoon. In addition, the park contains a number of other trail options. Since the vast majority of Texas is private land and access is an issue, this is one of the few places you can go for a hike.

Wildlife is numerous, including a herd of 7 mule deer that kept wandering around our campsite by day, and the pack of javalina's that scavenged for Hilina's dropped popcorn under our trailer at night (my pictures of them didn't turn out).

Chihuahuan submontane grassland with yuccas

Using Davis Mountain State Park as a home base, you can drive 20 miles up the road to visit the Nature Conservancy's Davis Mountain Preserve. This 32,000 acre preserve protects the three highest summits of the range. These sky islands contain ponderosa pine forests and the southernmost stands of aspen in North America. I'll have a post on this TNC preserve later on.

Hiking up from the campground to Skyline Ridge

You can also head over to the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute located a few miles south of Fort Davis on TX-17 on the way to Alpine. This site contains the largest collection of Chihuahuan Desert vegetation in the United States and grows rare and endangered species, including hundreds of cactus species for out-planting and conservation.

The Institute has a 20-acre enclosed botanical garden where you can stroll past plants with signs telling you the species name, a cactus propagation greenhouse, and several miles of hiking trails outside the fenced enclosure to explore the local Chihuahuan sub-montane vegetation.

You can see the enclosure fence in the lower portion of this photo

So, as you can see, there is quite a bit to do in the Davis Mountains. So, if you are even on that long stretch of I-90 between El Paso and San Antonio, you might want to dip a bit south to check out this area. Also, if you are on your way to Big Bend National Park, this would be a great primer stop.

No comments: