Beat the heat: A Texas hiking retreat in the Davis Mountains
The Davis Mountains in West Texas offer a cool retreat during the summer months. The temperatures here still induce sweating during any hike, but the heat is much drier, a breeze more common, and the landscape lusher.
I stood in Tobe Canyon, beneath a leafy canopy of oaks and madrones, surrounded by a profuse growth of wildflowers and verdant grasses. A clear stream tumbled past and I could see its origin higher up towards the cliffs of the canyon mouth, where a small waterfall spilled from a gap in the mountains. The scorching flats of the Chihuahuan Desert surrounding these mountains, as the crow flies just a few miles distant, might as well have been in another state.
Wildlife was abundant, with birds obviously flocking to this oasis and lizards scurrying between sun flecks, on the ground. I continued up the steepening slope, no trail, feet rustling the fallen leaves. At a concrete basin surrounding a spring, I paused. I could have filled my bottle here. The water pouring from these pristine mountains has to be some of the cleanest in the state.
Retracing my steps, I moved from the canyon into open woodlands of pinyon and juniper. Rank growth lined streams, hemmed by gentle slopes. Even though recent fires have affected much of the forest, the landscape remains verdant. In the distance I could see the granite top of Mt. Livermore, at 8,382 feet the highest summit in the range.
From Highway 17, the Davis Mountains rise in a beautifully remote corner of the state. Only the small town of Fort Davis, which has accommodations, a gas station, one grocery store, and possibly two restaurants as well as scattered ranches and homes dot the slopes. The closest town that is significantly larger, Ft. Stockton, is nearly 100 miles away. From Austin, plan on a seven-hour drive, thus this is a destination for a long weekend.
The long approaches to the sights of the Davis Mountains keep visitors to a pleasant minimum. In addition, the higher elevations and unique canyons are protected within the Davis Mountains Preserve managed by the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Access to the preserve is restricted to organized groups and certain open days and weekends.Check the calendar for opportunities. During my two-day stay, the few dozen visitors scattered quickly in the morning, leaving plenty of room for solitude.
Pitch a Tent
The preserve offers limited camping, which is free during open weekends. I pitched my tent at the edge of a grassy flat, affording views of the highest peaks to the south. Owls called at dusk and quails croaked at dawn. Another overnight option is the nearby Davis Mountains State Park, which is open year-round and offers a CCC-built Indian lodge, lots of developed campsites, hiking trails.
At night, I was treated to the famous night sky of the Davis Mountains. Due to the isolation, light pollution is at a minimum. The spectacle of stars is best enjoyed at the nearby McDonald Observatory. Run by the University of Texas, the observatory offers regular star parties.
In the morning, I joined some friends in the requisite high clearance vehicle, which is a must to tackle the rough roads that lead into the preserve and to hiking trails. We stopped at several canyons and hiked. Since we didn’t come across any of the black bears or mountain lions that roam this wilderness, we enjoyed plenty of rare flora and fauna. In the afternoon, a phalanx of dark clouds marched in from the west and we packed up early before the creek crossing rose too high for our vehicle.
I grabbed a calendar and a map of hiking trails from the well-stocked McIvor Conservation Center, ready to plan for a return trip in October. Before leaving, I spent a couple of minutestaking in the view and watching the busy hummingbird feeders. One by one, cars pulled out of the gravel parking lot and eventually I followed suit.
If visiting the preserve for just one day, there are plenty of other sights. It is possible to picnic at Lawrence E. Wood area, visit the state park, or spend a day exploring Ft. Davis National Historic Site 25 miles southeast from the preserve in Fort Davis.