If you have been thinking about planning a trip to southwest Texas, you won’t want to miss Big Bend National Park, Fort Davis National Park, and the McDonald Observatory.
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You will find some of the most gorgeous sites, views, adventure and beauty on a very large scale, all located in this unique part of Texas.
Big Bend National Park
From our drive from Alpine to Big Bend, we stopped to take in the amazing views of Terlingua, just west of the Big Bend park. Terlingua was once a mining town mining for cinnabar, an important ore of mercury that was used by Native Americans as body pigment, and in the manufacture of gunpowder cartridges. This brought miners to the desolate dessert.
Business boomed for more than two decades during World War I. The Great Depression hit and the industry suffered and ultimately bringing to a close the Chisos Mining Company. The spectacular views remain.
Back in the van we continued on to the western entrance to Big Bend National Park that is situated at the base of colorful clay hills, with the Chisos Mountains rising up in the distance.
Big Bend National Park encompasses more than 800,000 acres of mountains, cliffs, dessert and river canyons. It is one of over 400 parks in the National Park System and the only one to contain an entire mountain range within its borders, called the Chisos. The park is nestled in the bend of the Rio Grande River along the Texas-Mexico border.
Hiking and climbing Santa Elena Canyon Trail Big Bend National Park
Ours was a one-day adventure that included children from age 5 to an adult in his early 70’s. We hiked, picnicked, waded in the water along the Rio Grande river edge, climbed the mountain and took in the amazing views seen from every point.
In addition, the park offers popular activities such as camping, bird watching, walking, mountain biking, horseback riding, river rafting, canoeing and kayaking.
Here we go, climbing the path along the dramatic limestone canyon walls. I am precariously scooting along while my family scampers higher and higher. With just a few sections of handrails for me to clutch, I made the wise choice to discontinue the climb, head back down to firm footing while the others merrily ascended almost out of view. 😉
I snapped this photo of the spectacular view below, praying I could safely navigate my way back down.
All while the rest of the crew wondered why MomMom was so scared! Never happier to have my feet on the ground, we posed for this photo 🙂
Along with plenty of water, pack a lunch and enjoy a respite in one of the picnic areas. Just be sure to take all of your trash back out of the park to dispose of it safely.
If you visit:
- Park entrances are open 24 hours daily, all year. Entrance fee stations have variable seasons and hours.
- Big Bend National Park is located in Southwest Texas, a considerable distance from cities and transportation hubs. There is no public transportation to, or within Big Bend National Park.
- Visit the Big Bend National Park website for detailed information before visiting
Fort Davis National Park
Fort Davis is the town with the highest elevation in the Lone Star State, 5,050 feet above sea level. A national historic site, it was a key post in the defense system of western Texas.
From 1854 until 1891, troops stationed at the post protected emigrants, freighters, mail coaches, and travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road hoping to reach the gold fields of California. Today, Fort Davis is considered one of the best remaining examples of a frontier military post in the American Southwest.
Hiking Fort Davis National Historic Site
In addition to touring the historical areas of Fort Davis, there are hiking trails. We (my husband and daughter) were not prepared for hiking wearing regular shoes, but we did manage to get almost to the very top of Tall Grass Loop Trail.
It got a little precarious in many areas but we safely work our way back down.
Tall Grass Loop Trail, Elevation Change: 320 ft. (97.5 m)
Trail Head Location: Immediately after the wooden bridge on the Northwest corner of the Parade Grounds. This hike is steep and strenuous along the trail switchbacks of the trail there are stairs on certain portions. Along the northern route of the trail can become slick after precipitation. This trail is 0.8 mi (1.3 km) long one way.
If you visit:
- The park is open daily 8am to 5pm central time.
- There is a small entry fee. Persons 15 years and under, educational groups, and those presenting approved passes are admitted free.
- Visit Fort Davis National Park website for detailed information before visiting
McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis, Texas
Two hours north of Big Bend National Park in Fort Davis, Texas, the McDonald Observatory is a must-stop for stargazers and astronomy enthusiast. A visit is an adventure both during the day and after the sun sets.
Enjoy the scenic views from the high altitude during daylight. The observatory is part of the Astronomy Department at the University of Texas and holds four high-powered telescopes.
For a spectacular and informational experience, schedule a visit to attend one of their Star Parties. With one of the darkest night sky areas in the world, experts estimate a person can see 2,000 stars on a clear night compared to a few hundred in a medium-sized city.
The Star Parties take place outdoors in the Helen S. Martin Star Amphitheater where seating consists of stone benches. They are approximately 2 hours in length and are lots of fun for the entire family. Book early because it routinely sells-out well in advance.
If you visit:
- Address: Frank N. Bash Visitors Center, 3640 Dark Sky Drive, McDonald Observatory, TX 79734
- Phone: (432) 426-3640
- Times and Dates: McDonald Observatory is accessible to the public Tuesday – Saturday 12-5 pm, and is closed on Sunday and Monday.
- Star Party start times change with the seasons. Check their calendar for program offerings and start times for the date you plan to visit.
Plants and animals in and near Big Bend National Park
Far different from the green deciduous trees, lush grassy lawns, flower and vegetable gardens I am familiar with in the Northeast part of the country, southwest Texas is full of its own unique beauty.
Here are just a few of the plants we came across. Since I am unfamiliar with the species, I used a plant identifier for their names. From Top to bottom, left to right…
- Tulip Prickly Pear
- Tree Cholla
- Giant Spanish Dagger
- Honey Mesquite
- Ocotillo also known as Devil’s Walking Stick
- Narrow Leaf Yucca
The dreaded Goathead plant
If you have ever had an encounter with goathead plants, you know. It is a sprawling mat-like plant that can grow to 10 feet in diameter producing hundreds of small yellow flowers that mature into fruits with 2-4 short, painfully-sharp spines. They were everywhere and I was near tears many times because of them.
The photo above shows the reason why. My shoe, covered with goathead burrs, punctured through the thick rubber sole 🙁 It was a miserable experience. The only relief was wearing hiking booth that I borrowed from my granddaughter.
There are many animals indigenous to the area but here are a few we saw during our visit.
- Javelina. (Texas is one of only 4 states that have javelins (collared peccary) found in the arid or semi-arid parts of the state)
- Tarantula (Driving down from the McDonald Observatory, my daughter spied a large tarantula on the side of the road. I got out to get a photo.)
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