December 31 – January 2Destination Davis Mountain State Park McDonald Observatory Ft. Davis National Historic Site The Scenic Loop Drive Hwy 118 & 166
We have decided to leave our camper here at Big Bend National Park, so as not to loose our site, and head north for a couple of days to explore the Fort Davis mountains region. We originally planned to spend most our time in the Fort Davis State Park because Big Bend reserved camping was full but as luck had it a spot opened up in Big Bend Basin two days prior to our trip departure. With mattress in the back and the bare essentials, heater and our trusty electric skillet, we head north. We arrive early in the afternoon and after carefully selecting a the perfect site (electrical site to power the heater and close proximity to the restrooms) in an almost deserted campground we head out for a drive to check out the McDonald Observatory.
It is not in the stars today for a visit to one of the telescopes. The last tour shuttle had already departed. We could wander the grounds freely but in order to view the telescopes we would have to be part of the guided tour. So back in the truck, we continue traveling the scenic loop along Hwy 118 . The 75 mile drive along Hwy 118 is absolutely beautiful. The complete drive is approximately 2hrs long, but with stops a must along the way you need to plan for at least another hour or two more. The highest elevation on the Loop is about 6700 feet, which makes it the highest public highway in Texas. Mountains are not the first thing that come to a Texans mind if asked to described the terrain. Chances are most probably don’t even know they exist in Texas. Not much out here…except the long line of cows heading in one by one for the night. We did take some pictures, but none that could capture the essence of the moment of seeing 30 or more cows in a continuous line heading home, or wherever they go for the night. Driving along this small and quiet highway is very peaceful and provides a sense of belonging to nature that surrounds you here.
Arriving back well after dark in the wet and cold, we decide to take in a meal at the Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. The surrounding natural beauty and the quiet serenity of the lodge set in the foothills along with the architecture of the CCC era buildings is quintessential southwestern style. The diner was warm and cozy on this wet and cold night and so the quality of the food and service was overlooked. We stayed as long as we could before reluctantly retiring back to our site to cozy up for the night.
Prior to our visit to McDonald Observatory I envisioned walking into domes housing massive telescopes. I saw myself climbing stairs to gain access to the eyepiece that allowed astronomers to peer up into the vast space above our world. I guess I have been watching too many movies. We arrived early and caught the 11am tour. The day-time guided tour provided access to two of the telescopes on the grounds, a very informative presentation from one of the researchers, and a self-guide exhibit display. They do allow reservations and it is highly recommended, especially if you plan to do one of the night tours.
After the presentation we were driven up the mountain to one of the research telescopes. Our presenter for the tour, one of the full time researchers at the facilities, was very entertaining as well as informative. Stepping into the dome we are amazed at how chilly it is, considering it is not exactly hot outside right now. Our presenter, I will call him Bob, went on to discuss the problems with the mixing of warm and cool air, condensation, and how these factors can “Blur” images on these massive optical lenses. Because of this the dome has to stay at a constant temperature to match exactly as outdoors. Made sense thinking back to this morning when we awoke to windows in our humble truck dripping with condensation as the warmer air inside the cabin came into contact with the cold windows outside. We could image the mess this would create on the massive telescope lenses.
Looking around for the giant staircase that would give me the world beyond our skies, with disappointment I realized the only staircases here were the ones that we walked up and lead to this room. These massive optical telescopes received then transmitted their images and data by the way of monitors located throughout the room. NO EYEPIECE NECESSARY.
Booking in advanced is not only done by tourist. Researchers that would like access to the telescope must submit research proposals. If accepted, they are given a ten-day window three years in advance for full access of the telescope facility. If the STARS are in their favor, they will have clear skies for their research, as there are no refunds and scheduling for bad weather here. We are lucky then to be here when the telescope is not in use.
Our next stop is the Hobby-Eberly Telescope that houses an eleven meter mirror, and is the third largest telescopes in the world. It was designed specifically for spectroscopy, the decoding of light from stars and galaxies to study their properties. This makes it ideal in searching for planets around other stars, studying distant galaxies, exploding stars, black holes and more.
With the sky bright and cheery, we travel around the scenic route again this afternoon to take advantage of photo opportunities without the rain of yesterday. Though private land, much of the land is uninhabited around here. So when we pass what looks like some type of compound, we are immediately drawn to take a closer look. At first we thought this may have been the deserted remains of the polygamist sect that was in all the news a couple of years back because of the speculated marriages of underage children. Further research discovered though that particular compound was closer to San Antonio in Eldorado, TX. This instead was a camp mainly used for troubled teens. Not sure if we should be driving around. But as we did not see any “DO NOT TRESPASS” signs anywhere we take a quick drive through the deserted camp.
Our last stop for the day is Fort Davis. Fort Davis is one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars’ frontier military post in the Southwest. From 1854 to 1891, Fort Davis was strategically located to protect emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and on the Chihuahua Trail. Today, visitors are free to roam the grounds, 20 buildings, and over 100 ruins. While visiting we periodically hear the bugle calls as they were reenacted from days gone by. One of the officers quarters though in need of much repair inside, outside reminded me of a “GONE WITH THE WIND” and I half expected any moment for Scarlett O’Hara to come strolling out of the front door.
Back at our campsite we finish the day with a quick but delicious meal of sausage, cabbage and onions complimented with a glass of Italian soda. Bellies full we call it a night as tomorrow it’s back to Big Bend National Park again.