GET­TING BACK TO BA­SICS BY CAMP­ING IN WEST TEXAS

An­nual camp­ing trip pro­vides fun for the whole fam­ily.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Mauri El­bel

Out in far-flung West Texas, rugged moun­tains and craggy canyons rise from wide open spa­ces, si­lence stretches for hun­dreds of miles in each di­rec­tion and coal­black night skies are spack­led with twin­kling stars and dusted with gal­ax­ies.

If you ever wanted to get away from it all with­out leav­ing the state, this un­in­hab­ited corner of Texas is the place to do it. Soli­tude flour­ishes through­out this un­tamed land­scape and Wi-Fi sig­nals are nonex­is­tent or spotty at best out here where we’ve set up camp in Davis Moun­tains State Park (tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/ davis-moun­tains). Tucked in the foothills of the most ex­ten­sive moun­tain range in Texas — some­times re­ferred to as the “Texas Alps” — we soak in breath­tak­ing panora­mas of rolling grass­lands stud­ded with scrubby shrubs and ridge­lines that slice into the cloud­less blue hori­zon. Sur­vey­ing the dra­matic for­ma­tions from the park’s Sky­line Drive, which switch­backs up the moun­tain and pro­vides un­par­al­leled look­out points from his­toric stone struc­tures, my older son is re­minded

of images he’s seen of the Easter Is­land stat­ues, while his lit­tle brother thinks they look like a bunch of gi­ant fin­gers squished to­gether .Both de­scrip­tions seem fit­ting, but later Google in­forms us

the Davis Moun­tains were formed by vi­o­lent vol­canic ac­tiv­ity that oc­curred roughly 30 mil­lion years ago — the ev­i­dence left be­hind on these canyon walls is ac­tu­ally com­posed of var­i­ous hor­i­zon­tally bed­ded vol­canic strata. The un­usual scenery

and oth­er­worldly out­crop­pings are just some of the rea­sons folks are drawn to Davis Moun­tains State Park, lo­cated a few miles from his­toric Fort Davis. From the area’s leg­endary stargaz­ing to the mid­dleof-nowhere seren­ity found here, this des­ti­na­tion has been on our bucket list for years. Dur­ing the re­cent long Oc­to­ber week­end, we de­cided to head here with

the same group of fam­i­lies we camp with each fall in what’s be­come an an­tic­i­pated an­nual ad­ven­ture for our com­bined seven kids. If you’re con­sid­er­ing camp­ing out in the Davis Moun­tains, here are some high­lights that spill out just be­yond the camp­site, and a few things you should know be­fore you go.

Offthe­grid

The Davis Moun­tains aren’t ex­actly around the

corner. It’s a six-hour-plus drive from Austin to Davis Moun­tains State Park, and fac­tor­ing in the in­evitab le stops w hen trav­el­ing

with kids, it took us closer to eight hours. Since we weren’t strangers to the re­mote­ness that ex­ists in this part of Texas — we made the longer drive to La­ji­tas with our kids a few years ago to spend a week hik­ing through Big Bend with my fam­ily — we saved this

trip for when we had more than a two-day week­end at our dis­posal. It’s also a good idea to break up the long drive with a well-planned road stop so kids can work off some en­ergy. From Austin, Ozona is around mid­point and has con­ve­nient fast food op­tions right along

the route. We picked up sand­wiches and burg­ers and en­joyed a pic­nic lunch in the tiny town’s his­toric square — there are a cou­ple of ta­bles scat­tered be­neath the pe­can trees and a large grassy lawn

and shaded gazebo where the kids can run around

and play.

See­ing stars

inthe this

Moun­tains set back­inthe­car­fora15-m ute Ob­ser­va­tory ser­va­tory.org), at­trac­tion swath of rea the Drive, When day is glares Af­ter lo­cated son up drive aptly and the of Univer­sity of our where this ar­riv­ing big Texas. to named sun way in tents State re­search (mc­don­al­dob- city re­tires the out McDon­ald and There’s lights Dark se­cluded Park, the at falls, of near­est here for Texas Davis piled star unit Sky the are the we on a the hun­dreds of miles away. dark­ness cation, va­tory purest laid with stars. nom­i­cal lead­ing eyes mil­lions black One the is cen­ters be­comes re­search well-known McDon­ald of sky of the you’ve for glit­ter­ing pep­pered and world’s Ob­ser- astro- edu- ever for t lace its Friday nings. tions space hat leg­endary take on­line is We and lim­ited p made Satur­day in star ad­vance Tues­day, and reserva- par­ties pro- eve- — ell the cially mess gramss year. dur­ing out Not cook­ing busy quickly, want­ing times at espe- to of with the camp star McDon­ald party, be­fore we Ob­ser­va­tory’s our ate sched­uled din­ner at af­ford­able, StarDate Café, no-fuss which fare sells like sliced que­sadil­las, brisket chicken sand­wiches, tacos 8 and p.m., hot co­coa. it was time Shortly for af­ter the star ing sum­mer, party to it’s be­gin not (dur- dark enough ties un­til to nearly start the 10 star p.m.), par- the Frank and we N. gath­ered Bash Vis­i­tor around Cen­ter’samph ithe­ater for a con­stel­la­tion tour. Sur­rounded by dark­ness, we watched as the pro­gram leader pointed out the bright­est stars and out­lines con­stel­la­tions with a laser as he told us about the mytho­log­i­cal sto­ries and Even the lit­tlest hik­ers can ap­pre­ci­ate the sights along the trails weav­ing through Davis Moun­tains State Park. sci­en­tific be­hind stared, com­pletely them. un­der­stand­ings We sat enam- and ored, be­fore wan­der­ing off to ex­plore the Tele­scope Park. There we moved from big tele­scopes to big­ger tele- scopes with our kids, each of us mar­veling at a ring neb­ula nick­named the “Blue Chee- rio,” wit­ness­ing a bi­nary star sys­tem and sneak­ing an up-close view of Saturn with its glow­ing rings and two of its largest moons in full sight.

Take a hike

Af­ter pre­par­ing hearty break­fast tacos and cow­boy cof­fee at t he camp­site the fol­low­ing morn­ing, we set out with the sun to ex­plore some of the trails weav­ing through Davis Moun­tains State Park. Whether you hike on foot or bring your own bike or horse to ride, you’ll find trail ad­ven­tures span­ning easy to chal­leng

ing. We started out on the Mon­tezuma Quail Trail, a mod­er­ate, roughly mile-long trail that climbs from the wildlife view­ing area up 220 feet for aerial over­looks of the canyon be­fore de­scend­ing back to the camp­ground. Rather than go back down,

the kids raced ahead of us and we all linked into the slightly more chal­leng­ing In­dian Lodge Trail, which gives way to spec­tac­u­lar views of the Davis Moun­tains and takes you back down to In­dian Lodge, a full-ser­vice his­toric ho­tel set within the park’s bound- aries for those who pre­fer adobe walls to can­vas ones. With seven kids in our group span­ning ages 2 through 9, hik­ing 3 miles in two hours was plenty. But those who want a longer hike can gain some of the best views in the park on the Sheep Pen Canyon Loop, which takes hik­ers on a 6-mile trek along a moun­tain plateau and through oak-ju­niper forests and high desert grass­lands.

Back to na­ture

Days be­fore our camp­ing trip,Iwoke­my­hus­bandin a mid­dle-of-the-night panic af­ter night­mares of moun­tain lions and rat­tlesnakes in­ter­rupted my slum­ber. He re­as­sured me through shut eyes and groggy grum­bles that our kids would be com­pletely fine, and thank­fully they were, but it turns out my moth­erly para­noia wasn’t com­pletely un­war­ranted. We did spot two rat

tlesnakes within the first few hours of ar­riv­ing — one of which was clev­erly hid­den in the rock wall inches be­low an over­look where we po­si­tioned our kids for a group photo. And through­out Davis Moun­tains State Park, lam­i­nated signs warn vis­i­tors of moun­tain lion sight­ings and cau­tion par­ents not to leave chil­dren unat­tended. While you do need to be aware of your sur­round­ings and keep a close eye on your kids out here, for­tu­nately afriend­ly­foxwastheonly crit­ter to visit our camp­site. Ob­vi­ously un­in­tim­i­dated by cam­pers, he pranced around the camp­fire we were gath­ered around each night in search of scraps. Tiny frogs, big lizards and loud wood­peck­ers pro­vided end­less camp­side en­ter­tain­ment for our kids, and if you’re an avid bird­watcher, you’re in luck out here, too. Davis Moun­tains State Park serves as home to over 260 bird species a nd has a newly con­str uct­ed­bird­blin­dand­view­ing sta­tion ideal for ob­serv­ing ev­ery­thing from scrub jays to white-winged doves.

Plunge in

Af­ter three days of tent camp­ing, there is noth­ing more re­fresh­ing than ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the crys­tal­clear cool­ing wa­ters of the world’s largest spring-fed swim­ming pool. Bal­morhea, lo­cated just over 30 min­utes from Davis Moun­tains State Park, is fa­mously touted as a cool oa­sis in the high, arid West Texas desert. Filled with fresh wa­ter bub­bling up from the San Solomon Springs, more than 15 mil

lion gal­lons flow through the pool daily — enough wa­ter to fill over 300,000 bath­tubs, ac­cord­ing to the Texas Parks and Wildlife De­part­ment’s web­site. Peo­ple flock from near and far to en­joy this serene, sprawl­ing swim­ming hole that cov­ers 1.75 acre­san­dreach­esupto25 feet in some ar­eas, which makes it a pop­u­lar place to scuba dive, too. Dur­ing busy sea­son (March through La­bor Day), day vis­i­tors to Bal­morhea State Park are lim­ited to 1,300, but our fam­ily of five showed up in the mid

dle of a bliss­ful Oc­to­ber Mon­day en route back to Austin and brought the to­tal in-the­wa­ter oc­cu­pancy to just over a dozen. Slightly warmer than our beloved Bar­ton Springs, Bal­morhea’s tem­per­a­ture fluc­tu­ates be­tween 72 to 76 de­grees year-round, and ac­cord­ing to my lim­ited per­sonal re­search, the high dive pro­vides hours of fun for all ages.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY ETHAN TWEEDIE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

Vis­i­tors gather dur­ing a star party where the Milky Way is clearly vis­i­ble un­der the dark skies of McDon­ald Ob­ser­va­tory.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY MAURI EL­BEL

The un­usual scenery and oth­er­worldly out­crop­pings are just part of what draws folks to Davis Moun­tains State Park.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY MAURI EL­BEL PHO­TOS

En­joy a re­fresh­ing dip where the moun­tains meet the springs at Bal­morhea.

Plunge into a spring-fed swim­ming pool at Bal­morhea.

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