By Barbara Rodriguez
Determined to take a West Texas walk one particularly blustery spring day, my son and I blew into Fort Davis. Almost literally. A warm tail wind out of Marfa swept us up into the desert frontier town—at an altitude of 5,050 feet, the highest town in Texas. The former cavalry outpost (the fort was active from 1854-1891) usually boasts a pleasant Denver-without-snow climate, but when La Niña blasts, she gets your full attention. Grit in the teeth aside, altitude and climate make the surrounding Davis Mountains a favorite among hikers and bikers. On the other hand, rugged terrain and private land holdings mean that the most extensive mountain range in the state has only limited public access.
Shackelford’s team completed the task with almost 2,000 hours of volunteer labor, and Madera Canyon Trail—opened to the public in October 2007—is now ours for the tackling.
We see ponderosa pine in protected draws as we climb past a better-thighs-than-mine bicyclist laboring against the wind and elevation at Elbow Canyon. Beyond him, Pine Peak points into Big Sky blue; at 7,900 feet, it’s second only to Mt. Livermore, which tops out at 8,382 feet. All around us, the aptly named stands of scaly alligator juniper and piñon pine appear. Above us the elusive Southwest-ern white pine comes into view.
Crossing Madera Creek at the old Fisher Ranch, we soon turn in at the Lawrence E. Wood picnic area, acclaimed as the highest roadside park in Texas, its meadowland appeal picnic-perfect. Unbelievably, given that our visit heralds the beginning of Spring Break, the park (which is also the trailhead for the Madera Canyon Trail) is empty. As soon as he can dodge my slathering of sunblock, Elliott makes a slippery escape, visions of black-chinned hummingbirds and acorn woodpeckers calling him.
The Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountain Preserve covers a big chunk of land, but much of it is inaccessible to the public except by prior arrangement or for special events. The Madera Canyon Trail, open to the public 365 days a year, is a fantastic entrée to vistas, fauna, and wildlife not easily seen elsewhere. While the trail offers a decent 2.4-mile loop of length, the 175-foot rise in elevation (to 6,050 feet) means it is doable, even in today’s desiccating wind. The gentle elevation is only moderately difficult, and much of the path is more like a stroll in a rough-hewn garden. When the slight climb opens up to the highland vistas, the views are jaw-droppingly beautiful.
From the February 2009 issue.