Whew-ee, it's a scorcher. Come August, I always feel sorry for those newcomers who moved to Texas from more temperate climes–they're the ones with telltale beads of sweat above their upper lips, limp locks clinging to their foreheads, and damp rings around their armpits.
They'll learn, soon enough, the tricks of assuaging summer's skyrocketing temperatures: Monstrous glasses of iced tea, squeezed with lemon. Frequent dips into the nearest swimming pool, or, better yet, swimming hole. Screened porches with ceiling fans, which keep the mosquitoes at bay while you listen to dog-day cicadas and search for fireflies. Oh, yes, and a trip to West Texas, where you can escape summer's blaze in unlikely places.
Perhaps you're thinking the mercury has gone to my head, and that I'm confused, or worse, clearly crazy. But bear with me: West Texas boasts two of the most pleasant places to hang out in the throes of summer–fantabulous Balmorhea State Park, where the crystalline waters of San Solomon Springs hover around 74 degrees year round, and the Davis Mountains, where temperatures dip into the 60s at night and the stars emerge big and bright. Why huddle in the A/C or suffer the itchy indignity of heat rash when you can kick back in Mother Nature's cool West Texas backyard? While you're here, take one of the state's prettiest scenic drives, come eye-to-eye with two of Texas' most endangered species, set your sights on Saturn, and enjoy a plate of enchiladas you won't soon forget (not to mention a crispy-crust pizza that'll hold its own against the finest Chicago pie).
The last time I made the long trek out West, I bemoaned the price of gas when it hovered around $1.50 per gallon. This year, after prices hit an all-time high, I did what any conflicted tree-hugger in need of a getaway would do: I borrowed a fully-equipped Honda Accord Hybrid with a V-6 engine, cranked up the satellite radio, and took it road-tripping to We s t Texas. (I persuaded my husband, Randy, to go, too.) My grandfather, who came of age in the era of cheap gas and mighty internal combustion engines, asked me skeptically after the trip if the hybrid had any pickup; to this, I replied, “Why, yes, indeed it does.” Just ask the pleasant highway patrolman who pulled us over for speeding on I-10 (and thankfully issued us a warning instead of a ticket). You’ve got to be careful with a car that goes from zero to 60 mph in less than seven seconds. And no, this green machine doesn’t have to be plugged in—just gassed up on far fewer occasions than traditional cars of comparable brawn.
Balmorhea State Park, a 49-acre oasis of shimmering water, cottonwood trees , and adobe cottages, was built in the 1930s by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. The park actually lies in Toyahvale , several miles south of Balmorhea proper. As we arrived many hours and only one tank of gas later, the sun glimmered gold on the horizon, and to the west and south, the Davis Mountains rose in shadowy, evocative undulations. A storm brewed in the distance, perhaps as far away as New Mexico. The night was full of drama!
And so as Randy relaxed on the porch of our comfortable room in the park’s motor courts, watching the barn swallows zoom about, I wriggled into a swimsuit, donned goggles, and dove into the pool’s sublime waters to watch nature ’s drama below the surface.
Balmorhea State Park’s enormous, aquamarine pool, billed as the World’s Largest Spring-Fed Swimming Pool, has a huge, underground aquifer system to thank for its deliciously clear and cold water. Rain falling on the mountains nearby seeps underground, then flows through porous layers of limestone and emerges through at least nine springs in the middle of the pool—at the rate of some 20 million gallons a day. Artesian springs like this gem in the Chihuahuan Desert are rare in the extreme. In the 1950s, nearby Comanche Springs were drained dry by overzealous groundwater pumping, leaving San Solomon Springs as one of only a few remaining habitats for the critically endangered Comanche Springs pupfish and the guppylike Pecos gambusia.
As I weaved my way through schools of these shimmering creatures, catfish moseyed about on the sun-dappled bottom, the occasional crawfish hoisted his angry claws, and—just as I spied them—turtles buried themselves in the soft sand, some 25 feet below me. Though summer weekends can have more than 1,500 visitors frolicking in the water, on this particular evening, I had the pool to myself, save for a family of Mexican g round squirrels on the hillside, a couple from the Panhandle who had h e a rdabout the pool for ages and now stood agape on its banks, and a lone scuba diver, who broke the surface every few moments with a smile on his face.
Of course, long before the springs became a park, humans took refuge in these waters, including Mescalero Apaches, Spanish explorers, and gold-seekers headed out West. The springs and the surrounding wetlands are considered a ciénega, or desert wetland, and unfortunately, much of the original ciénega ecosystem was forever altered years ago. Today, though, a three-acre, recreated wetland at the park demonstrates the variety of animal and plant life once found here in abundance. Rustling cattails and bulru s hes harbor birds, butterflies, and spiders galore, and an underwater viewing window—best experienced in the early evening or morning—reveals pupfish, gambusia, sunfish, and the odd blotched water snake. Drama, indeed!
In the morning, after one final swim and a stroll through the park’s playground and camping areas, Randy and I took our leave and headed south to the picturesque town of Fort Davis, in the heart of the Davis Mountains. We had heard for years that the Scenic Loop Drive, a 75-mile jaunt through the mountains, was one of the most spectacular drives in Texas, and it didn’t disappoint us. We drove, slack-jawed, as each twist and turn revealed another rugged mountain view (the highest elevation on the loop is about 6,700 feet), canyon vista, or majestic rock f o rmation, all of which were formed millions of years ago by volcanic activity.
High on the summits of 6,650-foot Mount Fowlkes and 6,791-foot Mount Locke, the stupendous telescopes of the University of Texas’ McDonald Observ atory peer into the heavens, offering researchers and amateur astronomers the opportunity to study stars, planets, and galaxies light-years away. Unsullied by big-city lights, the skies above Fort Davis a re some of the darkest in North America, making for unparalleled star-viewing.
Solar viewings and tours of the observatory take place daily, but I most recommend the observatory’s year-round, thrice-weekly Star Parties, which provide the best chance to put things in perspective. That evening, we bought tickets and joined the fun. As we shivered in the chilly mountain air, learned some basic sky-orienteering, then took in some of the evening’s most noteworthy star clusters, constellations, and celestial events by telescope, I thought to myself: If that wild-and-wonderful star cluster is 6 million light-years from home, then we’ve barely begun to understand the vastness of the world we live in. Am I just an insignificant blip in the space-and-time continuum?
After the Star Party broke up a few hours later, a trailing line of headlights made its way down the mountains and back into Fort Davis. Barring perhaps the busload of giggling teenagers, I think each of us struggled silently with those age-old existential questions that arise after gazing into the galaxies. Some cars turned off at the legendary Prude Ranch, and others drove farther into town to bunk down at a hotel or bed-and-breakfast inn. We pulled into scenic Davis Mountains State Park, where we had been lucky enough to secure a room at Indian Lodge, a beautifully landscaped adobe motel whose historic section dates to the 1930s.
Thanks to extremes of altitude in the park, the landscape includes both plains grasslands and woods thick with pinyon pine, juniper, and oak trees, as well as wildflowers and flowering shrubs by the hundreds, especially in spring and fall. Not surprisingly, we had seen numerous groups of intent birdwatchers, binoculars in hand, peering into the tre etops. The serpentine Skyline Drive climbs to two spectacular overlooks on the east side of the park, revealing a panoramic view of the Big Bend country, some 75 miles to the southeast.
But we’d have time for more exploring and stargazing tomorrow, so we turned in, dreaming of the fate of tiny pupfish and the existence of worlds far beyond our own.
The entrance to Balmorhea State Park is on Texas 17, about 12 miles southeast of I-10, in Toyahvale (4 miles southwest of Balmorhea). For reservations at the park's comfortable San Solomon Courts, or to reserve a campsite, call 512/389-8900. The pool opens daily, dawn to dusk. To contact the park, call 432/375-2370.
The Toyahvale Desert Oasis, where you can rent scuba and snorkeling equipment, buy air for your tanks, and even get certified to dive, is just west of the Balmorhea State Park entrance, on Texas 17. Hours: Daily 10-6. Call 432/375-2572.
The entrance to Davis Mountains State Park is 4 miles west of Fort Davis, on Texas 118. For reservations at the park's lovely Indian Lodge, call 432/426-3254; to reserve a campsite, call 512/389-8900. To reach the park, call 432/426-3337.
The McDonald Observatory is about 14 miles northwest of Fort Davis, off Texas 118. Call 877/984-7827.
For more details on lodging, restaurants, and attractions in Fort Davis, including Fort Davis National Historic Site, call the Fort Davis Visitors Center at 800/524-3015.