Three expansive Lone Star State preserves offer RVers a chance to enjoy vertical views while hiking, taking a scenic drive, or slowly floating down a river.
By Ann P. White
Three remote and highly scenic west Texas mountain locations can take you back in time, away from busy freeways, crowded campgrounds, and large metropolitan areas.
Big Bend National Park, Davis Mountains State Park, and Guadalupe Mountains National Park are situated between the huge bend in the Rio Grande at the Mexican border and the New Mexico state line, southwest of Carlsbad. Each of the three areas has its own personality, and all host motorhomers year-round. And none is very far away from the other. Davis Mountains State Park stands in the middle of the three, approximately 130 miles from both Big Bend and Guadalupe.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend’s location along the Rio Grande, 135 miles from the nearest interstate, brings with it a distinction not shared by many national parks. Its size and remote location dictate that visitors don’t simply drop by to take a quick look on the way to somewhere else. Big Bend is their destination; the roads end there; and Mexico is a mere stone’s throw across the Rio Grande.
However, folks who have read the brochures and listened to former visitors know the destination is well worth it. Isolation is part of Big Bend’s charm. Imagine three canyons with immense cliffs on either side; mountains rising to 7,835 feet above sea level; spacious, scenic desert drives on good paved roads; the curving river that stretches 118 miles along the park’s border “” all of these attract increasing numbers of visitors each year. Many are motorhome snowbirds who spend the cold-weather months in the cottonwood-shaded Rio Grande Village near the river on the park’s eastern edge. They enjoy the mostly sunny and mild winter climate, either by relaxing or trying out some of the many activities available at this 800,000-acre park.
Raft float trips down the Rio Grande through one or more of the canyons are very popular. The river usually is slow-flowing, so the trip’s allure lies in the opportunity to appreciate the colorful canyon walls, the variety of birds, the greenery and flowers at the foot of the cliffs, and the blue desert sky above. A professional guide is in charge of each raft and knows the river well. All-day trips include picnic lunches, wherein guides set up tempting spreads ashore on folding tables near the river. Santa Elena, the canyon farthest upstream and the most accessible, provides a 20-mile run in which a large portion of the trip flows between steep, 1,500-foot-high canyon walls.
The Santa Elena Canyon float begins in Lajitas on the west side of the park. Several outfitters run guided float trips and also rent rafts, canoes, mountain bikes, and other gear for those who want to take off on their own. Jeep tours into the back country offer yet another type of outing. Overnight backpacking and day hiking also are very popular. Trail maps and advice about desert hiking may be obtained at the park’s visitors centers.
Exploring the park by car or motorhome are additional options. Be sure to take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which boasts numerous historic and scenic turnoffs, and enjoy a break at Castolon’s store and ranger station, both of which are housed in historic buildings. This route is not recommended for RVs longer than 24 feet, however, because of sharp curves and steep grades, so a towed vehicle will be the best choice for many. If you start at the visitors center (park headquarters) at Panther Junction, it is 35 miles to Castolon, and 8 more miles to Santa Elena Canyon. The scenic drive leads to a superior overlook of the lower end of the canyon. Five minutes farther along the road is a parking area for those who wish to hike the short trail that leads back into the canyon, where they can experience the true immensity of the cliffs.
If you have a towed vehicle, or if your motorhome is no longer than 24 feet, you can enjoy the dramatic drive to Chisos Basin. A lodge, a restaurant, a store, and another visitors center are located at the end of this trail. This route also is not recommended for long vehicles, because the narrow paved road leading over Panther Pass from Green Gulch winds in several sharp hairpin turns as it drops quickly (and steeply) into the lower elevation of the basin. The small campsites in the basin are not suitable for large motorhomes, either.
Rio Grande Village, the most popular park spot among motorhomers, is 20 miles southeast of the Panther Junction visitors center. Rio Grande Village has its own visitors center (closed in summer), and fuel and groceries are available. Most importantly, you’ll find a spacious tree-shaded, 100-site park campground and a 25-site concession-operated area that offers full hookups.
Rio Grande Village has become the site of various functions, and one of them is the annual International Good Neighbor Day Fiesta in October. The park shares this event with the Mexican villages across the river. Booths are set up to sell small handmade gift items and refreshments, and an outdoor stage stays busy with music and dancing as students from the area present their acts in traditional, brightly colored costumes. All of this activity takes place under tall cottonwoods and huisache trees against a backdrop of the Sierra del Carmen Mountains.
The color, beauty, and magnetism of Big Bend National Park attracts approximately 300,000 visitors each year. Its remote location assures fewer guests than at other parks its size, but offers a distinct advantage to visitors when compared to those parks that can barely handle their huge attendance. Memories will linger of an uncrowded hiking trail, a desert sunrise, vast distances, and sheer-walled canyons. Other unforgettable highlights will include fuchsia, yellow, and brilliant red floral displays in April as cacti and graceful, spindly ocotillos bloom, as well as creamy white yuccas. It’s all part of this expansive spread of mountains, desert, and canyons you’ll find at this beautiful park along the Rio Grande.
Big Bend National Park, P.O. Box 129, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834; (915) 477-2251; www.nps.gov/bibe.
Davis Mountains State Park
April also brings many yucca blossoms to the Davis Mountains, at a time when Big Bend visitors might decide to start a leisurely trip back north. From the visitors center at Panther Junction, take U.S. 385 north to Marathon. Head west on U.S. 90 to Alpine, then north on State Route 118 to reach the small, historic town of Fort Davis, a distance of approximately 130 miles.
The town of Fort Davis grew up around the fort of the same name. The fort is now designated as Fort Davis National Historic Site, and has been largely restored. It makes an impressive sight, against the tall cliffs of the Davis Mountains.
The military post was built in 1854 to protect travelers on the Overland Trail and the settlers who liked the mile-high climate and the mountain setting. It remained in use until 1891.
The fort’s visitors center offers information about touring the site. Each afternoon, a flag-lowering ceremony is performed on the parade grounds, accompanied by the sound of taps. Look up at the cliffs and try to imagine the same scene as it might have looked in the mid-1800s.
Highly scenic in their own right, the juniper-dotted Davis Mountains are gentler and greener than Big Bend’s spectacular desert cliffs, canyons, and peaks. The Davis Mountain peaks include 8,382-foot Mount Livermore, taller than Big Bend’s 7,825-foot-tall Emory Peak.
From Fort Davis, a 74-mile scenic drive winds through Limpia Canyon, beside the entrance gate to Davis Mountains State Park; passes the Prude Ranch; and travels around mountains to the McDonald Observatory visitors center, at the foot of Mount Locke. From there, the drive travels near Sawtooth Mountain and several other points of interest as it circles back to Fort Davis. It’s a sight-seeing trip well worth the effort, with a good paved road and outstanding vistas of the mountains.
Davis Mountains State Park offers a large campground with a variety of hookup options. A mountain road with several switchbacks leads to a skyline drive on the ridge above. Once they reach the top, visitors can park and walk around to enjoy a 360-degree view of distant mountains and broad, flat valleys. The park also includes a restaurant at historic Indian Lodge, a few hundred yards from the campground.
Approximately 3 miles beyond the state park is another historic site, the Prude Ranch, a guest ranch that has been run for five generations by the Prude family. These cordial folks provide facilities for groups, special events, overnight motel-type units, and RV camping with full hookups, as well as trail rides, a restaurant, and a swimming pool.
McDonald Observatory, next on the scenic drive, offers a number of public programs, including solar viewing and star party programs. The $5 admission to the visitors center includes the solar viewing program and access to a multimedia theater and exhibits. Guided tours and star parties are available for a slightly higher fee. This observatory is home to some of the largest telescopes in the United States. In addition to this, the view from the parking lot is splendid. If you have a large motorhome, however, inquire at the visitors center about whether it’s advisable to drive from the visitors center to the top of 6,800-foot-high Mount Locke, where the observatory is located. Motorhomes more than 28 feet long are not recommended on this drive, so take a towed car or opt for the observatory’s shuttle, if it’s available. For more information, contact McDonald Observatory, P.O. Box 1337, Fort Davis, TX 79734; (877) 984-7827, (915) 426-3640; www.mcdonaldobservatory.org.
Back in town, stop by the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce office (800-524-3015, 915-426-3015; www.fortdavis.com) to learn more about the town’s attractions. The historic Hotel Limpia has been hosting guests since the early 1900s. It has an outstanding restaurant, a lovely garden, and interesting shops behind the hotel. Visitors to town also enjoy other gift shops, an old-fashioned drugstore with a soda fountain, a good Mexican restaurant, historic churches, and other points of interest. All this lies in the few blocks of a small mountain town without traffic lights. They don’t need any!
Fort Davis National Historic Site, P.O. Box 1379, Lieutenant Henry Flipper Drive, Fort Davis, TX 79734; (915) 426-3224, ext. 20; www.nps.gov/foda/.
Davis Mountains State Park, P.O. Box 1458, Fort Davis, TX 79734; (915) 426-3337; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/davis.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Approximately 135 miles northwest of the Davis Mountains is Guadalupe Mountains National Park, our final stop on this tour. To get there from Fort Davis, take State Route 118 north to Interstate 10; travel west on I-10 to State Route 54; turn north and travel approximately 60 miles.
The high peaks of Guadalupe Mountains National Park rear up sharply from the almost flat Chihuahuan Desert to heights of more than 8,000 feet. Several types of pine and Douglas fir trees grow in the uplands. Eighty miles of hiking trails traverse the area, but the high country sees mostly backpackers and hikers who can handle up to 14-mile round trips and steep climbs.
You won’t have to do anything that strenuous to enjoy this park, however. Your first sight of Guadalupe Mountains National Park will be El Capitan, the landmark 8,085-foot peak. In good weather, it is visible for approximately 50 miles. El Capitan stands at the southern tip of the 86,416-acre park, which became a national park in 1972. The highest mountain in the park (and in Texas), Guadalupe Peak, towers at 8,749 feet.
The Pine Springs campground is easily accessible to the visitors center and historic sites nearby, as well as to McKittrick Canyon, the star in the park’s crown. Most visitors come to see the canyon and hike at least part of its easy, mostly level trail. You can take the trail to Pratt Lodge, a round-trip distance of 4.8 miles, to the heart of the canyon. The lodge offers picnic tables where hikers can enjoy snacks or lunch, as well as water and rest rooms.
If you like, continue from the lodge to the Grotto, for a 6.8-mile round-trip trek. The Grotto was so named because of the limestone stalagmites and stalactites that form there, as in a cave. Picnic tables are provided. From there, the trail starts upward to the higher peaks.
McKittrick Canyon is beautiful at any time of year, with its pine and hardwood forests lining a spring-fed creek, but it is spectacular in the fall. People come from near and far to see the brilliant reds, yellows, golds, and greens of the canyon’s mixture of desert, canyon woodland, and high country forest. Maple, walnut, ash, oak, and chokecherry trees appear even more striking when set against the 2,000-foot pine-clad mountainsides. If you arrive during this season “” usually the color peaks between the end of October and early November “” be sure to arrive at the McKittrick Canyon Visitor Center early. Once the parking lot is full, no one else is allowed in until a vehicle leaves.
Several ruins at the park indicate this land’s previous encounters with Mescalero Indians; Butterfield stagecoaches carrying the country’s first transcontinental mail; and early ranches. Somewhere on Guadalupe Peak is a monument to airline pilots who flew over these mountains, placed there by American Airlines.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park, HC 60, Box 400, Salt Flat, TX 79847-9400; (915) 828-3251; www.nps.gov/gumo.
Once you visit Big Bend, the Davis Mountains, and the Guadalupes, you will understand why many people return to southwest Texas again and again.
Big Bend National Park
Campgrounds are operated on a first-come, first-served basis. Rio Grande Village (915-477-2271) has 25 sites with full hookups and 100 park sites without hookups, but with water and showers. Chisos Basin sites (915-477-2291) have no hookups and are designed for vehicles 24 feet long and under; water and rest rooms are available.
Davis Mountains State Park
The park campground (915-426-3337) has 27 sites with full hookups, 34 sites with water and electric, and 33 sites with water only.
Prude Ranch (800-458-6232; 915-426-3202) offers more than 40 RV spaces with full hookups.
Fort Davis Motor Inn (800-803-2847, 915-426-2112) has 14 full-hookup sites.
Overland Trail Campground and RV Park (915-426-2250) has 27 full-hookup sites.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Pine Springs Campground (915-828-3251) offers 19 sites with no hookups and no dump station. Dog Canyon Campground (505-981-2418) offers four RV sites with no hookups or dump station.
The nearest commercial campground with hookups is at White’s City Resort and Water Park at Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico (800-228-3767; 505-785-2291; www.whitescity.com), 35 miles from Guadalupe. It offers 60 full-hookup spaces and 46 sites with water and electricity.