Remote W. Texas locale gives Fort Davis star power

JAMIE STENGLE - Associated Press
In this photo made Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010, the stars shine on the McDonald Observatory as two astronomers use flash lights outside the telescope near Fort Davis, Texas.  Astronomers come from around the world to conduct research under some of the darkest night skies in the continental U.S.    (AP Photo/LM Otero)
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In this photo made Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010, the stars shine on the McDonald Observatory as two astronomers use flash lights outside the telescope near Fort Davis, Texas. Astronomers come from around the world to conduct research under some of the darkest night skies in the continental U.S.

As darkness falls and quiet envelops the mountains, a glimpse up at the West Texas sky reveals the wonders of the universe: a blanket of stars glittering as the Milky Way arches across the sky.

The perfect elixir for the those frazzled from the bustle of city life, a night spent in the Davis Mountains offers solitude and beauty. For visitors to remote West Texas — which offers everything from the art scene in the small town of Marfa to the ruggedness of Big Bend National Park — the Davis Mountains and the nearby town of Fort Davis, population somewhere around 1,000, is an intriguing stop amid the surrounding desert grasslands.

"It's just kind of like going back to the old West in a lot of ways," said Mike Hill, a regional state parks director for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

The town was built up around the frontier military post of Fort Davis, which was first established in 1854 to protect those traveling from San Antonio to El Paso from Indians. It was named after Jefferson Davis, then-secretary of war for the U.S., later to become president of the Confederacy.

With bugle calls playing through speakers, a tour of the restored fort offers a glimpse into what life must have been like there, with officers' quarters boasting plenty of room and fine furnishings. The beds lined up one after another in the enlisted men's barracks show a simpler existence.

The first fort there was abandoned during the Civil War. Not much of that fort remained when it was reoccupied and a new post built in 1867. The fort has been restored to how it was during the 1870s and 1880s, said John Heiner, chief of visitor services for Fort Davis.

"You can pretty much turn 360 degrees and not much has changed," Heiner said.

He added that the fort also has a focus on the "Buffalo Soldiers," African-American members of the U.S. Army serving on the Western frontier.

A drive through the tiny town of Fort Davis reveals quirky stores — one offering handcrafted brooms and walking sticks — and a smattering of restaurants. Besides offering rooms, the Hotel Limpia has a restaurant that serves up a nice sit-down dining experience starting with buttermilk and honey biscuits and ending with homemade pie.

Four miles from Fort Davis, Davis Mountains State Park has campgrounds and trails, one even linking it to the site of the fort. Also nestled in the park is Indian Lodge, the white pueblo-style inn built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps featuring wooden ceiling beams and 18-inch thick adobe walls. The area, remote enough not to get cell phone service, offers a peaceful respite and mountain views.

It's also an area where nature is so close, you don't even have to get out of your car to find it. A short drive on one crisp fall night revealed deer, javelinas and raccoons.

A 16-mile trip from Fort Davis takes visitors up to the McDonald Observatory, where astronomers conduct research under some of the darkest night skies in the continental U.S.

"I never get to see stars like I do here," said Erik Brugamyer, a doctoral student at the University of Texas who was on the lookout for planets one autumn evening with the help of one of the giant telescopes.

The observatory offers daytime tours to the public as well as "star parties" on certain nights, which offer a look at the moon and various planets through public telescopes at the visitor's center.

There's plenty to see in the area within 20 to 30 miles of Fort Davis. The small town of Marfa is a magnet for artists and film buffs. "Giant," starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, was filmed here, as was "No Country For Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood." Balmorhea State Park features a pool fed from the San Solomon Spring where visitors can swim or scuba dive and see aquatic life like fish and turtles. The town of Alpine, where Sul Ross State University is located, boasts a cute downtown worth exploring.

The closest major airports are in El Paso, which is about 200 miles southwest of Fort Davis, and the Midland-Odessa area, about 150 miles northeast of Fort Davis. So plan on renting a car to get to the area.

Pulling out of Davis Mountains State Park onto the highway, a sign implores: "Ya'll come back." It'll be an offer you immediately want to take them up on.

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If You Go...

FORT DAVIS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE: http://www.nps.gov/foda/index.htm or 432-426-3224. Open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission, $3.

DAVIS MOUNTAINS STATE PARK: http://bit.ly/14iCAf. From Fort Davis, take Highway 17 to Highway 118N, then go three miles to Park Road 3 entrance. Entrance fee, $5.

INDIAN LODGE: http://bit.ly/jHFK. Located inside Davis Mountains State Park. Reservations: 512-389-8982. Rates range from $90-$135.

HOTEL LIMPIA: 100 Main St., Fort Davis, http://www.hotellimpia.com/ or 432-426-3241. Room rates starting from $99.

McDONALD OBSERVATORY: http://mcdonaldobservatory.org. Located in the Davis Mountains.