It was midday on Día de los Muertos as I hurtled down a rain-swollen Rio Grande, my illusions of control over my canoe evaporating like dew in the Chihuahuan Desert. A threat waited immediately ahead: a partially submerged tree periscoping above the churning surface. Unless I maneuvered around it, I would likely end up capsized and adrift in a flow surging around monolithic rocks strewn across the utterly remote Mariscal Canyon.
A few weeks ago, my husband, Alex, and I were preparing to backpack the Outer Mountain Loop in Big Bend National Park—a rugged 30-mile trail that crosses the Chisos Mountains and dips into the Chihuahuan Desert—when, only three days before our departure to West Texas, the federal government shut down, meaning no backcountry permits were unavailable. We were forced to come up with a new plan for our Christmas break.
A mile or two into my hike to the top of Mount Livermore in the Davis Mountains, I stepped to the side of the trail as two speedsters overtook me on the uphill slope. “I guess that’s where we’re headed,” I said, nodding to a rocky outcrop on the horizon far above. “Nope,” one of them responded. “Baldy Peak is beyond that—you can’t see it yet.”
The Davis Mountains have long attracted people seeking respite from the surrounding deserts of West Texas. Delivered as magma from volcanic activity some 35 million years ago, the mountains harbor patches of “sky island” known for relatively moist forested hillsides, cooler temperatures, and spartan beauty. To explore the Davis range’s cultural past and natural marvels, head to the highest town in Texas—Fort Davis, at 5,050 feet—and hit the trail. Or better yet, hit three trails.
The best road trips allow time for detours off the beaten path. Though it can be tempting to choose the most expedient route, it’s often the “long-cuts” that make a trip memorable. One of our family’s perennial favorites is the Sheffield Loop, a 20-mile scenic drive on State Highway 290, just off Interstate 10 west of Ozona.
The Nueces River valley plummets from the Edwards Plateau with the abruptness of a summer squall. The topography plunges from dry to drenched when you cruise south from Rocksprings on State Highway 55, blank skies giving way to blue-green canopies of oaks and pecans as the road abandons the grassless flats for glimpses of resplendent waters that seem to chase canyon twilight into the brightness of day. Here, the Nueces River finds its voice: a convergence of forks, prongs, creeks, and springs that begin their last odyssey to the Gulf of Mexico as one.
When Mother Nature doles up a summer afternoon so hot you need oven mitts to handle the steering wheel of your car, smart Texans head to the nearest swimming hole.