Davis Mountains Loop
The unsavvy traveler might think west Texas is a flat wasteland of oil wells, cattle fences and sagebrush. True, there’s plenty of that – and cactus, too – but the landscape is actually remarkably diverse and mountainous. In fact, at 8,751 feet, west Texas’ Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in the state. Not too far from the Guadalupe Mountains are the Davis Mountains, just south of where I-20 takes off from I-10. Nicknamed the “Texas Alps,” the Davis Mountains are home to the state’s second tallest peak, 8,382-foot-high Mount Livermore as well as Texas’ highest town, Fort Davis, a mile above sea level. Along with some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S., these far up conditions make the area far out for astronomers, so much so that the University of Texas set up the McDonald Observatory – one of the world’s best with earth’s third largest telescope. Touring the observatory and attending a Star Party, along with all the high-altitude Texas-style bravado, are just a few of the reasons the Davis Mountains are worth exploring. You can join the loop in several spots but this story starts on TX 118 heading south. A right turn leads to TX 166 and soon a craggy volcanic cone appears directly ahead: dramatic Sawtooth Mountain is probably the prettiest peak in these parts. And if you’re lucky enough – or unlucky depending on your fear factor – you might catch male tarantulas wandering the highway and shoulders in search of love. This ritual happens for a few weeks in summer. Snakes are common, too, such as the red racer I spotted in the grass to the side of the road. Red racers, officially called western coachwhips, are nonvenomous, fast-moving and stretch four to six feet. From ancient volcanoes to the stuff of nightmares, the Davis Mountains Loop continues onto the largest (and highest, of course) community in the area, Fort Davis. Dating back to 1854, the town oozes with history as the site of a former military post. TX 17 is the highway on this part of the loop and just outside of Fort Davis, the scenic route continues with a left back onto TX 118 where it heads northwest up Limpia Canyon. Some 35 to 39 million years ago, the Davis Mountains were created by volcanic activity, and like many canyons in the area, Limpia Canyon features columns of lava. The road then climbs to its highest point, with the telescope domes of McDonald Observatory crowning Mount Locke. Zigzagging to lower climes, the ride returns to its beginnings near Sawtooth Mountain. From Fort Davis, TX 17 going north provides the most scenic exit from the area, with more canyons of lava columns and fascinating roadside attractions like the memorial to “slaughter bound horses, burros and mules” and a quaint, tiny church. Only in Texas!
Route & Map
Starting at the intersection of TX 118 and TX 166, the loop heads west and south around the Davis Mountains before reaching Fort Davis on TX 17. It then picks up TX 118, passing through Limpia Canyon on its way past the McDonald Observatory. This video then leaves the loop by way of TX 17, heading north of Fort Davis toward I-10.
Length & Time
Based on the map above, the video covers 150 miles in a little over half a day. The loop itself is 74 miles and takes about two hours.
Best Time to Visit
Because of the high elevation, this area is pleasant all year although summers are hot and winters can bring icy conditions. Male tarantulas are on the move in late summer so contact the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce or McDonald Observatory to see if they’re out and about.
Fort Davis offers gas, lodging and food. For more options and art galleries, go 20 minutes southwest to Marfa or 25 minutes southeast to Alpine.
Fort Davis has a thorough site, listing everything a visitor needs to know from campgrounds to rock shops. The McDonald Observatory lists guided tour and evening sky viewing times. Star Parties sell out quickly so book tickets online early.