February Road Trip - Davis Mountains, Big Bend and Guadalupe Peak

Davis Mountains as viewed from McDonald Observatory
Valentine's Day morning we headed west and home was still in our thoughts.

But the sun was shining and I remembered that the McDonald Observatory held star parties on Tuesday nights, so we decided to squeeze in one more stop, this time in Alpine, TX. Unfortunately the skies weren't clear that night, but Wednesday morning we drove up to the Observatory and took their fantastic daytime tour.

Harlan J. Smith Telescope (107" mirror)

Our tour guide with the telescope after raising the floor

Afterward we drove the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop, then ended the day at the Davis Mountains State Park. The Interpretive Center has a blind where we saw our first Black-crested Titmouse, a Texas specialty.

Black-crested Titmouse

After such a great day of science and birding we were feeling invigorated. Since we were so close, we decided to explore Big Bend National Park. On short notice, we were lucky to get one of the last rooms available at Chisos Mountain Lodge, a CCC-built accommodation in the heart of the park. We highly recommend the restaurant, which served unexpectedly good food with a great view out to "the window." Everyone was friendly and we liked the vibe. The concessionaire running the lodge and restaurant was Forever Resorts -- the same company that runs the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park.

Chisos Mountains

Our adventures started at the Persimmon Gap entrance in the north, and down to the Dagger Flats drive to see the Giant Dagger Yuccas.

Susan on the Dagger Flats Auto Trail in Big Bend NP

After checking in to our room, we drove over to Rio Grande Village for sunset at the easternmost part of the park. Storm clouds rolled in and the sunset was a bust, but we saw a rainbow, some hail, and an incredible (but too close to get out of the car and photograph) lightning storm.

The mountains (in Mexico) near Rio Grande Village in Big Bend NP

During this trip Mike learned of an interesting family connection to the Big Bend area. Mike's maternal grandfather, A.G. Beard (1884-1941) was a Texas Ranger in the early 1900s and was part of a group of rangers who responded to a raid in the Glenn Springs settlement (now part of Big Bend). Mike also learned a couple of other bits of trivia about his grandfather. He was known to have camped around the Cattail Falls area in the Park, and a cousin of Mike's has a newspaper clipping mentioning that A.G. Beard contributed $1 toward the purchase of lands that eventually became Big Bend National Park.

Early the next morning we visited Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio Grande. Low clouds dampened the effect, but the canyon walls were splendid. We did some birding at the Cottonwood Campground and saw our first Vermillion Flycatcher.

Susan at Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend NP
Vermillion Flycatcher

Back in the Lodge area, I had a thrilling experience of coming face to face with a mountain lion. Mike was bringing the car around from the other side of the parking lot while I walked to our room. As I approached the flight of steps leading to the rooms, 3 deer ran past quickly from right to left. It occurred to me that they might be being pursued, so I glanced to the right and this time my paranoia was justified. I was looking up into the eyes of a young lion not 12 feet in front of me! I backed off slowly and when I could no longer see him, ran a few feet back to the moving car, pounding on the window for Mike to let me in. He grabbed the camera and ran up the hill, but the lion was long gone.

The mountain lion was where the cones are
 and Susan was standing where this pic was taken.

There had been an incident earlier that week where a lion had attacked a young boy who was holding his mother's hand as they walked to their room from the restaurant, so the park volunteers took my report very seriously. The mother struggled to chase the cat away with her bare hands, and the father thought quickly, grabbed his pocket knife and stabbed at the cat until it ran away. We later learned that animal was sick and had already been captured and euthanized. The boy needed stitches in his face, but was otherwise fine. Several trails and campgrounds were still closed because of the attack.

Would you hike here?

A park ranger and a park biologist found us later in the evening at dinner, asked more questions, and had me show them exactly where the lion was sighted. Cones were placed in the area outside of our room where the lion had hidden behind some yucca. Later that night we heard the howling of bloodhounds trying to track the lion.

The next morning we awoke to a light dusting of snow. We loved the basin of the Chisos Mountains Sky Island under all the different weather conditions we experienced, and look forward to coming back.

Chisos Mountains Lodge on a snowy morning

Our route out took us through Big Bend Ranch State Park, a scenic drive mostly along the Rio Grande. That day a cycling event was going on so our admission was free.

Along the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park; the mountains to the left of the river are in Mexico

We stopped to eat in Marfa at Pizza Foundation, after learning that the fancy Hotel Paisano did not serve lunch. As we headed up to I-10, it we noticed MacDonald Observatory on the mountains to our right.

Susan at the Pizza Foundation, a former gas station

We drove past the impressive Guadalupe Peak (8,749 ft), the highest point in Texas, on the way to our stop for the night in Carlsbad, NM.

Guadalupe Peak, 8749', the highest point in Texas

Having only seen west Texas from I-10 in the past, our perspective of the area was greatly changed on this trip.

Bluebonnets in Big Bend

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