Thursday, 22 September 2011

Labor Day Weekend: Davis Mountains State Park & McDonald Observatory

Sorry to delay posting the rest of our Labor Day trip. Sometimes RL "real life" gets in the way.

After a day of swimming at awesome Balmorhea State Park we had to cover some ground to get to The Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park where we had a reservation for the night. Now the funny thing is I never intended to go to the Davis Mountains on this trip when I booked a room I thought the Lodge was in Balmorhea, oops... But happy accidents and all that, and we found ourselves there in the late evening. It was more than we had expected having stayed in many state park lodges in many states, the Indian Lodge is a beautiful adobe conglomeration of loosely connected rooms, breezeways, and different levels with great views of the valley. It was one of many structures built by the CCC in the park and we would highly recommend it. We ate dinner at the on-site restaurant which serves diner style Tex-Mex, it is reasonably priced and while it isn't the best place I have ever eaten it was certainly palatable after the long hours of swimming.

Courtyard at the Indian Lodge

Later after checking in and having dinner we decided to drive the Skyline road to grab a couple geocaches, but more so to see the fire damage and great a better look at our surrounding in general. The day was warm but a stiff breeze made it pleasant enough to drive with the windows down. From the crest of the road the 360 degree views are quite amazing. What shocked me most was that although the fires were widespread and devastating here there is new green growth to be seen everywhere. There hasn't been much more rain since the fires, but burned-out yucca and mesquite have new green sprouts and the ground is covered in little flowers. Even the pinons have new green needles it seems! The worst we saw of the fires was the destruction of the historic picnic area at the overlook. It has lost its roof and been cordoned off. Also, there are many antenna array up top that I assume are weather stations and temporary cellphone towers. Cell reception is poor at best and absent except on the highest points.

Wild Javelina in Davis Mountains State Park
As we walked a nature trail to find the Davis Mountains State Park Geocache we spooked a young whitetail deer and watched her easily pick her way through the desert foliage and down into the valley. She then leapt over a burned barbwire fence and made her way up the hill on the other side of the valley. This was the first but not the last major wildlife we would see in the park. Thankfully this must mean there is still enough food and habitat for them even with the fires destroying so much.

Historic Picnic Area on Skyline Drive

Greenery and life returns to the Davis Mountains

Dusk was falling, quick as ever when you are in mountainous terrain, we could see the McDonald Observatory in the distance from Skyline drive and decided on the fly to go check it out. Neither of us had ever been to a star party before, all I knew is I shouldn't drink any Kool-Aid offered by the host. It seemed to take a long time to get to there even though it was just over six miles as the crow flies because the road does anything but go straight between the park and the observatory. First we headed west, the north, and lastly we almost passed the observatory before turning off the highway and looping back around to the visitor center. We bought our tickets for the star party and sat outside watching the hummingbirds fly around in the waning light. As it turned out the clouds did not blow off as much as we would have hoped so they gave a "virtual star party" presentation in the theater and then let us take turns looking through the many telescopes behind the visitor center looking at fleeting star clusters and galaxies, nebulae, etc. peeking out of the clouds. The highlights of the evening were seeing the International Space Station pass over head and seeing several shooting stars. The moon was also visible as a waning crescent. My take home though was that I really want a green laser pointer, those things have amazing range!

Sunset at the McDonald Observatory