Monday, February 21, 2011

Fort Davis to Big Bend

After camping at Davis Mountain State Park for three nights we have decided to buy a ranch here and raise horses! Not really, but if we had visited here when we were, say 20 or 30, we may have done just that. Fort Davis, a town of approximately 2000 residents in West Texas, has an elevation of 5,050 feet which makes the terrain and temperatures substantially less severe than other areas in this local. Summer temps average around 88 degrees, with a low of around 30 in the winter. Beautiful rolling hills of golden, knee high grass dotted with live oak and cottonwood trees stretch as far as you can see

The original for in Fort Davis was built in 1854. It was established here to protect the settlers, mail carriers, and freight haulers from Indian raids. Today the restored Fort is an outstanding example of what a frontier fort was like and a focal point of the town.

Our campsite at Davis Mountain State Park

View from Skyline Drive

Indian Lodge is a restaurant and lodge within the park that was built by the CCC circa 1935. In 1933 the CCC arrived in the Davis Mountains to begin construction of the State Park on land donated by local land owners. They constructed Skyline Drive up to the top of the highest hill in the park, and a 16 room adobe lodge. The lodge was built with large beamed ceilings lined with cane harvested in Big Bend, hand carved cedar furniture, and unique fireplaces that are still used today. An additional 24 rooms, swimming pool, and restaurant were added in 1967, and another 24 rooms were built on in 2002.

Indian Lodge office at the entry drive

An interior patio

CCC built picnic shelter at the top of Skyline Drive.

Fort Davis is also the home of McDonald Observatory. McDonald Observatory, is a research unit of The University of Texas at Austin. According to our guide, in 1932 a local resident left money for the University to establish an observatory on donated land on the top of Mount Locke. Unfortunately the University of Texas did not have an astronomy department so it went into partnership with the University of Chicago, who did have a department but no telescope. Today, McDonald Observatory is one of the world's leading centers for astronomical research, teaching, and public education. Observatory facilities that are located in the Davis Mountains, which offer some of the darkest night skies in the United States.

On the 16th we spent four hours at the observatory. The scheduled tour began at 2:00 so we arrived ½ hour early to view the exhibits in the visitor’s center. Rachael was our tour guide. An astronomer herself, she exuded enthusiasm and knowledge about the facility as well as the subject matter. Her job was public education and she was certainly well suited for that job.

Rachael our guide at McDonald Observatory

The guided tour began with ½-hour presentation in the theater about the sun and stars and how it is studied with spectrograph technology here at McDonald. So much information was presented that at the time I thought I was following along but later when I tried to write some of it down the data had escaped totally from my brain!

After the theater presentation we visited the 107-inch Harlan J Smith telescope, which was the third largest in the world when it was built in 1968. This telescope is used every clear night by astronomers who must submit a study proposal to a board before they can be scheduled for a time to visit the observatory and use the telescope.

Our tour also included a visit to the Hobby-Eberly telescope which has a 433 inch composite mirror and is the 5th largest optical telescope in the world. It is optimized for spectroscopy, the decoding of light from stars and galaxies to study their properties, making it ideal for searching for planets around other stars, and studying distant galaxies, exploding stars, black holes, and more. The observatory houses several other smaller telescopes that we did not visit but they continue to be used every day.

All the data collected from these telescopes is transmitted by computer to a control room where astronomers view the information as spectrographs on computer monitors. They never actually view the stars through the scope. Our guide told us that the majority of astronomy today is done with spectrographs. These graphs tell how bright, how far away the stars are, and what the stars are made of, all from the colors of the spectrographs. Sounds simple; right!

Two of the McDonald observatories from the visitor parking lot

Looking east from the observatory

and west

The computer that moves the 86 inch telescope

Sun Dial at the visitors center

A diagram of the 107 inch Hobby-Eberly telescope and building

The dome was constructed locally to save on building costs

The green tubing supports each individual mirror and adjusts each one individually when they are not precisely aligned. These supports were also produced locally to conserve funds. It is difficult to see by above the green tubing the thin silver line is actually the telescope mirror. This 433 inch surface is actually made up of over a hundred individual hexagon mirrors pieced together to form a whole.

On Friday the 18th we drove the 110 miles south to Big Bend National Park. The results of millions of years of volcanic activity visible in this area is overwhelming. Layer over layer of different types of volcanic events that are now visible through exposure by wind and water weathering. The colors of ash deposit, dikes, magma plugs, are exposed and visible on top of each other in some of the remaining formations. Seems like this place would be a geologists dream come true. It feels very pre-historic, like the computer generated models of cataclysmic events. My pictures all look alike - rock and more rock. It is an amazing place that photographs do not portray.

Over the last two weeks I have swung from wishing I had a degree in archeology, astronomy, plant biology, and geology. Visiting this region of Texas makes me realize just how much I do not know about prehistoric man, the universe, desert flora, or geology. It is all fascinating.

Throughout the park remains of past business and ranches are visible. Many have trails leading to old ruins. We walked into several sites. This is one of the windmills still working and pumping water on the Sam Nail ranch which was taken over when the area became a National Park in the 40's

An old broken windmill at the remains of Sam Nail's ranch, abandoned in 1945 when the park was opened.

A view of Tuff canyon from above. For some crazy reason we decided to hike down into this canyon

and below. Lots of evidence of spring and summer floods that scrub away more rock.

These desert plants are "some tough" This prickly pear was growing right out of a crack

The canyon is narrow because this type of volcanic rock resists the broad erosion seen in other washes. As you walk through you can see the variety of rock types in each layer.

A morning visit through our campsite at Casleton's Cottonwood campground. This group of javalinas came into the clearing one at a time until all 9 wandered out the other side

Santa Elana Canyon. Hard to believe water carved this canyon through the uplifting rock.

Getting ready to hike the Santa Elana overlook trail

The beginning climb to the trail

Going up the switchbacks

At the floor of the canyon the Reo Grande looks very tame this time of year

On our way out we saw this poor bat making tracks through the sand into the grass. Don't know why he was out in the day so we kept our distance.

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