Explore the epic desert landscape of West Texas and the Chihuahua desert. Check out the Indian Lodge in Fort Davis built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Explore an authentic fort from the old west. Take a dip in the largest natural spring-fed pool in the world. And, after the sun sets, the stars come out for a party.
Visiting West Texas with Kids
In-between San Antonio and El Paso looks sparse on the map but if you turn off the interstate you’ll find a unique landscape to explore. West of Fort Stockton, find a couple of Texas state parks, including one with the largest spring-fed natural pool in the world. Or explore a historic fort to hear a bugle play. Then check out a star party and stare into the inky night sky with a powerful telescope.
1. Balmorhea State Park
Just off Interstate 10, find the largest natural spring-fed pool in the world. In the tiny town of Toyahvale, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the pool and its buildings in the 1930s.
President Franklin Roosevelt initiated the CCC as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Corps of young men developed natural resources on public lands throughout the U.S. like national and state parks.
Fed by San Soloman Springs, the Balmorhea Swimming Pool measures 1.3 acres, is from 4 to 25 feet deep and holds 3.5 million gallons of fresh water. With a year-round temperature of 72 to 76F, it’s refreshing on a summer day.
Find a bathhouse, concession stand and lots of open space for laying in the sun near the pool. The state park is open for day-use daily and adult admission (13+) is $7 and kids 12 and under are free.
Balmorhea State Park offers camping with developed sites with utility hook-ups and nearby restrooms from $20 a night. Each site includes a covered picnic table and fire pit.
San Solomon Springs Court is a historic lodge located inside the park. The rooms are equipped with three queen beds, a small refrigerator, a microwave along with a picnic table and small BBQ outside next to the canal. It’s a serious value for under a $100 a night (additional $10 a night fee for more than two adults).
Located at 9207 TX-17 in Toyahvale, Texas. Reservations for rooms and camping are a must.
Note: Balmorhea State Park is closed until late summer 2020 for renovations.
2. Fort Davis National Historic Site
In the rugged western town of Fort Davis, find the remains of the fort used to settle the west. Fort Davis is one of the best examples of a frontier fort in the Southwest.
During the 1800s, the Comanches and the Apaches raided coaches on the San Antonio-El Paso Road. The forts were strategically placed to protect coaches traveling west to the land of gold, California. At one time, Fort Davis housed 600 soldiers, five percent of the Army at the time.
First, watch a short movie at the visitor center. Then take a self-guided tour of the five restored buildings and the parade field. Check out the furnished Officer’s Quarters that accommodated families during the 1880s.
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During your visit, hear the brassy bugle bellow over the loud speaker, just like it did when the fort was occupied with soldiers. Then check out the armory building, next to the visitor center to see antique weaponry.
My boys learned more in this exhibit than I expected. I got a lesson in the Gatlin gun, the first machine gun after they read the infographic next to the display.
If you have the time, the kids can earn a Junior Ranger Patch at Fort Davis National Historic Site. It takes about two hours to complete and the patches make a nice and free souvenir.
Read More Guide to Junior Rangers
Located at 101 Lieutenant Henry Flipper Drive, Ft. Davis is 40 miles south of Interstate 10. Fort Davis is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, closed major holidays. The admission is $20 for a seven day pass. Or you can use an America the Beautiful national parks annual pass ($80).
Read More Guide to National Parks
3. Fort Davis Drug Store
Originally opening in 1913, the diner features a 22-foot soda fountain that still mixes up favorites like banana splits and shakes. The menu features breakfast, sandwiches and burger baskets along with blue plate specials along with a kids menu.
This is a popular lunch spot for the locals, which is a sure sign the food is really good.
Located at 111 N. State St. Open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
4. Davis Mountains State Park
Connected to the Fort Davis National Historic Site by trails, Davis Mountains State Park is over the ridge from the town of Fort Davis. Davis Mountains State Park feels remote with over 2,000 acres to explore.
This park was originally developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. You’ll find roads, stone picnic tables as well as with steps and trails to help you navigate the park. The CCC also built the Indian Lodge but not the campground. It was added in the 1960s.
Hiking skyline drive, birding and star gazing are popular pastimes in the park. Camp or stay in the lodge. The campground features restrooms with showers. Campsites include utility hook ups, fire rings and picnic tables. Campsites are $20 to $25 a night.
Located at TX-118N Park Road 3, Ft. Davis. Adult admission (13+) is $6 and kids 12 and under are free.
5. Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park
The adobe hotel was built in 1930s by the CCC. It’s a 39-room, full-service hotel with an on-site restaurant and meeting room, managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife.
The Indian Lodge features whitewashed adobe walls with traditional handcrafted elements, like viga beams that form the ceilings in most rooms. The rustic, Southwestern furniture was made by the CCC especially for the Indian Lodge.
The rooms are comfortable with two queens ($150 a night). The rooms have coffee makers, air conditioning and heat.
The Black Bear Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Wednesday through Sunday. Find an outdoor pool on-site as well.
What I love the most about the Indian Lodge is the scenery. Since it is located within a state park, it feels remote. Perched in the Davis Mountains and nestled among yuccas and prickly pear cacti, it’s the only building in sight.
Located at 16453 Park Road 3. Reserve months in advance.
6. Star Party at McDonald Observatory
Thanks to the remote location and dark skies, the University of Texas built a research observatory that offers educational programs.
The McDonald Observatory offers solar, twilight and night programs throughout the year. Advance reservations are required for this must-do activity in West Texas.
For solar viewing, there are two programs daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The admission is $8 for everyone 12 and older, $7 for children 6 to 12 and free for children under 6. This program lasts about two and a half hours.
For night sky viewing, the McDonald Observatory offers a Twilight Program and a Star Party on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
The Twilight Program is an hour-long educational program that is a great introduction to astronomy. This program is held inside and there is no telescope viewing. The admission is $5 for everyone 6 and older and free for children under 6.
The Star Party is close to two-hours long and starts 30 minutes after the Twilight Program. The admission is $12 for everyone 12 and older, $8 for children 6 to 12 and free for children under 6.
In the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park, find three domes, each featuring a different telescope ranging in size from a 16-inch to a 24-inch. The Star Party also features an accessible telescope with a fixed eyepiece. Numerous telescopes are set up in various sizes outside the protected domes.
Docents are on site to help you find planets and galaxies. This is a must-do activity though dependent on clear skies.
Located at 3640 Dark Sky Drive. Bring an extra layer no matter the season because it’s cooler up in the mountains.
7. Other Destinations in West Texas
Big Bend National Park is a national park in the Chihuahua Desert along the United States and Mexican border.
Big Bend Ranch State Park is the state park located next to Big Bend National Park.
Marfa is artsy desert town featuring Donald Judd art installation, Hotel Paisano and the mysterious Marfa Lights.
Need more ideas for Texas road trips? Check out these top picks.
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- Camping is not allowed at Fort Davis but is available at Davis Mountains State Park, five miles away.
- Make reservations well in advance for the Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains State Park.
- The McDonald Observatory evening programs start at varying times based on the sunset.
- The temperature at the observatory is 15°F lower than Fort Davis.
- McDonald Observatory’s programming is held regardless of weather, alternative indoor activities are scheduled if the sky is obscured.