Southwest Texas is home to one of America’s coolest national parks, an historic lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and a Dark Sky observatory. It adds up to a great spot for giving kids a glimpse into the wonders of frontier life, US history and the galaxy. Where else can you find all of that within a few miles of one another?
Visiting Southwest Texas with Kids
Is this the year that you load up the kids and drive until the road ends to explore an untamed corner of Texas? You have Big Bend National Park on your list but you need a little more to keep the kids moving on their next school break.
Your kids like movies? I know the place you will see stars the whole family will love.
Your kids love action-adventure? Introduce them to a historic fort, just like the ones in epic Westerns.
Fort Davis National Historic Site
At the Visitors Center my kids watch a short movie as I grab the booklets for the Junior Ranger program. It’s a great activity for adults to help guide their students through the significant features of any national park.
Outside, we discover another time in history as we walk from one restored building to another, including six furnished buildings. We peer into Fort Davis’ furnished Officer’s Quarters that accommodated families. I can’t imagine the hardships of raising a family on the frontier and I talk about it with my 13-year-old daughter.
Then the brassy bugle bellows over the loud speaker, transforming my boys into Army recruits. My boys are a part of an elite force of soldiers that don’t need actual weapons to destroy anything in their path.
To their delight my boys discover a Gatling gun, the first machine gun, in the armory building next to the Visitors Center. To my surprise, I hear my 11-year-old explaining everything he knows about weaponry to his 8-year-old brother.
When I ask where he learned about Gatling guns and antique weaponry, he shows me the infographic next to the gun. He’s my reluctant reader who has no problems reading about antique weapons. So next time they pull out their Nerf guns in the backyard; I can tell myself they are reenacting an epic battle that settled the West.
Fort Davis for History Buffs
Fort Davis is one of the best examples of a frontier fort in the Southwest. During the 1800s, the Comanches and the Apaches made traveling on the San Antonio-El Paso Road dangerous.
This fort was strategically placed to protect mail coaches, freight wagons and emigrants traveling west to the land of gold—California. At one time, Fort Davis housed 600 soldiers, 5 percent of the Army at the time.
After a couple of hours exploring, my kids are ready for some lunch. Across the street from Fort Davis, I find the Fort Davis Drug Store (13 State Street, open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.). This is an old-fashioned soda fountain with family-friendly fare like burgers and shakes.
Fort Davis National Historic Site is nestled next to the Davis Mountains, 40 miles south of Interstate 10 in West Texas or 110 miles from the western entrance of Big Bend National Park. It will take you about two hours to drive from Big Bend on Highway 118. It is a scenic byway through the Chihuahuan Desert, one of four deserts in the U.S.
Fort Davis National Historic Site (101 Lieutenant Henry Flipper Drive) is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, closed major holidays. The admission is $7 for everyone over 16 and the kids are free; or you can use an America the Beautiful national parks annual pass ($80).
Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park
I am always on the hunt for unique or historic lodging. There is a great one just up the road in Davis Mountains State Park, about 5 miles west of Fort Davis.
I reserved a night at the Indian Lodge, an adobe hotel built in 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a corps of young men that developed natural resources on public lands throughout the U.S. during the Great Depression.
The Indian Lodge is a 39-room, full-service hotel with an on-site restaurant that is managed by the Texas Parks and Wildlife. It 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 and roomy enough for a family (with two queens $159), complete with all the standard features. The Black Bear Restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, Wednesday through Sunday. There is 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. During the winter, you might catch a desert snow shower.
Explore the Skies at McDonald Observatory
After checking into our room we head out for our next excursion, just 12 miles away on Highway 118. Due to the remote location and dark skies, the University of Texas built a research observatory that offers educational programs.
The McDonald Observatory (3640 Dark Sky Drive) offers solar, twilight and night programs throughout the year. This is a great activity for everyone though advance reservations are required.
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.
Star Parties for Kids
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.
It is held outside in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park behind the Visitors Center. You will 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. Outside the protected domes, numerous telescopes are set up in various sizes.
When I look up at the night sky at home, I often think of it as an inky, black blanket, signaling most creatures walking on the Earth to go to sleep. Standing in the desert, staring at the night sky through a telescope, seeing it as I have never seen it before. It’s nothing short of awe-inspiring.
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- Give yourself at least an hour and a half to explore Fort Davis Historic Park especially if your kids are earning a Junior Ranger badge.
- Camping is not allowed at Fort Davis but is available at Davis Mountains State Park, 5 miles away.
- Make reservations well in advance for the Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains State Park.
- The restaurant at the Indian Lodge will be undergoing a year-long renovation starting March 2016.
- 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.