West Texas sky-gazing at McDonald Observatory and Davis Mountains


The last two days of our Southwestern road trip took us through West Texas and the surprisingly green and scenic Davis Mountains, where we visited McDonald Observatory.


A land of big sky, low humidity, and dark nights is the perfect place for gazing at stars and planets. According to its website, McDonald Observatory, part of the University of Texas, “is one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research, teaching, and public education and outreach.” It also has a nice visitors center and public programs.


First we drove the hills around the complex, looking at the various telescopes from the outside and investigating the visitor areas inside the buildings.


We didn’t get to look through any telescopes, but we enjoyed the self-guided tour. (Guided tours area available too.)


From atop the hills where the telescopes are housed, views are sweeping.


We learned that this is the highest elevation on Texas highways.


The big Hobby-Eberly Telescope is one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.


We’d originally planned to come back late that evening for one of the observatory’s Star Parties, i.e., nighttime stargazing through telescopes set up on the plaza (not the big ones). But late summer is the rainy season in West Texas and skies were cloudy, plus we decided an extra day at home before school started would be good. So we only spent a couple of hours here, but all three of us found it interesting and fun.


And what great views too!


Before we headed back to Austin (a 7-hour drive), we drove part of the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop on our way to Balmorhea State Park. We simply happened upon this drive, and what a beautiful route it is.


Red, finger-like stones seem to reach up from the earth…


…embracing the winding road in unique formations for miles. We stopped several times to take pictures and just enjoy the view. If you’re not familiar with the area, it’s less than an hour away from Marfa and two hours from Big Bend National Park.


Our final stop was Balmorhea Pool, a spring-fed swimming pool incongruously located in the high desert of West Texas. Similar to Barton Springs Pool in Austin, which stays at a chilly 68-70 degrees year-round, Balmorhea is a bit warmer at 72-76 degrees. Unlike Barton Springs, Balmorhea is completely enclosed by a manmade edge, like a regular swimming pool, albeit a very large one.


But you see fish swimming around you, algae-slick rocks line the bottom, and the depth at one end is 25 feet, so swimming there is like taking a dip in a river or lake, not a chemicalized swimming pool. It was delightful. But notice those threatening clouds. It began thundering, so we enjoyed just a quick swim before heading out.


Speaking of weather, it can be dramatic in a land this open. We spotted this sandstorm (I’d never seen one before) driving into Ft. Davis the evening before. After the sand came the rain, which we saw falling in the distance, a gray sheet hung over the desert.


Just at sunset, a double rainbow arched over the horizon, slowly fading to a red double rainbow pointing at the mountains. What a lovely end (or almost end) to our road trip.

For a look back at our descent into Carlsbad Caverns, click here. I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts about our travels through West Texas, northern New Mexico, and southwestern Colorado!

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
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Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets go on sale soon at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Going underground at Carlsbad Caverns


With the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park Service this month, I’m pleased we were able to visit two National Parks on our recent road trip: Mesa Verde in Colorado and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. We’d visited before with our eldest when he was little. This time we saw it with our youngest.

Bats live in the cave, and you can come at dusk to watch them emerge like a fluttering black cloud to begin their nightly hunt for flying insects. Bat flights are a common occurrence for us Austinites, however, and instead we spent several hours hiking through the cave.


I say hike because we entered, for our first time, through the natural cave entrance rather than taking the elevator down, and while not strenuous, it does involve a lot of walking down a slippery, steep trail in the semi-dark.


On the way down, I spotted this prickly pear clinging to a crevice in a rock wall. Life finds a way…


The cave mouth is huge, and you can’t help looking back at the shrinking blue sky as you descend.


Walking down the serpentine path toward the dark throat of the entrance feels like being swallowed up by Jonah’s whale.


You get some nice views of cave formations on the way down. But once you reach the main floor, 75 stories below the surface, you see the biggest and most fantastical ones, created by the slow drip drip of calcium-rich water over millennia.


Afterward, emerging into the sun-washed desert landscape, it’s amazing to think about the magical world hidden 1,000 feet below.

Up next: Skygazing at McDonald Observatory in the scenic Davis Mountains of West Texas. For a look back at mountain views and a steam train ride from Durango, Colorado, click here.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
_______________________

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets go on sale soon at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Rocky Mountain high by car and rail in southwestern Colorado


Colorado’s Rocky Mountains have been our summer playground many times, but we’ve always stayed on the eastern side along the Front Range, or in north-central Breckenridge, never on the western side. To see what we’ve been missing, earlier this month we rented a house in the Durango area and used it as base camp for a week of exploring southwestern Colorado. Not far from New Mexico and Utah, the area nurtures an Old West vibe, with quaint mining towns and small ski villages tucked in mountain-walled valleys. Plus, dramatic rock formations and high-desert vistas are found in the Mesa Verde area.

One day we drove the incredibly scenic San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop twisting through jagged mountains and picturesque towns, opening at times to breathtaking vistas like this.


My husband hates this area, as you can see.


One of the most beautiful spots — and a great place for lunch, shopping, or just kicking off your shoes and wading in an icy mountain stream — is Telluride. Its old-timey main street enjoys a view straight to Ingram Falls cascading from the rugged peaks that box in the town.


Just past the shopping district, adorable mountain cottages line the road, including this one with a lawn-gone, colorful front garden.


Across the street, a public park runs alongside the pebbly San Miguel River, and people and their dogs were frolicking in the frigid water.


We merely dipped our toes.


The sheer-falling plume of Bridal Veil Falls hangs over the valley too. Like Mr. Fredricksen’s balloon-lofted house in the movie Up, a hydroelectric power plant perches improbably on the cliff just above the falls.


Pandora Mill below the falls once processed zinc, lead, copper, and silver-and gold-laced ore from the mines that built the town.


After Telluride, Ouray is another former mining town worthy of a long stop along the way. I wish I’d taken pictures of the charming main street lined with Victorian homes, or its hot-spring swimming pool. But I only have photos of Ouray’s Box Canyon Falls


…and these cannot convey the tiptoeing walk visitors make along a vertigo-inducing catwalk bridge…


…which snakes under massive ledges of rock and around the craggy walls of the claustrophobic box canyon. You creep along this grid-floored bridge, which allows views to the rocks far below…


…with the roar of the water getting louder and louder as you reach the end of the canyon, where thousands of gallons of water erupt through a narrow slot to fall 80 feet.


You can walk down three flights of open-grid stairs to the canyon floor and watch the water froth past minivan-sized boulders.


If you lean out over the rail, you can glimpse old abandoned mining equipment along one cliff wall.

The road out of Ouray is a white-knuckled, gasp-inducing thrill ride. I have no pictures for the simple fact that I was driving, with my hands superglued to the wheel, and my husband and daughter urging me not to look away from the road for even a moment to take in the view. Dubbed the Million Dollar Highway, the side-winding, mountain-hugging road lacks even the pretense of guardrails along sheer-drop curves. Where the white line edges the pavement, the road simply disappears into space, with not even a weed clinging to the edge. The views are amazing. It is a thrill. You have to do it, just to say you did.


Another fun thing we did was ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.


The train, which has operated continuously since 1882, once hauled silver and gold ore out of the mountains.


Today it’s a National Historic Landmark that hauls tourists.


Passengers ride the 45 miles of track that alternately hug mountainsides and trace the Animas River through the canyons far below, a 3-1/2-hour journey each way.


If you sit on the right-hand side of the train on the way up (reserve well in advance), you get some hair-raising views as you snake around bends.


Almost straight down!


Our car was near the front, so I poked my head out the window to look back at the rest of the train. Every time, a sprinkling of coal cinders and ash landed in my hair and on my face. It wasn’t hot, but you didn’t want it in your eyes.


We crossed the Animas several times.


The coach interiors are comfortable with cushioned seats, and with windows open for a cool breeze (and a little ash). We’d tried to ride a gondola car — roofed but open-air, with bench seats facing outward for great views and easy photography — but those were all booked.


As it turned out, I got the shots I wanted by poking my camera out the window — after first checking to make sure no cliff was coming up, inches away from the train.


The Animas River is “one of the last free-flowing rivers in the entire western United States,” according to the train’s website.


It’s gorgeous.


These views are only accessible to hikers and riders. There’s no road here.


About two hours into the trip, the train stopped in an alpine meadow to take on some hikers/campers who’d been out there a while, from the looks of them. A few adventurous souls exited the train here too.


Pack llamas were waiting patiently for new wranglers.


Horses too


See ya!


The old mining town of Silverton is a tiny but colorful tourist destination today, filled with restaurants and souvenir shops. Many of our fellow passengers stopped here for lunch, but we had arranged to take a bus back down to Durango, shaving an hour and a half off the return time and getting a narrated tour of the area from the driver, which was great.


But it would have been fun to return on the train as well. Next time!

Up next: Our “journey to the center of the earth” at Carlsbad Caverns. For a look back at the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, click here.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.
_______________________

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

South Texans, come see me at the 2nd annual Planta Nativa festival in McAllen, Texas, on Saturday, October 22. I’ll be delivering the keynote talk, “Local Heroes: Designing with Native Plants for Water-Saving Gardens,” that evening. Tickets go on sale soon at Quinta Mazatlan. I hope to see you there!

Do you review? Have you read my new book, The Water-Saving Garden? If you found it helpful or inspirational, please consider leaving a review — even just a sentence or two — on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites. Online reviews are crucial in getting a book noticed. I really appreciate your help!

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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