Sunday, January 14, 2007

Around Alpine, Texas

On our trip west last year, we spent two nights in Alpine and vowed that we'd have to return to see more of the area. This year we did just that, staying a week at the Lost Alaskan RV Park, a nice little park just north of town. Alpine, with a population of just over 6000, sits at 4500' elevation just about half way between El Paso and San Antonio - out in the middle of west Texas, far away from just about anything. Surprisingly, it sits in an area of significant mountains, and is close to a number of interesting places to visit. Alpine is the home of Sul Ross State University, and its 2000 students result in some nice bookstores and good restaurants that you wouldn't expect in a town this size. Our favorite restaurant, the Edelweiss Brewery and Restaurant, is one of those jewels. Housed in a 1912 hotel, the menu offers both chicken fried steak and jaeger schnitzel, and we enjoyed our New Year's Eve dinner here. Brenda ordered an Alpine Blond; but instead of Wolfgang, the god-like Nordic waiter, she ended up with a glass of the home-brewed lager. But enough of that, let's talk about our explorations:
Big Bend National Park is a place we've always wanted to visit, but we've never been close to it's out-of-the-way location; even from Alpine it's 100 miles. We only had time to spend one day in the Park, and chose to explore the western half and hike into Santa Elena Canyon. As you approach the border with Mexico, it looks like a huge rock wall fills the horizon, with just one crack where the Rio Grande river flows through. This is Santa Elena Canyon, a narrow gap where you can literally throw a rock across the river into Mexico. The hike, about a mile each way, climbs (naturally) the west side of the canyon and then drops back down to the river. We had a nice hike & then had lunch in the picnic area. From there, we drove back roads, toured the visitor center, and then exited the park to the west. Although we enjoyed the day, I don't think we'll be back. The remoteness, lack of services, and long distance from any major town is a drawback; and frankly, while beautiful, there are other parks that are more accessible and offer more to see and do. On the way, we passed through Lajitas, a very upscale little resort town. There, I took this picture of an old cavalry post that now is a resort hotel. On the way back we passed a ranch with camels grazing, a reminder of when the U.S. cavalry tried to use them as pack animals in the area, and the Faver ranch, the basis for the Clint Eastwood series "Rawhide" and the name of the trail boss in the series. Our interest in western history continued at Fort Davis National Historic Site, north of Alpine in a beautiful mountain area. Billed as one of the best preserved cavalry posts of the era, the post has many restored buildings and a very good visitor center which details the history of the "buffalo soldiers" stationed here. If you had to be stationed at a fort, this would be the place to be; at the base of beautiful mountains, grass & water, and a temperate climate. If you visit, don't miss the hilarious (not intentionally) visitor center video starring Kareem Abdul Jabaar dressed in as a cowboy and struggling to read the script. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but if I was Kareem, I'd be trying to buy up all the copies. Further north in the Davis Mountains, we visited the McDonald Observatory, a large mountaintop complex with a wonderful visitor center and tour. Being pretty much clueless about astronomy, we found the tour fascinating and educational. We visited the telescopes and got an appreciation for how they worked and why McDonald Observatory is one of the best locations in the country. It's on a high mountain (almost 7000'), and in an area that because of it's remoteness, is very, very dark because of the lack of city lights. In fact, all of the communities (including Alpine) within over 40 miles have local ordinances which prohibit any lights without shields to prevent "light pollution". Later, I noticed that at the RV park, only low ground lighting was used, and passing the high school, even the football field lights were shielded. Our tour guide gave us a show with the big telescope, moving it around (it's so well balanced that it only uses a 1/2 hp motor), and opening the dome. What surprised us is that the whole dome is on wheels and rotates around. We also toured the "new" telescope, which is a large panel of 91 small mirrors placed together to form a large mirror and that rotates on a cushion of air. It was interesting to learn that to save money; they hired a highway bridge construction firm to build the frame. The construction details were very interesting; you can find them here. To top off our day, we learned that we were on the highest highway in Texas! All in all, we had a memorable time in the Alpine area and recommend it if you're ever passing through the area. Thanks for all your comments on our site; be sure and include your name or email so we know who to thank!

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