On Top of the World in the Trans- Pecos

Guadalupe MountainsThe Trans-Pecos region of West Texas comprises four mountain ranges, extending from the bottom of the Rocky Mountain system at the New Mexico state line to Big Bend National Park and the Mexican border.

Begin exploring at the top, amid the forests, meadows, and cliffs of lonely, exquisite Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Home to 8,749-foot Guadalupe Peak—Texas’s tallest—it’s also known for dramatic rock formations that were actually a vast underwater limestone reef 250 million years ago. Climbers will need 6 to 8 hours to hike the steep but well-marked Guadalupe Peak Trail to “the top of Texas,” where you can sign a register to prove you made it. Among 80 other park trails to consider are the McKittrick Canyon Trail (following a pretty stream to sites like the historic Pratt Lodge), the Permian Reef Trail (offering excellent views into McKittrick Canyon), and the Marcus Overlook Trail (a moderate climb with steep, dramatic views).

Balmorhea State Park, 125 miles south, is an oasis fed by the beautiful San Solomon Springs that once served buffalo, Native Americans, and pioneer families. Like the enormous 77,053- square-foot pool, where up to 26 million gallons of natural spring waters rush in daily and stay at 65°F, the two wooden bath-houses and adobe-brick San Solomon Courts were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. The next range is Davis Mountains State Park, whose peaks were formed by volcanic activity 65 million years ago.

In the park’s northern sector, you’ll find the Limpia Canyon Primitive Area, with 10 miles of backcountry trails, or take in the views from the leisurely 74-mile drive that passes nine scenic roadside parks and the McDonald Observatory. Among the world’s leading centers for astronomical research, it sits beneath some of the darkest night skies in the continental United States and offers daily public viewing programs and Star Parties on some evenings.

Spend the night at nearby Indian Lodge, a 39-room hotel built by the CCC in the 1930s in Southwestern Native American Pueblo style, with 18-inch adobe walls and hand-carved cedar furniture. Fort Davis National Historic Site, one of the nation’s best-preserved cavalry forts, is an 8-mile round-trip hike from here. At the fort’s museum, you can learn more about the illustrious Buffalo Soldiers, the legendary black troops known for their bravery and toughness.

Healing waters burble up from a 20,000-year-old geothermically heated aquifer in Chinati Hot Springs in the little hamlet of Ruidosa, making it the perfect place to appreciate the third range, the Chinati Mountains. You can soak in the outdoor hot tub, take sunrise hikes or bike rides in the desert, and rest up in modest cabins near the cottonwood-lined creek.

From Ruidosa, point yourself eastward along the spectacularly scenic River Road, following the Rio Grande toward Big Bend National Park and the final set of West Texas peaks, the Chisos Mountains, rising above the Chihuahuan Desert.