As noted in my previous post, Peggy and I recently took a vacation in west Texas in the Fort Davis area. The area has many attractions ranging from abundant wildlife to beautiful alpine areas in the Davis Mountains, which extend to the west and north of Fort Davis.
Lots of big mountains, volcanic in origin and with many cliffs rising 200-500 feet straight up. Piñon, Cedar, scrub oak, madrone,... lots of different trees. In late March and with the serious drought in place the grasses are just golden, with little green. Many signs of fires along the way. Click to enlarge.
At Fort Davis is a beautifully preserved Army post from the latter 1800s. In addition, the Davis Mountains provide some of the most beautiful and challenging cycling routes in Texas. One of those is the Fort Davis Scenic Loop. This loop is, if you ride starting from the Indian Lodge Hotel in the Davis Mountains State Park and return to Indian Lodge, 78.1 miles. In several cycling guides I have read descriptions of another loop of similar length, passing through the towns of Fort Davis, Alpine and Marfa. Every one of those write-ups, except a brief section in a Texas Parks and Wildlife brochure, noted that there was also The Fort Davis Scenic Loop but cautioned that only riders in exceptional condition should attempt it due to the amount of climbing involved.
I have not yet found one of those “great rides of Texas…” sort of books which has a description of riding The Fort Davis Scenic Loop, though I know several people who made this ride when they were younger, and will attempt to partially remedy that gap with this blog post.
I have posted, in addition to the pictures in this post a video on youtube of one of the several “pretty golly let’s brake a bunch descents“.
The route map and elevation profile below show why admonitions of ride difficulty would be commonly issued. I was very intimidated, not just from those admonitions, but also from riding just the first 12.6 miles of it (and then back into town) on Monday and having driven the whole loop on Sunday. The descriptive phrase could well be “a stunning and terrible beauty”.
Fort Davis Scenic Loop - Click to enlarge.
Elevation profile for the ride. The elevation at the stop at the McDonald Observatory Visitor Center is noted.
I got started at about 9:45am on Wednesday, a little later than intended, but still while the air was cool and crisp. As I was about to leave the parking lot, I encountered a couple getting ready to depart on a heavily loaded tandem bike and stopped to visit.
These fellow retirees had ridden from Seattle to San Diego to Fort Davis and were preparing to depart for Alpine to visit friends then onwards to New Orleans, Florida and eventually to their home in Connecticut!
Feeling somewhat encouraged that I might survive my ride, after a short visit with those impressive seasoned senior road warriors, departure finally happened about 10am. Rolling out of the Davis Mountain State Park, I turned left on TX118 toward the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory. My elevation leaving the state park was about 5,200 feet and the elevation in the parking lot at the Observatory Visitor’s Center, about 12.5 miles of riding away would be about 6,200 feet. “Onwards and upwards” was an appropriate term. A few miles out, the Observatory came into sight perched high above and ahead.
About 5 miles in the distance and 1000 feet up, my first stop.
A couple of miles later, the climbing began in earnest.
Click on the picture to enlarge.
Time to take a sweeping right turn and start climbing.
I think I am gonna be tired! Click on picture to enlarge.
Then it gets steeper and I am thinking I may get really tired.
This is just the start of this climb! My heart rate was already over 140. Click to enlarge picture.
Then there was a short dip and then the climb REALLY got serious. Peggy was at the scenic overlook watching and worrying about whether this hill would do me in.
I think my angle of climb was greater than what most World War Two Fighters could maintain. It sure felt that way.
Meanwhile Peggy was also taking pictures, perhaps to show the insurance guy or maybe some pshrink she was lining up for me.
The view from up-hill. The Catrike and I are about in the center of the picture looking and feeling pretty small. Click to enlarge.
The climb seemed to go on and on, but eventually I topped the long stretch and had a nice descent of 100 feet or so which unleashed some boyish exuberance and three wheeled drifting.
Leaning into the the tighter turns at 30+mph is smart. Otherwise something way too exciting would happen, though I am sure the resulting youtube post would get lots of hits.
About a half mile later there was the sign where one turns off to go up (even steeper, but not that far) to the Observatory Visitor Center.
Observatory entrance. I think I need to remember to clean the windshield on the truck!
We stopped at the Visitor Center and split a quesadilla for an early lunch. We knew that once we left the Observatory, the next store, cafe or head would be over 60 miles away in Fort Davis. Once fed, watered and prepared for the long ride we headed back down to TX118 and proceeded west towards our turn south on TX166.
But first we saw lots of great scenery, part of the Garmin Cycling Team, a young couple cycling east and went down and then back up 300 feet a couple of times.
Looking back, about 2 miles after leaving the observatory. Click to enlarge.
Right after taking that picture, looking back towards the observatory we enountered that young couple, as they were grinding up a hill that I was just starting to accelerate down. Ah youth! That hill involved a 350 foot change in elevation in 1.8 miles. It was fun to rip down, but I know it was tough to grind up.
The first quick descent of the day dropped from about 6,250 feet by 350 feet in about 1.8 miles with some gentle turns.
It was a descent for me, but a climb for this couple.
As I started to accelerate, and grin, here they came grinding and sweating up that hill!
About a quarter-mile after completing the descent I met three members of the Garmin Cycling Team, heading back toward the observatory where we had seen a team van parked. They waved, smiled and hollered greetings as I blew past, still rolling at over 30mph from that descent. I later encountered the fourth rider, who yelled out greetings and told me he’d had a flat and was chasing his team members. Then I got to practice my uphill technique. Having had a nice descent, I now got to have a humdinger of a climb back up to about 6,200 feet.
The climb just before the second exciting descent. My heart rate hit 154 before I backed off just before this picture was taken. Click for larger picture.
On this climb, my heart rate went over 150bpm, peaking at 154 before I backed off to about 3mph and brought the heart Rate back down to the middle 140′s.
Descent #2 is noted. The map does not do it justice, but Peggy got some pictures that do. Click to enlarge.
Then came that second descent. It twisted and wound around like it had been laid out by some crazed boa constrictor fugitive from a bad trip in the 1960s.
Descent #2 drops off to the left, note the pavement disappearing!
But that does not tell the whole story. Peggy then walked across the road and just to right where she could look over the cliff to the valley below and see the road re-emerge, and took the following picture.
The road switches back, again, then disappears down the next 100 foot drop.
Lets just say that I had a stimulating ride down that descent. Just when I would think things were fully under control, the road would make a sharp switchback and, at the same time, pitch down a bunch more. A couple of times I caught just a whiff of overheated brake pads. The Catrike has disc brakes with lots of cooling holes sorta like it was from some half-scale Ferrari, so it does brake well, but if you brake too hard, the rear wheel will begin to lift-off and directional control becomes dicey. As it was, the Catrike and I figured out how to get us both down that descent in one piece. But it was exciting and that is a good thing. If I can’t get excited, how do I know I am still alive, or recognize tranquility for that matter? I recognized tranquility once out on the valley floor.
There were three more gentle climbs with easy, but fast, descents before the turn south onto TX166. Those were just fun, even with one taking me to nearly 37mph and with some braking to slow for the sweeping turn onto TX166.
After a couple of miles on TX166, the imposing shape of Sawtooth Mountain came into view. It looks sorta big in this picture. The picture does not do it justice.
Sawtooth Mountain, still several miles ahead. It is really an interesting looking piece of geology.
I got to wondering about the geology of Sawtooth, so when we got back I did some Googling and found a master’s thesis on the geomorphology of Sawtooth Mountain. Actually it is about the “ PETROLOGY AND GEOCHEMISTRY OF SYENITES OF SAWTOOTH MOUNTAIN“ and is by Judy Ann Vincent who was a Master’s student at Texas Tech when she wrote her thesis. If you wish to know more about Sawtooth, I think Judy is the person to find!
When I was a senior at The University of Texas, I finally got around to taking freshman Geology and had the extraordinary good fortune to end up, through no fault of my own, in a class taught by Dr. Ronald DeFord. Dr. DeFord was something special, and I did understand that. However, when slogging through Ms. Vincent’s Thesis, my mind kept drifting back to those classes 45 years ago. In order to move my mind on, I finally decided to see what I could learn about Dr. DeFord via Google. I found an announcement of his passing, in 1992, written by the then-President of The University of Texas at Austin. Reading that announcement/eulogy I learned just how fortunate I had been to luck into that man’s class. It was very rare to see a Professor of his stature teaching a freshman course with 300 students, mostly it seemed to me they were giggling female freshman sorority pledges with no interest in much beyond getting their MRS while at The University of Texas. I was not a student of significant dedication and often skipped Dr DeFord’s class, so that I could go to his office and discuss the material I knew, from others in the class, was being covered. I was just smart enough to be intrigued that he always welcomed me and he seemed to enjoy not only covering the basic materials that are part of any freshman class, but also then led me off into the science of physical geology. In spite of a rule of his that if you were absent 5 or more times you would fail, I got an A in his class. Perhaps Dr. DeFord’s influence is why I plowed off into the internet to learn more about the geology of Sawtooth Mountain. It is certain that once I found myself over my head deep in geology, my mind turned directly to Dr. DeFord.
Sawtooth Mountain, soaring to 7,490 feet, loomed over us on TX166
After rounding the southwestern flank of Sawtooth Mountain came the third, and most exciting, descent of the day.
The 3rd, and wildest, descent of the Fort Davis Scenic Loop.
Starting just over 6,230 feet above sea level and 35 miles into this epic ride, I went careening down 3 miles of sweeping turns, using lots of brakes to stay below 40 mph. The road dropped an ear-popping 700 feet. I have posted a video of this descent on youtube. The descent continued, but at a much less stimulating pitch and eventually emerged onto the high prairie that lies between the southern edge of the Davis Mountains and Marfa. In 10 miles I had dropped over 1,100 feet to just over 5,100 feet. And what a different world that was out on that prairie. Trees were almost non-existent.
Out on the prairie and turning east about 48 miles into the ride.
The ride east across the southern section of the Fort Davis Scenic Loop was easy, if you ignore the fact that it came after about 45 miles of gut-wrenching climbs and a few exhilarating descents. The terrain was gently rolling and climbed from about 5,100 feet to just under 5,900 feet. Maybe I was just numb but this climb seemed pretty gentle. Then at about mile 55 into the ride things got MUCH easier!
At about mile 55 I topped a hill and realized that it was just about all downhill (about 19 miles) to Fort Davis!
A year ago, I thought a 19 mile ride was a day’s work on my Catrike. I was 55 miles into a ride, much of it in tough mountain terrain, thinking how easy it was gonna be to get back to Fort Davis. I knew that once to Fort Davis I had 4-5 miles to get back out to Indian Lodge and knew that was going to involve some hills of suffering, but hey!, that is only a few miles.
I flew along at 20, sometimes as much as 28 mph, heading for Fort Davis. Peggy had always been nearby with the truck, in case I needed it. She had supplied me with 4 or 5 liters of water and a couple of apples in addition to the water and Honey Stingers I had been eating and drinking on the ride. She had one more surprise awaiting me. When I arrived at the Courthouse Square in Fort Davis she was around on the south side of it waving me over. I was moving too fast to turn in there so I made a lap around the courthouse and she motioned me into the perfect parking place.
Peggy directs me to a particularly appropriate parking place at the Fort Davis courthouse
I ride, more often than not, with my high school classmate and cycling pal, State District Judge Guilford Jones. Gil does not have his very own labeled parking place at his office. So this one is for you Gil!
Gil, I am gonna see about getting you a nice sign like this.
After the restful and amusing diversion at the courthouse I headed on north to the cut-off that would get me back to the Davis Mountain State Park and complete the loop. The section of TX118 from Fort Davis over to the park saved up two absolutely brutally steep, but blessedly short, climbs with which to attempt to do me in once and for all. But I was not to be denied.
Back at the Davis Mountains State Park entrance, triumphantly slouched in exhaustion on my Catrike.
I rolled up to the park entrance with enough energy left to take a picture then go on the half mile or so over to Indian Lodge. When back at the lodge I had ridden 78.1 miles in 8 hrs 53min. Garmin reports that I ascended a total of 5,000 feet producing a maximum heart rate of 157bpm and an average of 119bpm. I have burned an estimated 3,968 calories. I had indeed had a most excellent adventure. This was fun. A little extreme, but now I want to do it again and knock an hour or two off the time. But not this week, thank you.