Day Trips

The Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute's (CDRI) visitor center outside of Fort Davis serves multiple functions: research laboratory, recreational center, and natural area. Surrounded by the rugged Davis Mountains, the center gives the visitor a firsthand look at the fragile ecosystem of the largest desert in North America.

Dennis Miller, director of the non-profit institute that owns the preserve, said only 20% of the Chihuahuan Desert is in the United States. The desert stretches from Socorro, New Mexico, south nearly 1,200 miles to Mexico City and is the coldest desert in North America. Temperatures in the mountains can dip to 10deg. below zero while the hottest spot recorded was Torreon, Mexico, at 120deg..

Rainfall in the Chihuahuan Desert Region ranges from a few inches of rain on the grass-covered plains between the mountains to over 20" of rainfall per year at the higher elevations. Because the desert is at a higher altitude than other North American deserts, the soil does not dry out as fast, allowing for a greater diversity of plants and animals.

For all its ruggedness, the desert supports around 250 species of plants. The CDRI has collected 240 of the native plants and many of them are arranged in an arboretum behind the visitor center. Every year, student workers from Sul Ross University in nearby Alpine add more trails and exhibits, with plants labeled with small signs for easy identification.

The research institute started in 1973, and in 1978, obtained the 507 acres. The organization relies on donations and memberships to carry on their research and preservation work.

One of the earliest and largest contributors to the research facility was former gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams. Modesta Canyon was named for his wife. A mile-and-a-half trail takes visitors to the bottom of the canyon where eight springs run year round.

This year the visitor center moves from the portable buildings to the new building when the preserve opens to the public again on April 1. The building houses classrooms, office space, and a gift shop.

One of the ways the research institute supports itself is by selling the plants that are used in propagation studies. With the largest collection of Chihuahuan Desert plants in their green houses, the visitor center sells some of the most unusual cacti, shrubs, and trees. The last weekend of April, CDRI has their annual plant sale with more than 1,500 native and exotic plants. (This year's event will be on Apr. 26-27.)

The CDRI visitor center is eight miles east of Fort Davis and 18 miles west of Alpine on TX118. The center is open April 1 to August 31, 1-5pm weekdays and 9am-6pm weekends. There is no admission charge.

For more information on the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, call 915/837-8370. Miller hopes to have a website by the end of the summer at For more information about Fort Davis, call 800/524-3015. For information on Alpine, call 915/837-2326.

Coming up this weekend...

Easter Fires Pageant in Fredericksburg blends the local pioneer history with a traditional Easter story, Mar. 29. 210/997-2359.

Wild Hog Festival in Sabinal features the high school state championship wild hog catching contest, Mar. 28-29. 210/988-2595.

Diamondback Jubilee in Lometa welcomes spring with a host of activities in downtown, Mar. 29. 512/452-3647.

Pre-Conjunto Festival in San Antonio's Mission County Park presents the best of local and regional Tejano and conjunto music, Mar. 30. 210/271-3151.

Coming up...

April is Archeology Awareness Month and the Texas Historical Commission has published an excellent free booklet on archeology sites around the state. 463-6090.

Tour the Caprock at Caprock Canyons State Park near Quitaque in special tours of the state's first rails-to-trails project in open-air vehicles. 806/455-1492.

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