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Hit the Road

Fort Belknap to Fort Chadbourne

Old West outposts made pioneering on the Plains possible.

It’s no small wonder that settlement ever came about to the land we now know as the Forts Region. The wild country was riddled with perils the likes of which the brave pioneers had never known, from rattlesnakes to riled-up natives. As settlers moved into this unknown place, their dreams of opportunity must have given way to simple hope of survival. The federal government started helping in 1848 by establishing a line of forts to protect these courageous souls, and it’s the legacy of these lonely outposts that shaped a land and a legend.

Today’s explorer can follow a 650-mile loop trail that’s part of the Texas Heritage Trails Program, but for the purposes of your weekend wandering, we’ve whittled down the 29-county route to a much more manageable drive. Your route begins at Fort Belknap and follows a track through Fort Griffin to the Fort Phantom Hill ruins, Buffalo Gap and Fort Chadbourne, a 170-mile path that takes you on a much deeper trek back in time.

Fort Belknap

Begin at the lovely old town of Newcastle in Young County, an area served by Fort Belknap Electric Cooperative. The region enjoyed a coal boom a century ago, and Newcastle took its name from the famous English coal city. It offers interesting architecture for photo bugs. But your real destination is the old fort, 3 miles south of town via Texas Highway 251, where ruins, restored stone structures and historical markers detail a hub of activity in the 1850s. It was a stop of the renowned Butterfield Overland Mail stage route but was abandoned in 1867. Allow plenty of time to explore the fort’s buildings including what’s now the county museum inside the post commissary, and the Women’s Building inside the granary, where you’ll see gowns worn by first ladies Eisenhower and Johnson. Take a picnic to enjoy on the grounds.

Fort Phantom Hill

From Newcastle, head west on U.S. 380, south on U.S. 283 through Fort Griffin State Historical Park, where you might pause to gaze at the state longhorn herd, then west on U.S. 180, County Roads 329, 319 and 303 to Ranch Road 600, for a total of 93 miles. You’ll recognize your destination as monolithic, cactus-studded stone chimneys mark the site where an 1851 fort was settled and used for just three years. There was a water supply problem, and the fort burned in 1854—one soldier is said to have called the place a “barren waste.” Nevertheless, it’s a picturesque sight at sunrise or sunset as lone chimneys, a stone commissary, guardhouse and powder magazine remain.

Buffalo Gap

Head on down through Abilene via U.S. 277/U.S. 83, picking up Ranch Road 89 on the other side for your trip to the marvelously restored village called Buffalo Gap, in Taylor Electric Cooperative’s service territory. Named for the well-trodden buffalo trails noted by settlers upon arrival in this hilly, shady part of the cattle drive region, the reconstructed burg offers several hours of distraction in the handful of authentic period structures, including the original 1880 Taylor County Courthouse, blacksmith shop, general store, railroad depot and church. When you’re hungry, head on over to Perini Ranch Steakhouse for dinner.

Fort Chadbourne

Leave Buffalo Gap via Ranch Road 89 and pick up U.S. 277 for a southwestern drive to a site just north of Bronte, in Coke County, about 40 miles in all. Find the historical marker and cemetery noting Fort Chadbourne, a site with ruins located on adjacent ranch land. A briefly occupied fort, thanks to a pronounced lack of water, Chadbourne was established in 1852 but eventually abandoned in favor of Fort Concho just a bit south, near
present-day San Angelo, headquarters of Concho Valley Electric Cooperative. After roaming around the historic cemetery, with a few legible headstone inscriptions dating to the 1870s, you can walk the grounds to see the fort ruins during daylight hours. There’s also a visitors’ center and museum displaying artifacts found on the fort grounds; it’s open on weekdays.

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You can order Texas Forts Trail Region brochures and maps at 1-866-276-6219 or through the website, http://www.thc.state.tx.us/travel. Also, see http://www.texasfortstrail.com.

June Naylor wrote Texas: Off the Beaten Path.