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Visit a Sky Island

Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens can captivate explorers

The Modesta Canyon Trail, a favorite walkabout at the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens near Fort Davis, crosses a grassland swale where cloud shadows sometimes race red-tailed hawks, briefly shading a sea of sideoats grama and native plants that inhabit this Davis Mountains preserve.

The trail surprises, suddenly dropping into Modesta Canyon, where rock walls, layered like stacked pancakes, expose the geology of the region’s volcanic past. Soon, treetops give way to their understory, where songbirds often rest in the branches. Before long, the soft splash of water reveals the true secret of the canyon. Modesta Spring, a shady grotto, offers respite to maidenhair ferns, warblers, finches, foxes, bobcats and the hiker seeking a cool, quiet place to rest.

Modesta offers one path into the heart of the nature center, which is the headquarters of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. The 507-acre preserve was established to promote education, appreciation and awareness of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in North America. The Davis Mountains, as well as much of the Big Bend region, comprise the upper reaches of the Chihuahuan, a biological environment that also encompasses a swath of northern Mexico. Much of the Davis Mountains region, considered a Chihuahuan “sky island,” lies between 5,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level and embraces some of the most biologically diverse environments on the planet.

The nature center explains this diversity with interpretive exhibits; a botanical garden featuring more than 100 species of trees, shrubs and perennials; a geologic timeline with 4.5 billion years of rock samples; and almost 200 species of Chihuahuan Desert cacti and succulents in the greenhouse. A large-screen display at the visitors center can help guests identify birds they have seen. Also inside is an exhibit on the geology of the Davis Mountains, the key to understanding the modern diversity populating the surrounding slopes, peaks and plateaus.

For a visitor, however, often the most enlightening experience may come during a simple walk.

Hikers can then see the geology for themselves with a 1-mile loop hike to Clayton’s Overlook. Here, a 360-degree view of the mountains complements a set of plaques with information that corresponds to the geology exhibit at the visitor center.

Then a self-guided, 1-mile stroll leads to the botanical garden, where more than 150 species of native Chihuahuan Desert plants are labeled and grouped to help provide a firsthand understanding of this biome’s remarkable plant life.

Next is Cactus Hill, a quarter-mile loop around a rocky outcrop featuring a pollinator garden, water catchment area (perfect for spotting birds) and a scenic overlook. Hikers can continue along the bo- tanical garden trail before taking a shady breather in the Memorial Grove, a mix of chinquapin oaks and wild roses, then investigate the cactus greenhouse.

Research is also an important part of the nature center’s program.

“We actively encourage researchers to utilize our site,” says Rick Herrman, the center’s director, “and we find the research projects are perfectly complementary to the site as a serene and gorgeous public place for visitors energized by a connection with nature.”

The admission fee provides visitors with a chance to explore the Davis Mountains environment and helps fund the center’s efforts to bring the special characteristics of the Chihuahuan Desert to the forefront of environmental awareness and conservation. That’s a noble outcome for a pleasant desert garden walk.

E. Dan Klepper is a photographer, author and artist who lives in Marathon.