The Texas Forts Trail Region – a 29-county area in Central West Texas – is home to a variety of historic sites, museums and attractions and offers visitors unique local flavors, shopping opportunities and outdoor adventures. The “trail” is a 650-mile driving loop through the region. The Forts Trail Region was the pilot organization In 1998 when the Texas Historical Commission breathed life back into the driving trails Governor John Connally and the Texas Highway Department organized in 1968 in conjunction with HemisFair ’68. The Texas Forts Trail Region is aptly named since it contains the largest Spanish fort built in Texas, the Presidio de San Saba, along with eight pre- and post-Civil War forts from the second and third Texas frontier defense lines.
Let’s step back into what was once the Wild Frontier where garrisons built and manned by soldiers stood between civilization and vast unsettled lands. Learn about the history of this region and its contributions to the greatest state in the world.
Forts along the Trail
The Presidio de San Sabá, established in 1757, was designed to protect Spanish interests including the Mission Santa Cruz de San Sabá which was located further down river. Unfortunately, the mission did not survive long; just one year after its founding it was burned to the ground during an Indian raid. The Presidio lasted another fifteen years before it was abandoned and became a landmark for explorers and settlers.
In 1936 the Texas Centennial Commission contracted for the reconstruction of the Presidio. Since that time, archeology digs at the site have recovered a multitude of Spanish Colonial artifacts. Today you can visit the Presidio de San Sabá grounds located just west of Menard. The site sits along the San Saba River on almost 18 acres of native landscape with picnic tables and a beautiful pavilion that is inviting to travelers and great for family outings.
Fort McKavett (1850-1875) was called “the prettiest post in Texas” by General William T. Sherman. It was established to provide protection for settlers and to be utilized as a rest stop for immigrants bound for California. The fort was home for all four of the Buffalo Soldier regiments, the place where Sgt. Emanuel Stance of the 9th Cavalry received the first Medal of Honor awarded to an African American after the Civil War, where women employed as laundresses worked along the headwaters of the San Saba River, and where Army personnel became the first weathermen. Fort McKavett is known for having some of the most well-preserved structures.
Fort Belknap (1851-1867) was the northwestern anchor on the second Texas frontier line. The post offered a safeguard to travelers along a network of frontier trails, including the Butterfield Overland Mail route. Fort Belknap is located near Newcastle in Young County and 13 miles northwest of Graham. It is open to the public every day except Wednesday.
Fort Mason, established in 1851 on Post Oak Hill, was Robert E. Lee’s last command post. Along with Robert E. Lee, Albert Sidney John and John Bell Hood, another seventeen officers who served at Fort Mason later became generals during the Civil War. Twelve fought for the Confederacy, eight fought for the Union. The post was officially closed in 1869. Visitors to a reconstructed officer’s quarters have an amazing view of the town of Mason.
Fort Phantom Hill (1851-1854) was officially known as the “Post on the Clear Fork of the Brazos”. The fort was later used as a stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, a resting stop on the Goodnight Loving cattle trail, a campsite for the Confederate Frontier Battalion and a sub-post for Fort Griffin. Located north of Abilene, the remains of the fort are open from dawn to dusk.
Fort Chadbourne (1852-1867) provided protection for the western frontier and was a station on Butterfield Overland Mail route. After closing, the fort reverted to private ranchland. Today, the fort has a top-notch museum and visitor center and offers tours of the grounds which includes several restored buildings.
Fort Griffin (established 1867-1881) overlooks the Clear Fork of the Brazos and was the hub of the frontier forts between Fort Richardson in Jacksboro and the mountains of Big Bend. Fort Griffin was home to several infantry regiments as well as Buffalo Soldier units. Today Fort Griffin is a state historic site and home of the Official Texas Longhorn Herd that recalls the days of the Western Cattle Trail.
Fort Concho, established in 1867 off the banks of the Concho River, was headquarters for some of the most recognized frontier units, including the famed Buffalo Soldiers. The soldiers of Fort Concho served and patrolled the area for nearly 22 years which gave the nearby community of San Angelo a chance to prosper and grow. Today the city of San Angelo surrounds Fort Concho. It has been recognized as the best preserved frontier fort west of the Mississippi and hosts many annual living history programs as well as local events.
Fort Richardson (1868-1878) was at one time the most northern army outpost in Texas and was once the largest post in the nation. The soldiers of the fort helped keep the peace, pursued criminals and deserters, escorted wagon trains, oversaw elections, protected cattle herds, and patrolled for hostile Native Americans. Fort Richardson was the last defense against the Comanche and Kiowas in the early 1870’s. Located just south of Jacksboro, today Fort Richardson is a state park and historic site.
Your adventure does not end here. As exciting as it is to have these forts in our region, there are many other fascinating sites to be found along the trail and within the region.
Have you ever seen an Indian pictograph? Near Paint Rock we just happen to have a site with over 1,500 pictographs that cover about a half a mile on a limestone cliff about 70 feet high. The earliest Painted Rocks Native American Pictographs are at least 1,000 years old. This is one of the state’s largest collections and although the site is on private land, it can be seen by appointment. Exploration is ongoing and new pictographs are still being discovered.
Another fascinating place within the region is the National WASP WW II Museum. In 1943 as World War II raged on and male pilots were in short supply, plans were put into place for women to perform the duties of military pilots for everything except combat. These plans came to fruition and were consolidated at Avenger Field in Sweetwater as the Women Airforce Service Pilots program. At the museum you can see the aircraft the women flew, read stories of the brave women who flew them, and step onto Avenger Field where dreams became reality for women who wanted to serve their country in a unique way.
There are many things to discover throughout the region and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you that we have just scratched the surface! Set your sites on an adventure of epic proportions. The Texas Forts Trail Region is full of surprises: not only can you step back in time and feel history unfolding but you can enjoy modern times with beauty all around. We hope you will join us in exploring this multi-faceted part of the Lone Star State!
From an Organizational Standpoint
The Texas Forts Trail strives to make an economic impact in our region. We work hard as an organization to promote the events and festivals held by various communities and support heritage tourism sites. As a not-for-profit organization our support comes from multiple sources: we receive funds from the Texas Historical Commission, we have a membership program, and we have developed a fundraiser that helps our communities as well as our organization.
In late 2019 we held our first Texas Forts Trail Wine Festival in Albany in conjunction with their Small Business Saturday and Christmas event. Our two scheduled wine festivals for 2020 had to be pushed to 2021; in that year we were able to host four. As an additional element of a local event, the Wine Festivals are a separate ticketed experience featuring wineries and vineyards from across the state.
The most popular Wine Festival is held annually the second weekend in April at Fort Belknap in conjunction with the “Crawfish and Cannons” event held by the Graham Visitors Bureau. Crawfish and Cannons features a live crawfish boil, cannon firing on the hour, children’s activities, live music and the Annual Goodnight Loving Run plus the Texas Forts Trail Wine Festival. This event has sold out the past two years; be sure to purchase tickets in advance.
For 2024, we are planning four “Texas Forts Trail Mini Caravans” that are an expansion of the “caravan” road trips held in 1968 and 2018. A mini caravan will be held each quarter in different quadrants of the region. The first caravan will kick-off in March and begin in Abilene at Frontier Texas. Each adventurous caravan will be two days in length and will offer non-stop activity with plenty to see and do. Look for more information on how to participate on our website (texasfortstrail.com) or follow along on our social media channels.