Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas
It’s a hell of a drive, but well worth the journey.
Texas being the largest state in the lower forty-eight is just an abstract fun fact, until it’s time to actually travel across it. A few hours in the car often gets you exactly nowhere, a frustrating truth until you decide nowhere is exactly where you want to be.
That’s the outlook for a road trip to far West Texas. Removed from just about everything in the best ways, the hours melt into the horizon as you roll steadily past mile after mile of dry, desolate rangeland and on to “nearby” towns like Marfa.
“Flat” and “boring,” the uninspired will quip, but this sprawling landscape is also punctuated by exhilarating moments of natural beauty, world-class art, funky towns, big sunsets, and oddball surprises that are well worth the long journey. Take your time and fall into the change of pace -- the vibe, if you will -- that each area offers.
There’s a good chance you’re already visiting Big Bend, one of the most far-flung and underrated national parks we’ve got -- a mountainous dreamscape for kayaking, star-gazing, and working road-weary legs. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before you get there.
Things to see on the drive to West Texas
Embrace “the journey is the destination” mindset and prepare for a full day of transit. Even flying into El Paso or Midland, the two closest cities with commercial airports, still leaves you with a substantial drive. Hopefully, you can budget time to stop at these natural wonders along the way:
The Caverns of Sonora
If you’re coming from Austin, San Antonio, or Houston on I-10
The founder of a National Speleological Society (read: group of dudes who love exploring caves) once said “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by a Texan.” Guided tours of this remarkable cave system last just shy of two hours and take you 155 feet below the earth’s surface. Sonora is also a great halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend.
Monahans Sandhills State Park
If you’re coming from Dallas-Fort Worth on I-20
Like a massive Japanese Zen garden, these natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around after a few hours behind the wheel. Not far from Midland, stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids if you’re so inclined. Entry is $4.
Balmorhea State Park
A can’t-miss from any direction
Time to bust out your swimsuit. Near the crossroads of I-20 and I-10, you’ll find a literal oasis in the middle of the desert: the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Recharge in the cold, clear waters and get a glimpse of tiny endangered pupfish, found only in the San Soloman springs. Entry is $7. The pool is currently closed until Fall 2020.
There’s no small town in Texas with a bigger reputation than Marfa. In the early 1970s, Marfa became a refuge for the acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd, who laid the foundation for the thriving international art scene the town is known for today. Indisputably hip, even by big-city standards (perhaps especially by big-city standards), Marfa still manages to feel mythical and off-the-grid.
Where to stay in Marfa
Funky: El Cosmico
For an indoor/outdoor experience with little-to-no WiFi, the Liz Lambert-owned campgrounds offer multiple modes of shelter, including a series of retro Airstream trailers, “glamping” style tepees, boho yurts, and traditional campsites. If Beyoncé can stay here, so can you.
Historic: Hotel Paisano
Serving cattle ranchers, desert seekers, and the occasional celeb since the 1930s, this laidback space has been comfortably restored with a courtyard, souvenir shop, and plenty of Old West flair. Head to Jett’s Grill for a mean chicken fried steak.
Contemporary: Hotel Saint George
This sophisticated space is packed with art and features a sleek restaurant, bar, outdoor pool area, and an excellent bookstore, Marfa Book Co.
Things to do in Marfa
Equal parts roadside kitsch and public art sculpture, Marfa’s most iconic attraction is not in Marfa at all, but about 37 miles from town on Highway 90 near Valentine, TX. The eternally-closed Prada store replica has occupied this patch of lonely prairie since 2005.
The Marfa Lights
These mysterious, greenish yellow lights appear across the desert on clear nights. First reported in 1883, they have stumped scientists ever since. Are they just static electricity? Swamp gas? Passing cars? UFOs? Come up with your own theories at the viewing station on Highway 90 between Marfa and Alpine.
The Chinati Foundation
No visit to Marfa is complete without visiting this contemporary art space founded by Donald Judd. Wander the grounds and take in the large-scale concrete installations by Judd and his contemporaries. Related, the Judd Foundation is focused on preserving his living and working spaces in town.
Other art galleries to visit
You could spend days visiting the world-class art galleries in Marfa -- not because you want to, necessarily, but because the operating hours are so sporadic. Check online, call ahead, or wander around Highland Ave. with fingers crossed that eclectic galleries like Wrong, Ballroom Marfa, and Arber & Sons will be open.
Eating & drinking in Marfa
Hangover cure: Marfa Burrito
The homemade tortillas really clinch this massive, and massively delicious, burrito (vegan options available!).
This cafe located inside a laundromat (it’s Marfa just go with it) also has fresh smoothies, pastries, and ice cream on hand. Wash your sweaty Big Bend clothes while you sip your cold brew with lavender syrup.
Grab and go: Food Shark
The retro food truck is kind of a big deal here, with an eclectic Mediterranean-inspired menu featuring the signature “Marfalafel” sandwich.
Pizza: Pizza Foundation
Their simple, thin-crust pies are super fresh, flavorful, and (our favorite) foldable.
A multi-course experience from a small menu that changes near daily. Locally sourced ingredients and veggies grown in their onsite garden -- you get the drift.
Beer: Plant Marfa
This very chill beer garden is full of oddities like an old school bus and tepee.
Dive bar: Lost Horse Saloon
A good spot for music and a game of pool under the friendly neon glow of some beer signs.
FORT DAVIS & ALPINE
For a glimpse of everyday living “out there” in far West Texas, swing through the towns of Fort Davis and Alpine. While a little less glamorous than Marfa, both offer easier access for exploring the trails and state parks in the area.
Where to stay
In Fort Davis: Indian Mountain Lodge
This cool pueblo-style hotel with a restaurant and pool offers near-instant access to hiking within Davis Mountains State Park.
In Alpine: Holland Hotel
The historic boutique hotel dates back to the ‘20s and has been beautifully refurbished. The Century Grill features a secluded interior courtyard to safely serve guests their top-notch margaritas.
Things to do near Fort Davis and Alpine
Davis Mountain State Park
You don’t expect to find “mountain” and “Texas” in the same sentence very often, and yet here we are. Take in the rugged landscape with a hike on Skyline Drive Trail, or drive the 75-mile scene loop that starts and ends in Fort Davis.
The Sul Ross Desk
In the 1980s, some students at Sul Ross State in Alpine placed a large metal desk on top of the very large Hancock Hill behind the university. It’s still there today. Notebooks left in the desk’s drawers are filled with salutations and sage wisdoms from past visitors.
Just north of Fort Davis, one of the darkest night skies in the country allows for spectacular star-gazing. Under normal circumstances, gazing into the cosmos during one of their evening star parties is a must-do, but unfortunately the observatory is closed at this time.
In Fort Davis: Fort Davis Drug Store
This historic spot, with an old-fashioned soda fountain from 1950 and small art gallery upstairs, serves up hearty comfort food. For dessert grab ice cream at Herbert’s Caboose, which scoops from an authentic Burlington Northern caboose train car.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
Big Bend is the keystone to far West Texas, and one of the most gorgeous places in the state. The park’s great expanse and stunning beauty -- from minimalist desertscapes to river canyons and mountain hideaways -- cannot be summed up in a few words, or even a few days exploring it.
Before heading to Big Bend, make sure to fill up your gas tank first, either in Alpine, Marathon, or Terlingua (depending where you're driving in from). It’s also a good idea to bring extra water bottles and download maps to your phone as cell service can be dicey. NOTE: As of July 2, 2020, Big Bend is temporarily closed due to Covid-19.
Where to stay near Big Bend
Indoors: Chisos Mountain Lodge
Perched in the heart of the park, these rustic but comfortable cottages offer scenic views and access to the park’s only restaurant. Currently closed until September 2020 due to ongoing pandemic.
Outdoors: A few favorites are the Chisos Basin Campground in the higher (read: cooler) elevations of the Chisos Mountains, and the Rio Grande Village Campground overlooking the Mexican border. If camping isn’t your jam, your best bet is to stay in Alpine or Terlingua and drive an hour into the park for the day.
Things to do in Big Bend
The Chisos Mountains
The iconic centerpoint of the park, the dramatic drive up to the mountain basin is worth the trip alone just to watch the temperature drop at least 15 degrees from the desert below. From the mountain basin you can hike to the top of Emory Peak, Big Bend’s most recognizable feature, or down the Window Trail to where the entire basin empties out into the desert.
The Rio Grande River
Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon where you can dip your toes in international waters, wave to Mexico, and hike into the 1,500-foot vertical chasm cut by the river over the eons. The Hot Springs Canyon Trail on the eastern side of the park also offers great views of the river.
The Chihuahuan Desert
This arid, harsh desert makes up about 80% of the park, but it's not without a certain minimalist beauty. Bluebonnets and wildflowers add a burst of color in the springtime. The Chimneys Trail off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive has neat stone arches left by ancient lava flows.
Eating & drinking in Big Bend National Park
Your only option: The Chisos Mountain Lodge restaurant and patio has an early morning breakfast buffet and stays open until 9 for dinner. There are three locations to buy basic supplies within the park, but if you’re planning to stay longer than the afternoon, pack-in supplies from the grocery store in Alpine.