Travel

These Trippy Desert Lights Are Still an Unsolved Texas Mystery

The truth… isn’t really out there.

Off a stretch of empty West Texas highway some 400 miles from Austin, crowds gather every night to experience the inexplicable. Come nightfall in Marfa, bright orbs of white, yellow, pink, blue, and red dance just above the horizon of the Chinati Mountains: twinkling, darting, hesitating, and disappearing back into the darkness of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Some claim they’re UFOs. Others believe they’re Mexican ghosts. Everyone just calls them the “Marfa Lights.” But what are they really, and why have people been wondering about them for more than a century?

The first historical account of the Marfa Lights dates back to 1883. A cowhand named Robert Reed Ellison thought he was seeing the light of an Apache campfire in the distance. But upon investigation the next morning, there were no traces of humans. And ever since that fateful day, locals have been passing down eyewitness accounts of these glittering desert orbs.

The once-dying town of Marfa eventually embraced its local mystery, throwing the first Marfa Lights Festival in 1986, and erecting a Marfa Lights viewing platform in 2003. Now, thousands flock to this spot in El Despoblado to catch a glimpse of the strange phenomenon.

Dig deep enough into Marfa’s mythology and you’ll find everything from legitimate academic studies to homespun websites in Comic Sans devoted to debunking the lights. In 2004 and 2008, teams from UT–Dallas and Texas State, respectively, studied the perceived phenomenon. Both concluded that the Marfa Lights could be explained by headlights off Highway 67, or small fires. 

“When car headlights are seen through 15 miles or so of West Texas air that is unevenly heated by the ground, the light rays are bent and scattered slightly so that the headlights are fuzzy and wavering, even when viewed through a telescope,” explains Karl David Stephan, a professor in the Ingram School of Engineering at Texas State University. “It’s the same reason that stars twinkle.” 

This bending and scattering also affects the lights’ perceived size, another tally in the column for “everything’s bigger in Texas.” 

But, Stephan cryptically adds, “the ‘real’ Marfa lights are not headlights.”

Most locals you ask about the lights will give the same caveat: The “usual” Marfa lights are indeed car headlights—but somewhere around two dozen nights a year, the “real” Marfa lights show up. Tourists will spend hours watching headlights, and not just because they came on the wrong night: The official viewing platform seems to suggest looking straight at the highway. The “real” lights usually appear further east, dancing above the cacti on the desolate Mitchell Flats, away from the roadway.

But if not headlights—which weren’t exactly common when this all started in 1883—then what? Multiple theories abound, with some insisting the Marfa Lights are essentially ball lightning, stirred up by underground electrical energy. Others say swamp gas, aliens, or the ghosts of conquistadors. 

Nearly 140 years later, nobody actually knows.

How to see the Marfa Lights

The viewing platform nine miles east of Marfa on US–90 is the go-to stop. Arrive there before the sun sets to get your bearings, note the faraway line of the Chinati Mountains, locate the radio tower, and study the highway. 

You won’t be alone. Despite Marfa’s remote location, the funky, artistic town of 1,700 attracts an outsized number of visitors (and has a surprisingly good food scene). Alternatively, head out to the Shurley Ranch, 22 miles south of Marfa, where Mike Shurley invites travelers to gaze from his open land, where a hard-to-miss sign reads “Starlight Gazing — Parking.”

Back in the one-traffic-light town, stay at the Hotel Paisano , where James Dean obsessed over the lights while filming Giant here in 1955. Dean, it’s worth noting, tragically died shortly after leaving Marfa. Maybe he knew too much?

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Jacqueline Kehoe is a writer, photographer, and geology geek. See her work on Instagram at @j.kehoe.