Having grown up in Texas and having lived a good portion of my adult life in Austin, it comes as a frequent surprise to people to hear that I had never taken a West Texas road trip and explored all that our state has to offer, and in particular, Big Bend National Park. To be honest, it’s because Texas is BIG. It’s so big that going west is often more time intensive than visiting our neighbors to the east, like my favorite city in the world, New Orleans.
Now that I’ve made the effort to explore the area with a West Texas road trip, I can say for certain that I’ve been missing out. Marfa, Alpine and the Big Bend region of West Texas have a huge amount to offer for anyone who is looking for a languid pace, an artsy affect, and a cold beer on a porch in the Texas twilight.
The Texas mountains are singing your name: here’s my suggestions on where to stop, what to eat, and what to do while on your West Texas road trip.
Located in the high desert of the Trans-Pecos in far West Texas, Marfa offers the perfect location to explore all that West Texas has to offer. It’s located in between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park – both worthy excursions. This sleepy town in West Texas operates as it feels like. Businesses open and close based on a whim, with no regard to the days of the week or customers. Art litters the empty streets that radiate heat in the middle of the day. There’s a feeling that everyone lives on their own desert version of island time.
The self professed town mantra is “Mañana.” It can mean maybe in a little while, or maybe tomorrow, or maybe not at all. It’s a belief that time allotted to doing nothing is time well spent.
It is pervasive while you’re there and I recommend at least 2 nights in the town so that you really buy into the idea of Mañana. There’s no reason to rush in the desert, y’all. That being said, on your way too or from Marfa, make sure that you stop in Alpine for a hot dog from Cow Dog. I’d also recommend a stop in Marathon, TX and a night at the Gage Hotel.
The Thunderbird Hotel in Marfa is a classic mid century boutique roadside motel that’s been updated in the best of ways. The pool offers respite from the oppressive West Texas daytime heat, the walls are decorated with art from up-and-coming local artists and artists in residence from the nearby Chinati Foundation, and every guest room offers an electric kettle and a french press which gets extra bonus points from the likes of me. Located in the center of Marfa, the Thunderbird Lodge offers a perfectly walkable location for all your exploration and, in the event that you would rather roll, bikes for rental.
Marfa Burrito, run out of Ramona Tejada’s personal kitchen, has been a long time staple of the region. Everything here is homemade: from the location itself to the tortillas and salsa. It’s only open for breakfast and lunch so grab yourself a burrito on your way to your appointment at the Chinati Foundation.
Al Campo Wine Garden and Rustic Bistro offers endless nooks and crannies to wile the night away over too many bottles of wine and shared plates.
Grab an afternoon craft cocktail at Jett’s Grill in the Paisano Hotel. While the courtyard is shaded and perfect for an afternoon excursion, the historic lobby offers a cozy fireplace for winter days.
It doesn’t matter who you are: you all end up at the same place at the end of the night. No trip to Marfa is complete without a visit to the ramshackle Lost Horse Saloon: a hodgepodge of tables and chairs with a feeling of near abandonment if it were not for the plethora of bottle caps littering the floor.
The Chinati Foundation is a contemporary art museum in Marfa, Texas based upon the ideas of its founder, Donald Judd. Although the interior buildings are currently closed to the public due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the grounds are open for a self guided walking tour that I highly recommend.
Walk. Walk everywhere. There is art and something interesting on almost every corner in Marfa. Pop into Wrong and pick up gifts from a curated selection of local artists. Grab ice cream from Frama.
You can’t walk to the PRADA installation. You’ll find this and all the other influencers a 5 minute drive west of Marfa.
BIG BEND AND TERLINGUA
Terlingua, TX has an interesting claim to fame: originally a mining town (founded 1903) for the Chisos Mining Company, the town of 58 inhabitants is now most well known for its infamous chili cookoff. Founded in 1967, the chili cook off now draws over 10,000 people from all over the world on the first Saturday of every November. It is the perfect launchpad to explore Big Bend National Park, which is only a short drive away, in both comfort and quirk, especially for those of us who are less apt to camp or flying from other locations. At any given time of the year, the population swells to include river guides, park rangers, and those simply seeking tranquility on the large swathes of undeveloped land and wide Texas skies.
La Posada Milagro offers boutique guest houses with an unparalleled view of the landscape and ghost town. It’s spacious, bright and accompanied by comfortable and spacious outdoor areas for guests to enjoy.
For those looking for a more budget friendly accommodation, the Perry Mansion offers over a century of history and comfort with a heaping side of extra quirky character.
The Starlight Theatre is the center of activity in Terlingua: it offers nightly dinner service, entertainment, and cocktails into the wee hours of the night. On any given evening, as the day comes to a close and twilight starts to descend on the dessert, you’ll find a swath of locals hanging out on the porch swapping stories and beers. The food is worth the wait and on a busy weekend, wait you will so get on the list early.
Espresso y Poco Mas is where you head for breakfast. You’ll find it just below the path to the La Posada Milagro guest house. If you’re headed into Big Bend for the day, pick up to go sandwiches while you’re there dining for breakfast so that you don’t go hungry in the middle of the day. There’s little to no food open between the closing of this establishment and the opening of the Starlight so it’s best to be prepared.
Big Bend National Park is breathtakingly beautiful. Although it was closed while we were there due to lack of staffing during the pandemic, the Santa Elena Canyon is popular with rafters and hikers alike. If you’re up for a more strenuous hike, the South Rim boasts the best views in the national park, but if you want a less strenuous challenge, I’d recommend the Lost Mine Trail, which offers equally breathtaking views of Casa Grande, Juniper Canyon, Pine Canyon, and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico.
Hire a guiding company to raft down the Rio Grande. You’ll get a guided tour out the River Road, which is fabled to be one of the prettiest drives in the the United States, along with a languid and enjoyable day on the river under the towering canyon walls.
If you want to spend a day swimming on the river’s edge, follow the parking instructions and guide for the Boquillas Canyon Trail. It’s not so strenuous that you can’t drag a cooler full of beer and a speaker to the sandy river beach (we did it, you can too).
The Nitty Gritty
If you’re flying into the area and renting a car, the best airport is El Paso International Airport.
Make sure that you bring your own groceries into Terlingua for anything you may need. Although there is a small selection of provisions at the trading post, you’re better off stopping en route.
Have camera, will travel! Travel fuels my soul and it’s my number one goal in life to explore as many places as I can. If you’re looking for other travel inspiration, I have other travel guides on my blog.