“I saw miles and miles of Texas…” goes the old Bob Wills classic, and those driving through West Texas will see just that — miles and miles of dusty two- and four-lane Texas roads with chaparrals darting across lonesome highways, trails cutting through stark high plains country dotted with steep rocky red plateaus and thousands of towering giant wind generators gleaming in the sun. Late at night, drivers may even witness the ghostly glow of the legendary Marfa lights.
Today, speed limits on the tumbleweed-lined highways of West Texas hover around 80-85 miles per hour, so even though some of the region’s best-loved destinations are a long drive from the Alamo City, it doesn’t take long to get there. Besides, the landscape out west has its own wild, raw, stark beauty that drivers will want to slow down to see.
West Texas has much more to offer than mere tumbleweed and cactus; in fact, there are many delightful towns, parks and natural attractions scattered throughout the area’s remote and rugged landscape. For an authentic West Texas getaway, travelers don’t necessarily head to El Paso, the region’s largest city, or make a beeline for the Mexican border. Instead, they tend to turn to Big Bend National Park, where the air is cool and clear and mountains edge the Rio Grande. They also enjoy visiting quaint towns like Alpine, Marathon, Marfa and more. Edged by the Rio Grande and the Franklin and Davis Mountains, these pretty little cowboy-centric spots have a yesteryear sort of charm, tipping a nostalgic hat to the era of old-time saloons and wooden hotels with wagon-wheel lamps.
Still, these little communities are not locked in the past; they are also home to new, modern-day attractions, along with artists, craftsmen and merchants inviting interest in the area on a national scale. With some of Texas’ most spectacular natural attractions ahead and some funky places to find along the way, you’ll want to hop in the car this weekend, set the cruise control on 80, put on Bob Wills’ music, and start your West Texas road trip.
Standing tall in the saddle along the “big bend” of the Rio Grande River, this is one of the state’s largest outdoor recreation areas and a wildly popular hiking, camping, fishing, birding, rafting, mountain biking destination. Home to diverse types of gorgeous wildlife, including mountain lions, some black bears and more, the 1,252-square-mile national park is one of Texas’ most scenic areas. With hiking and walking trails, campgrounds and hotels for guests and five visitor centers, Big Bend is the perfect place for a family vacation. At the edge of the park, don’t forget to visit the ghost town of Terlingua, made famous by Texas singer Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua album cover in the 1970s. Home to the Starlight Theatre bar, a general store, a couple of restaurants and more, Terlingua is the site of the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-Off, held annually in the fall.
Built in 1927 by acclaimed architect Henry Trost, the charming Gage Hotel, which stands about 80 miles from Big Bend National Park, offers authentic laid-back luxury with premier accommodations, top-notch service and a first-class dining experience. With patios and fire pits to sit around at night under starry black skies, the Gage offers a full-service spa, a heated swimming pool, a 27-acre landscaped garden of native plants and even a fitness center. The alluring little hotel has been named the #1 Small Hotel in Texas by Texas Highways Magazine, has been included in National Geographic Traveler‘s “Stay List,” and was voted the #1 Hotel in Texas and #17 in the United States by readers of Condé Nast Traveler, and its White Buffalo Bar was selected by Texas Monthly as “Best Hotel Bar” in Texas. The impeccably restored mission-style Gage also offers larger suites, stand-alone houses and “casitas” around the historic main building.
Standing between the towering Davis Mountains and the beautiful Chihuahuan Desert, the town of Alpine (population circa 5,000), is also home to almost 2,000 students enrolled at Sul Ross University, known for its Museum of the Big Bend. Most of downtown Alpine has been named a Designated Cultural Art District by the Texas Commission on the Arts, making it a good place to visit boutique shops, bookstores, art galleries and cafes during your next West Texas road trip.
If the West Texas summer heat is too much to take, a real-life oasis awaits at Balmorhea, where visitors can dive into the crystal-clear water of the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. Swim, scuba dive, or just relax under the trees in this historic park, where 15-million gallons of water flow through the pool each day fed by the San Solomon Springs. The pool, which is up to 25 feet deep in some places, covers 1.75 acres and holds 3.5 million gallons of cool (72-76 degrees F.) water year-round. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, Balmorhea State Park has picnic sites, an outdoor sports area and a playground. Guests can even stay at one of its 34 campsites or at the classic San Solomon Springs Courts motel. The park is located 4 miles southwest of Balmorhea on State Highway 17, in Toyahvale.
Part of the University of Texas’ astronomical research program, the McDonald Observatory is located just outside of Fort Davis on Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains, with additional facilities on Mount Fowlkes. The Observatory’s Frank N. Bash Visitors Center is open daily except on certain holidays. The Observatory features several powerful telescopes, including the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, which is one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, and offers educational programs, a theater, cafe, gift shop and more.
Marfa, Texas, and the Marfa Lights
Some say they don’t exist, but many have seen some ghostly lights in the dark night near the town of Marfa. The legendary, explanation-defying Marfa Lights were first sighted in 1883 and have appeared almost every night since, attracting thousands of visitors each year. Still, no one is able to explain exactly what they are. Driving toward Alpine, stop by the Marfa Lights Viewing Area, located 9 miles east of Marfa on Highway 90, to look for the lights, and on Labor Day weekend, attend the annual “Marfa Lights Festival.”
Set on the high plains of the Chihuahua Desert, Marfa boasts a population of just 1,765, but during the past 20 years it has somehow become a popular destination with Hollywood types, artisans, art lovers, millionaires, musicians and more. With vegan restaurants, eclectic art galleries and artists’ studios, a bookstore and a 400-acre abandoned Army base-turned-art-center established in the ‘70s by the late New York artist Donald Judd (today run by the DIA Foundation), Marfa is a small marvel. Where to stay? Somewhere funky, of course, like El Cosmico, an 18-acre trailer, tent and teepee hotel and campground created by West Texas native and Austin hotelier Liz Lambert, or stay at her retro-style motor court motel, The Thunderbird, which has been restored and completely re-imagined for modern-day Marfa guests.
By Janis Turk