Looking to get out of Arizona for a spell this summer? Consider an asphalt voyage to the Lone Star State’s quirkiest clime.
There’s a reason the movie No Country for Old Men was filmed in West Texas. Cormac McCarthy’s stark novel, brought to the screen by the Coen brothers, requires a desolate landscape so vast that staring into its nothingness either makes you feel utterly bleak or intensely spiritual.
The borderlands between Texas and Mexico are such a place. We Phoenicians talk a good game about living in a desert – so hot! so dry! – but the Sonoran Desert teems with nature compared to the cracked earth of West Texas.
In an attempt to find a destination for three groups of friends living in different cities (Los Angeles, Austin and Phoenix) to meet up for vacation, my husband and I suggested a West Texas road trip. Specifically, from El Paso to Big Bend National Park with stops in Marfa and Alpine.
We’d heard of Marfa, with its funky arts scene and celebrity sightings. But we knew nothing about small-town Alpine, nor had any of us ever visited Big Bend, which gets its name from the curve of the Rio Grande River that separates the park from Mexico.
Which is to say, we had few expectations, high hopes and a sense of adventure as big as the Texas sky. Turns out, that’s all you need.
El Paso to Marfa
Route: I-10 East to U.s. Highway 90 East
Distance: 190 miles
Total time: 3 hours
We get a proper West Texas introduction when we turn on to U.S. Highway 90, an isolated road that carves through ranch territory. The only sights are the occasional pickup truck and a stray yucca. The wide-open emptiness accounts for the profound sensory shock when motorists first glimpse Prada Marfa (14880 Hwy. 90, Valentine), an art installation that pops up like a mirage – if a mirage was a fake Prada storefront meant to confront society’s relationship with consumerism, that is. It’s a cool photo op and an ideal time to stretch your legs before driving 25 miles to Marfa.
To house our group, we booked an AirBnB (airbnb.com/s/marfa–tx). This is the way to go if you like quirky houses with big porches, but Marfa also offers a smattering of historical hotels and boutique accommodations.
Highland Avenue sits in the center of town, anchored by a stately courthouse. We take pictures at the Welcome to Marfa sign before browsing the shops along the avenue. I’m wowed by the impressive selection at Marfa Book Company (105 S. Highland Ave., 432-729-3700, marfabookco.com), and our friends are tempted to buy Stetson hats at Communitie (122 N. Highland Ave., 432-729-2055, communitie.net). Our favorite store is The Get Go (208 S. Dean St., 432-729-3335, thegetgomarfa.com), a gourmet grocery with everything from fresh produce and organic wines to homemade ice cream.
Marfa’s internationally renowned arts scene is a must-explore. It can be overwhelming deciding where to start. Two suggestions: Grab a copy of the Marfa Gallery Guide at the Marfa Visitor Center (302 S. Highland Ave., 432-729-4772, visitmarfa.com), and don’t miss the large-scale architectural art by famed artist Donald Judd (Judd Foundation, 104 S. Highland Ave., 432-729-4406, juddfoundation.org/visit/marfa).
We try to eat at Pizza Foundation (305 S. Spring St., 432-729-3377, pizzafoundation.com) but the wait is four hours. To be fair, I’ve waited that long at Pizzeria Bianco, but we’re on a deadline – we need to stake out our spot to watch the mysterious phenomenon that is the Marfa Lights. So we enjoy tacos in the string-light-lit garden at Al Campo (200 S. Russell St., 432-729-2068, alcampomarfa.com) before heading to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area (U.S. Highway 90, 10 miles east of Marfa).
The Marfa Lights are… well… it’s hard to say exactly what they are. Nobody knows. They manifest as glowing orbs on the horizon of the night sky, sometimes appearing red, sometimes blue. They looked white to me, little dots that danced and blinked and flickered. Bring chairs and blankets, and make friends with the convivial crowd that gathers nightly.
Marfa to Alpine
Route: TX-17 North to TX-118 North to McDonald’s Observatory; TX-118 South to Alpine
Distance: 77 miles
Total time: 90 minutes
Before leaving, we hit up Marfa Burrito (515 S. Highland Ave., 325-514-8675) for, quite literally, the best burrito I’ve ever eaten. Matthew McConaughey frequents this tiny restaurant, but if he were here I wouldn’t know – I’m busy watching chef-owner Ramona Tejada mix, knead and toss tortillas. When people talk about Marfa as an artists’ hub, I hope they’re referring to Tejada. She’s a master of her craft.
To satisfy our collective inner astronomy nerd, we visit McDonald Observatory (3640 Dark Sky Dr., Fort Davis, 432-426-3640, mcdonaldobservatory.org). It’s not exactly on the way to Alpine, but we’re already in the middle of nowhere, so a slight detour feels apt. We drive the winding road to the top of Mt. Locke and arrive at the observatory in time for the Solar Viewing. For just $4, we get a fascinating crash course in all things the sun. Operated by The University of Texas at Austin, the observatory offers star parties and daily tours, and hosts StarDate Radio (stardate.org/radio), the longest running science program in the country.
We skip Fort Davis Historic Site (101 Lt. Flipper Dr., Ste. 1379, Fort Davis, 432-426-3224, nps.gov/foda/index.htm), a frontier military post during the 1800s, and go straight to Alpine. Marfa gets all of the attention, but I like Alpine more – it’s gruffer, humbler, even prettier in its location at the foothills of the Davis Mountains. We stop at Big Bend Saddlery (2701 E. Hwy. 90, 800-634-4502, bigbendsaddlery.com) to peruse handmade leather goods, then we thumb through the righteous music selection at RingTail Records (203 E. Holland Ave., 432-837-1055, ringtailrecords.com). Post-shopping, we order green chile cheese hot dogs from the food truck Cow Dog (215 E. Holland Ave., 432-386-0616, cowdogdog.com) and drinks at dive bar Harry’s Tinaja (412 E. Holland Ave., 432-837-5060).
We put up our boots for the night at The Maverick Inn (1200 E. Holland Ave., 432-837-0628, themaverickinn.com), a spirited hotel that describes itself as a “roadhouse for wanderers.” Sounds right.
Alpine to Big Bend National Park
Route: U.S. highway 90 East to 385 South
Distance: 72 miles
Total time: 1 hour
I have to admit something. Before this trip, the Phoenix and L.A. members of our entourage had a blasé attitude about Big Bend National Park (432-477-2251, nps.gov/bibe/index.htm). “What could possibly be so special about it?” we wondered. After all, our Los Angeles friends frequent Yosemite and Joshua Tree. And we have the Grand Canyon, for goodness’ sake. We spent two days at Big Bend. But I could have spent two weeks.
Big Bend National Park comprises more than 800,000 acres, spans three states (Texas in the U.S., and Coahuila and Chihuahua in Mexico) and is considered one of the most remote and least-visited national parks. This means you have unprecedented access to the park’s scenic drives and backcountry wilderness.
We brought camping gear to set up tents at the Rio Grande Village Campground (877-444-6777, recreation.gov). Located at the southeast corner of the park amid cottonwood trees, this area offers a store (groceries, booze, showers and Wi-Fi) and border access at the Rio Grande. While our friends crossed the river for a Mexico daytrip (passports required), my husband and I hiked the 6-mile Daniel’s Ranch and Hot Springs trails, which parallel the river.
In addition to the river region, Big Bend also encompasses the forested clime of the Chisos Mountains and the drier Chihuahuan Desert. Nearly 200 hiking trails cover the river, desert and mountain areas; backcountry permits allow for exploration of primitive wilderness; and paved roads offer hours of leisurely driving.
On our way back to El Paso, we exited the park on the northwest side, past the ghost town of Terlingua. I could see for miles in either direction. Maybe it was the expansive vista. Maybe it was dehydration. Whatever the reason, I was lulled into a meditative state, straddling a hazy line between bleakness and bliss.
Call it a West Texas state of mind.
Where to Stay
Stay at the Hotel Paisano, built in the 1930s. Hollywood stars James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson stayed here during the filming of the 1956 movie Giant.
207 N. Highland Ave., 432-729-3669, hotelpaisano.com
A rancher built The Holland Hotel in 1928, but its modern amenities, including a sophisticated restaurant and luxe spa, belie its Old West roots.
209 W. Holland Ave., 432-837-2800, thehollandhoteltexas.com
Big Bend National Park
Book your room or cottage early at Chisos Mountains Lodge. As the only non-camping accommodations in the park, it fills up quickly.
1 Basin Rural Station, 432-477-2291, chisosmountainslodge.com