Discover spectacular landscapes and boundless skies with a road trip deep into the heart of West Texas and Big Bend.
Alone in an endless sea of prairie, driving through West Texas and Big Bend can feel more like being on a movie set than a road trip. This is one of the last great vestiges of the American frontier, where empty roads snake past lazy longhorn cattle and spritely antelope, fields dotted with oil pumps, and tiny towns made up of no more than a handful of scattered, dusty buildings. It's rugged and isolated, evoking the same spirit of adventure that once called to the pioneers, miners, and ranchers who first made it home.
Getting to West Texas is half the adventure. The distances are long and services are few and far between, but you're rewarded for the trek with perfect quiet and tourist-free vistas (not to mention, absolutely no traffic). You can fly into El Paso, which is a little over three hours away via I-10 E, or hit the road from any of Texas' major cities. I drove from Fort Worth, and recommend a slightly longer but prettier route of I-2o W to Abilene, 277 South to San Angelo, and 67 and I-10 W to Fort Stockton. From Fort Stockton, continue to head west until you hit Balmorhea and TX-17 S. The meandering road will take you through Fort Davis, home to one of the best surviving examples of an Indian Wars' frontier military post. If you time it right, you can also take a slight detour to McDonald Observatory and party with the stars for a bit before heading south again to your resting stop for the night.
High up on a plateau, at an elevation of almost 5,000 feet above sea level, sits the little town of Marfa. It was founded in 1883 as a water stop for the many railroads that crisscrossed the desert and, barring a stint as the site of a Chemical Warfare Brigade and World War II-era prisoner of war camp, continued to serve as a little-known, remote outpost for ranchers and railroad tycoons until 1956 when Hollywood descended to film the movie GIANT. The Academy Award-winning film featured Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson, all of whom holed up at the Hotel Paisano and lived in Marfa for two months during filming. The town was again reinvigorated in 1971, when minimalist artist Donald Judd moved from New York City to the heart of Texas and began permanently installing his work and creating new art spaces in things like a decommissioned fort. Today, the town is a hip enclave for artists and creatives, and myriad modern art galleries and one-of-a-kind artisan stores have found their home in the historic Texas architecture. After touring Judd's studios, visiting the Chianti Foundation, browsing the galleries, and meandering the quaint streets, grab dinner and the best margarita in town at Jett's Grill in the Hotel Paisano. If you're still up for an adventure, head nine miles east on Highway 90 to the official viewing platform of the mysterious Marfa lights. Since the late 1800s people have reported seeing strange lights dance across the massive sky. The best time to see them is on a clear night after you've had a few drinks.
BIG BEND State and National parks
When you're ready to leave quirky Marfa, head south on Highway 67 past the ghost town of Shafter, an abandoned mining town, and wind your way through the desert until you see a big shiny city ahead of you (Presidio on the American side and Ojinaga on the Mexican side). Follow the signs for Big Bend or the River Road/FM-170 (pay close attention so you don't inadvertently end up at the border crossing!) and enjoy the ride along the muddy Rio Grande as you drive past jagged mountains and dizzyingly-steep canyons. You'll pass the luxury golf resort of Lajitas and the ghost town-turned-scrappy-party-town Terlingua. When the state park ends, you'll enter the 800,000 acre Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote and least visited parks in the country. After paying your $25 entrance fee, follow the signs for the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive and Santa Elena Canyon, one of the most famous and scenic sights in the park. After you've explored the canyon and peered across at Mexico, backtrack, turn right at the fork in the road, and make your way through the Chisos Mountains on Chisos Basin Road. Watch the sunset from your car or hike out to The Window for an out-of-this-world view of the spectacular West Texas sunset. Once the sun has disappeared from that wide-open stretch of sky, backtrack again and follow the signs for Marathon as you drive through the pitch-black darkness of the park after dark. At some point, stop and get out of the car and look up at the star-spangled sky. It's one of the darkest skies in the U.S. and one of only ten sites in the world that is certified for dark sky stargazing. While you normally only see a few hundred stars in a city, you can see around 2,000 here. It's so dark that you can even catch a breathtaking glimpse of one of the bands of the Milky Way with your bare eyes!
For your last night in West Texas head to Marathon, a sleepy ranching town originally founded in the late 1800s. Marathon is home — perhaps somewhat surprisingly — to the Gage Hotel, one of the best and most famous hotels in all of Texas. Grab a drink at the legendary White Buffalo Bar before dining among the boot-clad ranching elite at the hotel's 12 Gage Restaurant. I've heard many a connoisseur declare that they've had some of the best meals of their life at this hotel and I'm adventurous enough to put their beef tenderloin and chicken fried steak to the test. After a good night's rest, walk around the historic town and the hotel's pretty gardens for a bit before hitting the road again.
Depending on your schedule, you can either head straight back to your point of origin or extend your road trip by heading east on I-1o to San Antonio and then Austin. Either way, try and soak up every last bit of the solitude and these wide-open spaces before you return to traffic, street lights, and big city life.
Good to Know
This drive is doable year-round, but summer can be brutal! Whenever you go, be sure to keep your gas tank full and pack some bottles of water, snacks, and a blanket in your car just in case. Also note that cell phone service is mostly nonexistent in this vast nothingness, so forget about checking email or Instagram during your trip. It's nature's way of forcing you to practice being present.