Note: Two of the three trips to West Texas that informed this article were during August/September 2020. West Texas is an area that is very susceptible to hospital overwhelm. It’s incredibly important to check COVID-19 case numbers and recommended travel guidelines if considering coming to the area. If unsure, we recommend you wait to see it in its fullness and keep it safe for those who live there and make this a great place to visit!
The summer I moved to Dallas from Lubbock everything was hot. Interning at the local contemporary art museum, I loved gallery opening circuits followed by a concert in the alley of Club Dada. The hottest thing you could do was go to Marfa. The line between the two crowds in the Dallas art scene was whether or not you had just been to Marfa on someone’s private jet.
The 2009 recession a few months after leaving college, and I had to widen the scope of my career prospects from the arts community to literally anyone. My two J. Crew pencil skirts and microwave lunches were not the vision I had while loading my Uhaul filled with Lubbock,Texas’, finest thrift finds to go to the big city. On a total gut feeling, during my darkest Corporate America winter, I booked a trip to Marfa as a surprise Christmas gift for Markus. No longer a scene-ster trip for me, as I was so out of touch with that scene by then, but a journey to reclaim my curiosity.
The pull Donald Judd had to this area – bringing along with him the most iconic visionaries in art to the Wild West – is legitimate. There’s something grounding about knowing you can see forever and hear a pin drop. The other-worldly landscapes unchain you reality, in the best way.
I need to go about 50 more times to get it down to a science, and I intend to, but even now I can’t recommend it enough. Right after we returned for our second venture this August, one of our best friends, James, headed down. Since then, we spend nights on our front lawn unpacking everything we dreamed about and took in on our trips. I hope you go, and I hope you get a chance to enjoy some of our favorite parts!
Part of the majesty of West Texas are its legends. Here’s from our favorite fables and insights into the area to take in before you go. Here’s some of our favorite ways to prep for a trip out West or reconnect to that special feeling of being there once we’re back.
Texas Monthly BoomTown Podcast – This podcast is full of history, stories, and characters in the region. From how West Texas oil was founded, to ranchers, and larger than life personalities that make up the delicate balance of life in the oil rich Permian Basin. This will definitely get you excited about your trip.
“People live in cubicles and are the King of their Domain. Out here you ain’t King of Shit.”Parts Unknown
Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown – Season 12, Episode 5 This is a great primer on the area with, of course, some great tips on what to eat. It’s also good to watch after your trip to make you reminisce of the slow days in the desert.
Marfa Public Radio – In an era of streaming services and syndicated radio, it’s refreshing to listen to a small, local, public radio station. Their schedule is like many NPR affiliates so you can catch shows like All Things Considered and Fresh Air – and also local shows like The Honky Tonk Happy Hour and Interdimensional Music. More than half of their programming is by local DJs, and if you take the plunge to move out West you can even propose and host a new program if you’re so inclined (like Lilly did at Texas Tech when KXT was still around). If you’re in Marfa or Fort Davis they’re on your radio dial at 93.5 FM (other frequencies if you’re in Alpine, Marathon, Presidio, or Midland/Odessa). If you’re not in one of those areas, you can listen to them online via your phone – assuming you’ve got cell service wherever you are.
“In a lifetime spent in traveling, here I came upon the greatest wonder. The mantle of God touches you; it is what Beethoven reached for in music; it is panorama without beginning or end. No fire can burn so bright, no projection can duplicate the colors that dance over the desert or the bare rock formations that form the backdrop. No words can tell you, and no painter hold it. It is only to be visited and looked at with awe. It will make you breathe deeply whenever you think of it, for you will have exhaled eternity.”– Ludwig Belemans, as quoted in Bowl of Red
Frank X Tolbert’s Bowl of Red – The reason why you may know of Terlingua and its fabled chili cook-offs, which have brought the best chefs, entertainers, foodies and general rebel-rousers to the desert for decades, is thanks to this book by Frank X. Tolbert, a Dallas journalist who wrote a weekly column in The Dallas Morning News on Texas history. Originally just an idea to promote his new book on what makes the best bowl of chili con carne, the festival is now a long-standing celebration of art, music, costumes and the simple pleasure of a bowl of red. If you want to try Frank’s recipe, it’s still available at Tolbert’s Chili Parlor in Grapevine, Texas, which is run by his children, whom I had the pleasure of meeting when I moved next door to the Tolbert’s family home in 1994.
No Country for Old Men – You want the cops and robbers of the border vibe, this book is it and it’s gripping. You’ll have an extra thrill driving through Border Patrol after reading this one. I’ve heard the movie is also good.
Lonesome Dove Audiobook – They’re how the West was won, but done. If you’re ever in a phase of life when you’re down and out and feeling like you need to hatch a plan, these guys show how it’s done. Give it about 9 hours (100 pages) to break in and then you won’t be able to stop.
The Artist’s Studio: Donald Judd – #nerdalert This is pretty dry, but a rare filming of art talk with Donald Judd, the American artist responsible for the creative takeover of Marfa. The 14:00 minute mark begins a documentation of Judd’s move to the area in 1975 and his invitation to his fellow artist friends to stay, create and work in response to this expansive environment and subsequently bring you here.
We all had songs we wanted to soak in while driving through the spacious West Texas scenery. Check out our West Texas Road Trip Playlist on Spotify – featuring all Texas born artists!
Along the Way – Where to Stop on the Road to Nowhere
Laredo Taco Company – (attached to most Stripes gas stations): I saw this on Anthony Bourdain’s far west Texas episode on the last season of his show filmed in 2018. Homemade flour tortillas rolled out and cooked right in front of you, served up HUGE breakfast tacos for way less than anything you’ll get in Dallas. I got tacos here as I left Odessa my first morning, again in Marfa, and as I left San Angelo for my drive back to Dallas. They recently opened a location on Sylvan and 30 that I need to check out. My personal fave was potato, egg, and cheese, with a whole slice of bacon added (you must ask special for this bacon option). Only get two if you’re really hungry!
Perini Ranch Steak House: It’s iconic, it was late and we were starving for good food. The prime rib was seasoned to perfection but a step more in the red direction than my typical medium rare preference. I would be more than happy to try it again.
Monohans Sandhills State Park: A sand dune trip has been on my bucket list for years now, and it’s driven me crazy that Monohans has stayed just outside of my reach for the past few years. This time we were ending our trip with a bangin’ stop at Monohans Sand Dunes State Park. It is truly breathtaking. It is sandy as hell. I love this podcast that breaks down how memory is tied to sensory experiences. My family gets really animated every time Monohans comes up, it’s such a strong memory. Because of all the sand. That we still find places. Be warned, but do it for the mems.
The Calera Chapel, or Mission Mary – I had read about in the November 2019 issue of Texas Monthly. Immediately, I knew I had to visit this tiny adobe chapel and soon. It became almost an obsession, I had to come here! Much of my trip out to far west Texas centered around seeing this chapel. Located in the ghost town of Calera, it sits alone a few miles west of Balmorhea with the Davis Mountain off in the distance. It’s bright white paint shining in the west Texas sun as a beacon calling me. I burned some palo santo, lite a candle, dropped some cash in the money box, and sat. A couple fellow visitors stopped in for pictures and a few words, but mostly I spent about an hour here alone, praying. This place was perfect for setting my intentions for my week-long journey.
Fort Davis, Texas
McDonald Observatory – It’s true that the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. Getting out of the city and into big sky country is so awesome when thousands of stars are so clearly visible. What makes it even more awesome is going to a place specifically made for looking at the night sky, especially when there are experts there to talk about everything there is to see. McDonald Observatory is that place and their star party is one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do. It’s like what I remember our field trips to the planetarium in elementary school used to be – except these are actual real stars instead of tiny dots projected onto a ceiling.
You’ll get to see the stars of course and you’ll get a view through powerful telescopes specifically set up at certain objects in the night sky. My favorite part of the night was the constellation tour that’s about 40 minutes long. Topics include history, science, and mythology and the absolute coolest part is the green laser pointer that they use to point right up at the stars – it looks like it goes on forever, millions of light years away. Note that the observatory is at a high elevation (about 6,300’) so it’s helpful to be adjusted to the altitude or to take it slow. They discourage using phone screens or flashes as flashlights during the event since it interferes with the experience – so bring a red flashlight (this one’s $10).
I’ve been interested in Alpine since the main character of the film Boyhood in 2014 chose to attend Sul Ross State University. What was it about this tiny university isolated from everything? I had to find out for myself. The landscapes had me questioning if I really was in my home state. Who knew Texas had these mountains? Big skies are something I’ve heard about in songs, but I never fully understood until I made it out here. I learned that this region of the state has the darkest skies in the continental United States. The darkness was eerie at times for this city dweller, but that Milky Way cheered me up. I met so many friendly and interesting people living here from all across Texas. This was a great choice for a home base for two nights as it’s 30 minutes to each Marfa and Marathon.
Taste & See Bakery: I had one of the best carrot cakes ever with a caramel-y cream cheese icing eaten while drinking an iced tea on a sidewalk table on a Saturday afternoon. Grab some molasses ginger cookies for the next portion of your drive. I learned from their website that they use locally sourced eggs and grind their flour not far from town. There are a lot of nice wines and prepared foods for take away which seemed very popular with the locals.
Hike up Hancock Hill behind Sul Ross State University for the best sunset in Texas.
Gallery on the Square and Catchlight Art Gallery: These galleries are filled with everything from photography, painting, ceramics, and wood sculptures all inspired from far west Texas. Local artists, many of whom were retired expats from Austin, Dallas, and Houston filled the galleries with their art and kindness. I spent two afternoons here chatting with different locals hearing their tales and legends about all the oddities of the area. Everyone had an opinion of which routes I should take, sites to see, or trails to hike in Big Bend. My eye was caught by a specific painting of the River Road from a Dallasite turned local art professor. After driving the River Road I knew this painting had to be mine to remind me of my time out here.
The Holland Hotel: My, I love the sound of a train. The only thing that makes it better is when it’s surrounded by sounds of nothing. I loved staying at this little hotel. The building was great. The room was tidy and cozy. The earplugs on the side of the bed are for the train tracks across the street. You’ll still hear it, but you’ll sleep like a baby.
Railroad Blues Honky Tonk: This is in the Texas Monthly Texas Bucket List, making it a must-stop for me. You’ll never forget visiting this place and listening to honky tonk on a picnic bench under the stars of a West Texas sky. It’s such an iconic American feeling that people write about it, which is exactly why you came here.
Chinati Foundation: The stark, minimalist nature of the art may leave you to wonder if you “get it,“ when the reality is the break from forcing understanding from every observation is the experience. The art history nerd in me loves to see the site-specific works by Judd’s crew such as Flavin and Oldenburg. The coup de grace are the airport hangers of metal boxes – something easy to mock but impossible to forget thanks to how each work relates to any current offering of sunlight from the surrounding swatch of sky. The best way to summarize the experience is the tale of how a Jesuit priest, after touring the property, turned to Judd and said, “You and I are in the same business.”
Donald Judd Home Tour: I love an artist home tour. What did Donald Judd’s morning look like? How did he build a personal space that incubated the mindset and visions he brought to the world? It’s a simple tour of a beautiful and interesting space.
Wrong Marfa: The best little gallery in Texas. I especially like the Dilly bar sculptures by Camp Bosworth.
Pizza Foundation: There’s nothing like a salad, pizza and frozen blueberry lemonade after a long day in the desert. This spot has all three.
Angell Expeditions: As a future Jeep owner, I get a big smile on my face whenever I see a big burly Jeep Wrangler out on the road. The huge mud tires, the wide footprint, and the open-air roof take me right back to our incredible off-road tour with Angell Expeditions. We met Charlie Angell at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa and headed out toward the Big Bend area in his Jeep. It was my first time seeing this mountainous part of the state and I could’ve sworn we weren’t in Texas anymore. The views were incredible and there were tons of times on our day trip that we could see across the Rio Grande to Mexico. It was so cool being out in the middle of the rocks and boulders on steep roads where our city cars wouldn’t make it for five feet. If you want to take photos and video on your phone, bring a drop-rated case like this one because it’s going to be a bumpy ride in the best way!
Chinati Hot Springs: As part of our Jeep tour, we stopped at Chinati Hot Springs for a few hours. It was unbelievable to see this hot spring out in the middle of the rocky desert area all around. The main attractions are the bathhouses and the large outdoor hot tub, which are both fed by the natural springs. In an era of so much technology, it was really satisfying to realize that Mother Nature was doing the heating for us, even on a cold mid-winter day. Donald Judd was a previous owner which adds a feeling of traveling back in time. They currently don’t allow day use of the springs, so if you’re going to stop by make sure you have a reservation. CHS is a little over two hours southwest of Marfa by car, assuming you’ve got high clearance for the journey.
Prada Marfa: Created in 2005 by artist duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, the installation was intended to be a nod to how consumerism eventually gentrifies even the most untouched or forgotten spaces of our country. The piece was originally designed to have no maintenance post-installation, but rather with time, natural elements and an expected dose of naughty vandalism fade itself back into the unforgettable West Texas sunset. However, both the popularity of the piece and the early vandalism it suffered were more than expected.
The site now seems to be our collective’s first foray into Insta-tourism, with many of us more than willing to drive to a town with a population of 132 surrounded by little else to get a peek at the unshoppable Prada storefront – and of course, a commemorative photo. Don’t worry about Prada Marfa’s state when you roll up these days though. After many debates on who should be over maintenance of the property, the site was successfully leased by local arts non-profit Ballroom Marfa Foundation and is now a designated art museum site by Texas Department of Transportation. Just…don’t jump when you take your picture, ok?
12 Gage Restaurant at the Gage Hotel – Everything I read about far west Texas mentioned eating at this restaurant. Started with their signature prickly pear marg and then had a locally sourced pork chop served up with a chunky peach glaze over some delicious greens. The menu changes regularly and there is tons of outdoor seating on the patio.
Tiny Target on the drive between Alpine and Marathon: Since I was on my way to Marathon for dinner I decided to stop for the required pic, of course they were out of my favorite tobacco candles…read the reviews on Google, they are hilarious!
DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ – Located on the side Hwy 170, this food truck has insanely cold Topo Chico for a late lunch after a morning of driving around and exploring Big Bend. The sliced brisket sandwich was packed with delicious smoked meat. Eating this sandwich, in this spot, on a warm afternoon in the desert should be added to every Texans’ bucket list.
Starlight Theater Restaurant – Always order a chili to-go, even if you’re staying for dinner. The famous prickly pear margs are the perfect remedy after a hot afternoon driving on the River Road. When was the last time you had grilled quail? I grew up with a father and grandpa who loved quail hunting, but it had been probably 2 decades since I’ve last eaten it. I decided that every Texan needs to eat grilled quail from time to time… and served over a giant salad topped with house-made creamy dill dressing, talk about a last supper in the desert to remember! The mix of people here adds to it’s deep charm; hipsters, geologists, bros, cowboys, and retired city-dwelling Texans on their annual trips.
Porch Sitting – What if John Wayne was a lover instead of a fighter? You’d have the front porch sitters at The Terlingua Trading Company, the West’s finest outlaws and poets. So tough, so pure, it’s nothing to them to live on the edge of the world to stick it to the man. Grab one of the free range guitars and join them for wisdom, music and mayhem.
Terlingua Trading Company – What would a gift shop in Terlingua, Texas, have to offer? I was impressed. A little set up of shops-in-shop, this little outpost had beautiful handmade gifts, silver, an incredible selection of books and quality kids section. It really reflects the spirit of the town and sends everyone home with a memorable item they’ll cherish.
Maverick Ranch RV Park at Lajitas Golf Resort – If this is the RV park life, I’m a member of the club. The pool here was so fun – there is nothing like swimming in between canyons and, at one point, next to a Roadrunner. The night sky was next level. With resort privileges at Lajitas Golf Club for all Maverick RV Ranch guests, other places to park in this area didn’t compare. (If you want to know more about our RV rental with Outdoorsy – check it out!)
Lajitas Stables – In the early fall, my daughter and I took up Western riding lessons. We’ve both enjoyed the experience so much. As toasty as it was outside, we did a two hour trail ride at Lajitas Stables. This was my six-year-old’s first trail ride and she was so excited and had so many questions. She brought so much confidence to the stables, our guide had her lead with him the whole ride while they talked, riding side-by-side. The scenery of the outer rim of the park on horseback is so breathtaking. This was by far the best part of our trip.
Big Bend National Park
Santa Elena Canyon Trail – Whenever I think of Big Bend, I think of all the incredible pictures I’ve seen of this canyon. It’s right on the border as one side of the canyon is Mexico and the other Texas. Driving up, it seems like a crack in the rock wall, but because you’ve seen those pics you can’t wait to get in there! I had been warned by a few locals that I may encounter naked Europeans swimming in the Rio Grande, but no such luck on this Tuesday morning. The water was a muddy brown as it had rained the week before, it was cold to the touch. This hike is about a mile and half, round trip, and so worth it. Once inside the canyon, it’s quiet, chilly, and magical. Bring a snack and plenty of water as there are many spots to sit and relax. If there aren’t many people, plan to stay a while and soak it all in. This was a fairly easy hike and something not to miss!
Fossil exhibit – I will watch Jurassic Park, and all the sequels with no shame! So when I learned that Big Bend had been home to a diverse population of both sea and land dinosaurs my inner child was thrilled. This open air exhibit, open 24/7, had a couple sets of skeletons, with some you could actually touch like a T-Rex skull. A few locals told me that an expansion is supposed to be on the horizons in the next couple of years, with new dinosaurs coming!!!
- Stop by and check out both the Panther Junction or Chisos Basin Visitor Centers for your official souvenirs. They had all the books, hoodies, tees, magnets, and postcards your tourist heart could desire. All profits from sales at these centers stay at Big Bend. Both have the nicer bathrooms!
- While the park is open 24 hours a day, Park Rangers are only able to collect entrance fees during regular business hours. It’s $30 per car for a 7 day pass. This money goes directly back into the operation and care of Big Bend, so I felt it especially important to pay the fee.
“In a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, [John Wayne] suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more; a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day…go riding through the draw and find himself home free…there at the bend in the river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the early morning sun.”Joan Didion
Drive the River Road between Presidio and Terlingua – National Geographic calls it one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the country, and many locals told me the same when discussing my driving routes. Be sure to fill up on gas and get snacks before heading south from Marfa towards Presidio on Hwy 67 and then head east on 170 once you hit the border. After passing through the tiny town of Redford, the desert starts to rise up into mountains. Be prepared to stop at the several scenic overlooks for breathtaking views and photo opportunities. With no radio signal or cell service, take the opportunity to drive in silence, be with your thoughts, and gaze at the desert wonders.
As you can see – there’s so much to do in the middle of nowhere! It’s hard to explain the mental shift all this space and wonder provides, but it’s undeniable, even more so the more you go back. What makes you want to check it out the most?