It’s hard to convey how humbling it is to visit West Texas. It’s not an easy place to travel to. You have to really want to go there.
Some find it too big, too hot, too remote. Its creature comforts are few and far between. Its demands on your patience – and your vehicle – are high. Yet, a West Texas road trip is the truest way to experience the state’s diversity of terrain and the grand sense of scale that’s a central part of the state’s identity.
West Texas is where everything actually is bigger, and there’s enough there for a lifetime of exploration. Found in its vast and varied expanse are so many alluring places to stop and explore.
Read on for some irresistible reasons to hit the open road on a wild West Texas adventure.
- Time travel: From Balmorhea, it’s a 40-minute drive to Fort Davis, a town of about 1,100 residents. A mile above sea level, Fort Davis is one of the prettiest and most-pleasing places in Texas. The town is named for the military post, Fort Davis, founded in 1854 to protect travelers, mail coaches and freight wagons from Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache Indians. The fort, which was abandoned in 1891, was made a national historic site in 1963 and has been partially restored and opened to visitors.
- Night life: Also in Fort Davis is the McDonald Observatory, a research unit of the University of Texas at Austin. The facility offers a robust series of public programs and tours. Here, you can take in a view of the heavens during one of several star parties held weekly. During these special viewing nights, you can see the sky through some of the largest telescopes available for the public to view.
- Rustic retreat: The most interesting place to stay in Fort Davis, nay the state, is the Historic Indian Lodge, a rustic hotel tucked into a canyon in Davis Mountains State Park. Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to attract early automobile tourists, the mountain lodge resembles a multilevel pueblo village and recalls the indigenous architecture of the Southwest with its thick adobe walls, cane and log ceilings and hand-carved cedar furniture.
- Miles of mountains: Though the view from the lodge is spectacular, Davis Mountains State Park is best seen from its hiking trails that vary from easy scenic strolls to steep rocky ascents. The Indian Lodge Trail is a short but challenging climb that provides spectacular views. Limpia Creek Trail involves a 700-foot ascent that culminates at Limpia Creek Vista, the highest point in the park, at 5,700 feet.
- Mystical Marfa: From Fort Davis, it’s about a 40-minute drive to Marfa, established in 1883 as a water stop and freight headquarters for the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway. Reportedly, a railroad official’s wife suggested the name Marfa from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” which she was reading at the time. According to the Handbook of Texas, another version of the story claims that the town was named for the character Marfa Strogoff in Jules Verne’s “Michael Strogoff.” The one-traffic-light town is best-known for three things: the Marfa Mystery Lights, which allegedly dance in the night sky but have no known cause; the 1956 movie “Giant,” for which the town served as the setting; and the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, whose large-scale artwork made the town a magnet for artists and art lovers alike. Though Marfa is now home to numerous vacation rentals and the glamorous Hotel Saint George, its most diverting accommodations remain the illustrious El Paisano, the historic hotel where James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor stayed while filming “Giant.”
- College town: Twenty-six miles west of Marfa is Alpine, a bigger town with around 5,800 residents (compared with about 1,800 people in Marfa). Alpine is the home of Sul Ross State University, part of the Texas State University system. On the Sul Ross campus is the Museum of the Big Bend. A trailhead near the museum leads to the top of Hancock Hill, where you’ll find “the Desk,” a quirky Sul Ross landmark. As you take in the panoramic view, leave your mark in the notebook left in one of the desk drawers. Alpine has an excellent restored hotel, The Holland Hotel, and a wonderful little Texana bookshop, Front Street Books.
- Texas hospitality: The most restorative place to stay in the region is the iconic Gage Hotel in the tiny town of Marathon, about 30 miles east of Alpine. It was opened in 1927 by pioneer cattlemen Alfred Gage as an operations headquarters for his 500,000-acre ranch. The hotel has 46 luxuriously appointed suites; each blends art, Texas heritage, old-world sophistication and modern sensibilities. Guests get access to a heated, saltwater pool, a full-service spa, a restaurant, bar, and a 27-acre garden.
- A majestic must: Marathon is a gateway to Big Bend National Park (The Gage is about 70 miles north of the visitor center ), an 801,000-acre wonderland of gorges, mountain peaks, canyons and mesas larger than Rhode Island. Huge swaths of the land are accessible for day hikes and backpacking (150 miles of trails), camping and river trips. Big Bend National Park is hundreds of miles from the nearest city. Getting there requires a sheer force of will. Yet, it remains a perennial hotspot for Texas tourists – around 581,000 people a year visit the park.
- Hiker’s paradise: If you’re seeking near-total isolation and Big Bend is too crowded for your taste, consider driving 235 miles north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park is one of the least-visited of the country’s national parks, and welcomed just 243,000 people in 2021. The mountain El Capitan, a massive hunk of limestone with sheer sides rising 1,000 feet above the desert floor, and the adjacent 8,751‐foot Guadalupe Peak, the tallest in Texas, are the park’s claim to fame. The park has 80 miles of hiking trails that offer easy nature walks through desert flora, moderate hikes through canyons to riparian oases, and a strenuous day-long hike to the “Top of Texas.” Be warned, this is rugged hiking country – the park has little water, no food, no touring roads and no lodging (the nearest options are to the north in Carlsbad and to the south in Van Horn).
Seasoned travelers, what advice do you have for West Texas newbies? Share your recommendations in the comment section below.