Texas lends itself well to adventure. And when it comes to the ultimate road trip, there’s no better terrain to traverse than West Texas. In fact, with its wide-open roads, star-pricked skies, reddish-purple mountain peaks, and rugged tracts of lonely desert, you’d swear this the sole purpose of this land is road-tripping.
So gather up some pals (or don’t, because solitary sojourns are where it’s at), crank up the lonesome sounds of Townes Van Zandt, and start the trek westward — all the while keeping the famed words of Wallace Stegner in mind for inspiration:
“It should not be denied ... that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led West.”
Day 1: Alpine and Balmorhea State Park
What’s the best way to feel refreshed after seven hours in the car? A dip in a giant pool in the middle of the desert, of course. Balmorhea State Park is home to the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool — its deep, turquoise waters make for a pleasant start to any road trip. The park is typically open from 8 am to 5 pm, so head here en route to Alpine (if you get an early start), or even on your way back home to Austin.
Big Bend has the grandeur, and Marfa’s got the Brooklynites, but you’d be wrong to discount Alpine. With its dusty, small-town Texas charms and quaint vibes, it’s well worth a day-long detour, if you’ve got the time. (Of course, you do, you’re on West Texas time now — even the tumbleweeds move slower down here.) Ringed by mountain peaks and desert highways, Alpine is home of the Big Bend’s Amtrak train stop, Sul Ross State University (as seen in the film Boyhood), and the most remote craft brewery in the country: Big Bend Brewing Company.
Stroll up and down historic Holland Avenue, and check out Alpine’s crown jewel, the Holland Hotel. Meander in and out of art galleries, make a pit stop at Front Street Books for your literary fix, and lazily linger over Big Bend Coffee Roasters-produced lattes at Plaine Coffee (whose sister location, Frama, is in Marfa).
Once you’ve had your fill of downtown life, why not go for a hike? Behind the University’s Mountainside Dormitory is a short trail that leads to the top of Hancock Hill — check it out for some mighty fine views of Alpine and its surrounding mountainous environs.
Stay: The Holland Hotel if you want to get fancy; The Maverick Inn if you’re on a budget
Eat: Alicia’s Mexican Restaurant for Tex-Mex; The Reata for upscale cowboy food
Alpine at a glance: Hike up Hancock Hill; sip a local IPA at Big Bend Brewing Company; take a dip in the waters at Balmorhea; dance the night away at Railroad Blues
Day 2: Marfa
Being in Marfa is a little bit like being in a West Texas version of The Truman Show. Walking around, you may start to get the uneasy sense that the townspeople are movie extras, and you’re the unwitting star of the show. Why? Because the whole town looks and feels like a film set — the presence of East Coast-chic eateries and world-class contemporary art studios in an otherwise normal small Texan town is a little jarring, to say the least.
It’s worth starting your day with an early-morning tour of the Chinati Foundation, to check out the work of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, Marfa’s hometown hero. From here, it’s onward to more art — peek inside downtown galleries for a glimpse of Andy Warhol’s Last Supper, pay a visit to Ballroom Marfa, and stroll in and out of the many other galleries that dot this tiny town.
Lunchtime! Yes, Beyoncé was once photographed eating at the Food Shark, and, sure, Cochineal boasts some impressive-looking artisanal delights, but if you only eat at one spot in Marfa, it’s gotta be The Pizza Foundation: their thin, doughy, yummy, fresh-baked pies are insanely good. (In true Marfa style, though, the Pizza Foundation is only open on weekends.)
At night, you’ve got your choice of star-studded activities: you could grab your flask of whiskey and head to the Marfa Lights Viewing Center (to check out the town’s famed mysterious lights that have been making an appearance since the late 1800’s) or you could head out to the McDonald Observatory for a Star Party program. Either way, prepare to be awed by the infiniteness and beauty of the West Texas night sky.
Stay: The Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains State Park if you’re feeling the nature; El Cosmico if you’re feeling the glamping vibes; the Thunderbird Hotel if you feel like splurging
Eat: The Pizza Foundation; the Food Shark for the miso-tahini veggie bowl; LaVenture for swanky American-style fare; Planet Marfa for nachos and beer
Marfa at a glance: Channel your inner astronomy nerd at a Star Party; peruse local poetry at the Marfa Book Company; check out the Chinati Foundation; watch for potential UFO activity at the Marfa Lights Viewing Center; camp out in style at El Cosmico
Days 3 and 4: Big Bend National Park
Take the long way to Big Bend — it’s well worth it. From Marfa, head south on Highway 67 toward Presidio and pick up signs for FM-170, otherwise known as the River Road. This famed stretch of highway has been deemed one of the best drives in America. (For a detailed description of the River Road, check this out.)
It’s hard to overestimate the lovely vastness of Big Bend National Park. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come here each year, despite its inconvenient remoteness — the park is simply that incredible.
If you’re feeling acclimated, it’s time for a hike. For a shorter hike, the Lost Mine trail, at 4.6 miles, is a great pick: this pine-covered trail offers breathtaking views of the many glorious rock formations and peaks that permeate Big Bend. However, if you have the time (and the stamina), the South Rim loop, at 12.6 miles, is really something else: once you’ve reached the top, prepare to be surrounded by the best view in Texas. (Keep in mind that both are strenuous hikes — don’t forget to drink a lot of water.)
Of course, you could forego hiking altogether and still have a good time in Big Bend. Simply driving through the park is an unforgettable experience. Cross over into Boquillas del Carmen, a small Mexican village on the Rio Grande, by rowboat and horse — just don’t forget your passport! Take a leisurely soak in the Langford Hot Springs, then follow that up with a visit to Santa Elena canyon. Just be sure to get there at sunset — it will take your breath away.
Stay: Chisos Mountain Lodge for ease and comfort; one of Big Bend’s three main campgrounds for s’mores and wine under the stars
Big Bend at a glance: The River Road; enjoy sunset in Santa Elena canyon; soak your tired hiker body in the hot springs; cross the river into Mexico at Boquillas; experience the otherworldly views on the South Rim