May 14, 2021

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The ultimate Texas road trip begins with Big Bend and Far West towns

10 min read

You may have to warm up to West Texas; the beauty of the Chihuhuan Desert grows on you. It could become a passion.

“This land is my lover,” says Randy De La Fuenta, a guide with Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua.

The dry air, desert flora, majestic sunsets and starry skies drew De La Fuenta, who grew up in Houston, to the desert 10 years ago — for good, he says. On a Jeep tour to Big Bend Ranch State Park’s abandoned Buena Suerte mine, he points out the yucca in bloom, a rainbow cactus, sotol agave and the leatherstem plant whose sap once saved his life when he cut himself and used it to close the wound.

The desert offers a balm for the soul, too. The drive to Marfa, Fort Davis, Alpine, Big Bend National Park and Marathon makes the ultimate Texas road trip.

Scenes from Marfa on a road trip to West Texas.

(Melissa Aguilar | Houston Chronicle)

MARFA

Restaurants: Stop in at Para Llevar and say hello to chef Seth Siegel-Gardner, of Pass & Provisions fame. His small to-go restaurant/bodega features a woodburning oven and a big patio. The chef-driven menu includes artisan pizzas and a killer BLT. Siegel-Gardner packed up a cheese and charcuterie feast for us to take to Big Bend; 113 S. Dean. Over at Marfa Burrito, be prepared to pay in cash. You’ll be rewarded with great authentic Mexican food, and photos of Matthew McConaughey on the wall; 104 E. Waco.

Shopping: Pronghorn, “a space for the curious and creative,” is a great store for unusual handcrafted décor and gifts. Mark Wilkerson has curated an interesting collection of furniture, turquoise jewelry and vintage panchos and leather; 125 N. Highland Ave. Sister Gaiya gets its Far West inspiration from the Far East. You’ll find art, objects, antiques, clothing, books and jewelry artfully arranged; ; 105 W. Texas.

Marfa Lights: You’ve heard about that inexplicable phenomenon, the Marfa Ghost Lights. Go see for yourself. After years of squinting to find nothing, I assured my friend we would not be seeing the Marfa Lights. But there they were, little lights dancing sporadically on the horizon. As the locals say: Don’t expect the northern lights; think headlights. Roadside park and viewing center is 9 miles southeast of Marfa on U.S. 90.

Hotel Saint George: This luxury hotel is housed in a modern white box. The first floor contains a sleek bar and restaurant. With 55 guest rooms and a swimming pool across the street, the Saint George is a hot new addition to the Marfa scene. It’s owned by former Houston lawyer Tim Crowley, who has helped usher in Marfa’s renaissance over the past 20 years. Rooms start at $255; 105 S. Highland Ave.; 432-729-3700; marfasaintgeorge.com

Hotel Paisano: The 1956 filming of “Giant” starring Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson put Marfa on the cultural map, and that history is well documented at the Paisano. The patio bar is Marfa’s spot to see and be seen; 207 N. Highland; 866-729-3669, hotelpaisano.com.

El Cosmico: This hippie-chic hotel and campground owned by Austin hotelier Liz Lambert offers accommodations in vintage trailers, teepees, tents and an authentic Mongolian yurt. The 21-acre property also includes a communal bathhouse with showers and a tub, hammocks and an outdoor kitchen. The trailers are cute, comfy and private. The store at El Cosmico offers fun (if pricey) items. You’ll want the cute duvet cover from your trailer, cool handmade huarache sandals, music-festival posters or a “mañana” T-shirt. Nightly safari tent rentals start at $85, yurt and tepee rates are about $120, and trailers start at $160; 802 S. Highland; 432-729-1950, elcosmico.com.

Chinati Foundation: The exhibits are currently closed because of the pandemic; 432-729-4362; chinati.org.

FORT DAVIS

Fort Davis National Historic Site: This 19th-century frontier fort has one of the best-preserved “Buffalo Soldier” outposts, complete with restored bunkhouse. Hiking trails lead from the fort to Davis Mountains State Park; 101 Lt. Henry Flipper, Fort Davis; 432-426-3224; nps.gov/foda.

McDonald Observatory: The University of Texas outpost’s visitor center is currently closed because of the pandemic; 432-426-3640; mcdonaldobservatory.org.

A home in Alpine, Texas. Photo: Melissa Aguilar

A home in Alpine, Texas.

(Melissa Aguilar | Houston Chronicle)

ALPINE

Holland Hotel: The elegant historical hotel built in 1928 by West Texas’ most famous architects, Trost & Trost, has been renovated. Stop by the hotel’s Century Bar & Grill for a look at the painted ceiling. Order a steak and tequila out on the patio. Live music on the weekends. (The train is loud on the hotel’s east side, but ear plugs are provided.) Rooms start at $190; 209 W. Holland, 800-535-8040; thehollandhoteltexas.com.

Restaurants: Named for the legendary ranch in the classic James Dean movie “Giant,” Reata Restaurant is West Texas’ destination dining; there’s no better place to have cowboy cuisine. Reservations recommended for this homey spot, although there’s often a spot at the bar; 203 N. 5th, 432-837-9232. And for breakfast, stop in a Judy’s Bread & Breakfast for a homemade cinnamon roll. “Would you like that warm with butter?” Abigail asked. “Yes, please.” Heaven! 113 W. Holland; 432-837-9424.

Shopping: What’s a West Texas road trip without a stop at a saddle store? Big Bend Saddlery is your answer for all things leather; 2701 E. U.S. 90. Likewise, Out West Feed & Supply is more than a feed store. Shop for Western wear, boots and jewelry as well as farming supplies; 2600 E. U.S. 90.

Alpine Auto Rental: If you’re renting a car or trailer in the Big Bend area, this is the place; 2501 E. Texas 90; 432-837-3463.

Walking tour: The Alpine Mural Project salutes the town’s ranch heritage. Cleburne artist Stylle Read’s series of murals reproduces vintage calendars, the dates of which are for sale to finance the project. But you’ll find murals all over town; pick up the walking-tour guide at the Visitors Center; 106 N. 3rd; alpinetexas.com.

TERLINGUA

Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon: This rugged town isn’t much to look at, but it offers surprisingly good entertainment. Stop by the Starlight in Terlingua Ghost Town for live music, a great menu and a cold beer; 631 Ivey; 432-371-2326.

Big Bend Resort and Adventures: Don’t let the word “resort” fool you; this is the kind of side-of-the-highway motor hotel you remember from your childhood; rooms start at $119; 1 Main, 432-371-2218.

Willow House: This desert retreat 6 miles from Big Bend National Park may be the most Instagrammable place in West Texas. With unobstructed views of the Chisos Mountains, Willow House offers a communal style of hospitality where guests can cook, mix a cocktail and meet people in the Main House but stay in private accommodations; 432-213-2270; 23112 FM 170; willowhouse.co/book

Outfitters: If you plan to paddle the Rio Grande River, take a Jeep tour, mountain bike or hike, check out Far Flung Outdoor Center; 432-371-2633; bigbendfarflung.com.

Santa Elena is a narrow 7-mile long canyon along the border where the Rio Grande has sliced through the limestone in Big Bend National Park.

(Melissa Aguilar | Houston Chronicle)

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK

Big Bend, once Texas’ best-kept secret, has been discovered, in part thanks to social media. But its vast expanse and relatively open trails make it the perfect pandemic escape. The park encompasses a mix of topography and ecosystems from the rugged Chisos Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert to the lush banks of the Rio Grande and the hot springs bubbling up around it. Entrance fees are $30 per vehicle for a seven-day pass. $55 buys an annual pass. In early April, a wildfire claimed about 1,400 acres of the 800,000-acre park.

Favorite hikes: These trails are still open and weren’t affected by the recent wildfire: Grapevine Hills Trail, which leads to the much-photographed Balanced Rock formation, 2.2 miles (round trip); Lost Mines Trail, which offers sweeping views of the basin, 5 miles; Laguna Meadows, 7.8 miles, a great place to spot wildlife; Santa Elena Canyon, 1.7 miles. (Time your hike up Santa Elena to see the early-evening sun as it hits the canyon walls.)

Closed trails: As of April 28, these trails remain closed due to the wildfire: South Rim, East Rim, Emory Peak, Boot Canyon, Pinnacles, Juniper Canyon and Colima. The Hot Springs and Boquillas Crossing are closed because of the pandemic.

Chisos Mountains Lodge: If you want to stay in the park, the 72-room lodge is centrally located and has a restaurant, a store and an incredible view. The rates are about $160 per night. The lodge also operates the popular Stone Cottages. Make your reservations for 2022 starting June 1; 432-477-2291.

Camping: Reservations and permits are required for campgrounds and back-country sites; check in at one of the visitor centers in person; 432-477-2251. Backcountry permits may be obtained online at recreation.gov.

BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK

Texas’ largest state park has primitive trails for hiking, mountain biking and backpacking. Book a stay at the Sauceda Bunk House or big Ranch House and watch cowboys work the cattle ranch. Hike the Cinco Tinajas or Ojito Adentro trails. Bike to the Solitario Overlook for a view of the park’s signature geological formation. Check in online or by phone; the park sometimes reaches capacity. Stop in at Barton Warnock Visitor Center (open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily) near Lajitas. Reservations, 512-389-8900; tpwd.state.tx.us/bigbendranch.

To take a Jeep tour of the park, check out Far Flung Outdoor Center. 23310 FM 170, Terlingua; 432-371-2633; bigbendfarflung.com

The Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas Photo: Melissa Aguilar/Houston Chronicle

The Gage Hotel in Marathon, Texas

(Melissa Aguilar/Houston Chronicle | Houston Chronicle)

MARATHON

Gage Hotel: Owner J.P. Bryan has given this boutique hotel a luxurious touch without diminishing its historical beauty. The rooms are elegantly rustic, and the lobby is a great place to sit back and socialize. Its luxe spa is a welcome treat after a long, dusty hiking trip — the hotel is just 48 miles from the Big Bend National Park entrance. Not up for the long drive? Fly into Alpine on a private plane, and the Gage will pick you up. Rooms start at $250 per night; 102 W. U.S. 90. 432-386-4205; gagehotel.com.

Restaurants: The 12-Gage Restaurant serves dishes sophisticated enough to satisfy even the most ardent foodies — oyster nachos, crispy pork belly, Wagyu strip steak; 432-386-4522. The V6 Coffee Bar has great coffee and a hearty breakfast; try the migas or the favorite “Marathon muffin” — fried egg, sausage, cheddar, tomato, avocado mayo on a toasted English muffin; 432-308-6877.

Shopping: The French Grocer is a surprising delight in this small, dusty town, offering fresh produce, a nice wine selection, sandwiches, burritos, gluten-free items and almond milk. There’s a friendly beer garden out back, complete with ranch dog; 206 N. Ave. D. For gifts and mementoes, Pitaya Verde has Texas-centric jewelry, Mexican blankets, clothing and accessories. Evans Gallery features fine-art photographs by Big Bend artist and author James H. Evans; both shops are adjacent to the Gage Hotel.


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As Senior Editor for Features, Melissa Aguilar oversees the Zest, Renew, Preview and Flavor teams, as well as the Chronicle’s niche products such as Luxury Life magazine and Houston Gives. In her years at the Chronicle, she has held many positions, from features editor and entertainment editor to fashion writer, copy editor and city hall reporter.

During her tenure, the features sections have won writing and design awards, as well as the prestigious Best Features Section award from the Society of Features Journalists.

Melissa has two adult children, Tessa and Dylan, and a white lab named Sunny. She has completed the Houston Marathon seven times, has ridden the MS 150 eight times and loves to travel, write and shoot pictures. She is a native Houstonian and a magna cum laude graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or by Twitter: @MelissAguilar

Design by Julie Takahashi. She is the features digital manager at the Houston Chronicle. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or by Twitter: @Julie_Takahashi

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