Texas State Flag (Photo: Thinkstock)
Most people know that the foliage of New England is one of the best road shows in the fall, but did you realize it is also one of the best times of the year to enjoy the legendary scenery of West Texas? With some of the most comfortable temperatures of the year (high 80 F, low 55 F) and a second round of desert flowers in bloom through November, the next three weeks are a great time to hit the road and explore the most dramatic horizons in the Lone Star state.
Take a week to 10 days, or pick one or two of the recommended destinations and fly in for a long weekend. This belongs on everyone’s road-trip bucket list. Here are some tips on how to cover the most ground and experience the unique natural beauty and quirkiness that can be found only in this westernmost corner of Texas.
1. Fly into El Paso or Midland airport and rent a car
L&J Cafe, known as the best Mexican food in the states (Photo: Courtesy of L&J Cafe/Facebook)
Regardless of where you’re coming from, start your trip as far west as possible. There’s a lot of highway to cover on this itinerary, so unless you have the time to drive for hours, start from one of these two cities and be sure that your first meal after touching down is Tex-Mex.
El Paso is located at the intersection of Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas on the banks of the Rio Grande, and claims bragging rights as the birthplace of Tex-Mex cuisine. Have a meal at a local institution like Chico’s Tacos or L&J Café and decide for yourself, then take Interstate 10 to Route 118 and start your adventure.
2. Explore the region of Fort Davis
Scenic overlook in Davis Mountains (Photo: Thinkstock)
This area is where the Davis Mountains appear like a mirage out of the flat Chihuahua desert that surrounds them. Spend a night at the Indian Lodge in Fort Davis and hike the scenic trail to the historic fort. You’ll feel as if you’ve been on the trail with Butch and the Kid before the day is over.
3. Attend McDonald Observatory’s star party
The Stars At Night Are Big And Bright! Especially at McDonald Observatory. (Photo: Courtesy of McDonals Observatory/Facebook)
This world-renowned facility is located in some of the darkest skies in the lower 48 states and holds a not-to-be-missed outdoor stargazing program every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evening. This alfresco planetary light show is unlike any other. Prepare to be inspired.
4. Visit the town of Marfa down Route 17
The Thunderbird Motel in Marfa, Texas ( Photo: Marcus Trimble/Flickr)
The town first became a celebrity when it was chosen to be the set for the iconic West Texas movie “Giant,” starring Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, in 1956. Later it was the residence and muse of minimalist artist Donald Judd, who moved to Marfa from New York in the 1970s. Today the town is an internationally celebrated modern-art pilgrimage site. Judd’s installation of 60 enormous concrete boxes stands solemnly over half a mile of desert landscape. It is an electrifying sight that will move you in a way that is reminiscent of a modern Stonehenge, and makes Marfa worth the trip. Spend a night at the recently reenergized Thunderbird for the ultrapostmodern motel experience, and don’t miss the best New York-style pizza in the state at Pizza Foundation.
5. Visit Big Bend National Park
A stunning sunset in Big Bend National Park (Photo: Adam Baker/Flickr)
The main event of the West Texas experience is Big Bend National Park. Travel Route 67 south to the border town of Presido and then drive along Route 170 through Big Bend Ranch State Park for the most scenic approach. This is a meandering day’s drive to the national park’s entrance, but it will prepare you for the even bigger sights of the main event. Big Bend is an awe-inspiring combination of river, desert, and mountain beauty that rivals the visual impact of Yosemite. The park includes some 245 miles of the Rio Grande, 150 miles of hiking trails, 450 species of birds, 78 species of mammals, and 31 different lizards. If you are a nature lover, book a couple of nights at the Chisos Mountains Lodge, located inside the park, to give yourself greater proximity for exploring.
6. Get spicy at the International Chili Championship
Trail rides are just one of the activities at the Lajitas Resort (Photo: Courtesy of Lajitas Resort/Facebook)
If you stay at the Lajitas resort just outside the park entrance, be sure not to miss the funky town of Terlingua just down the road. This western hippie outpost is home of the Terlingua International Chili Championship. Started in 1967, the event celebrated its 48th year on Nov. 1, when over 10,000 chili-eating fanatics converged to pick the best chili in the world. Eating chili is serious business in the West, and this is the epicenter.
7. Experience nature at Cibolo Creek Ranch
Cibolo Creek Ranch (Photo: Courtesy of Cibolo Creek Ranch/Facebook)
Cibolo Creek Ranch is a historic 19th-century adobe fort on a ranch property of 30,000 acres. It is a unique retreat that will immediately connect you with the land and the history of the region as well as pamper you like an honored guest in a private home. Worth the price tag and the detour if you have the time and money to indulge in this splurge.
8. Take Route 385 north to the town of Marathon
The Gage Hotel is a great place to bring your four legged friend (Photo: Gage Hotel/Facebook)
In Marathon, be sure to book a night or two at the charming Gage Hotel, which first opened in the 1920s and was renovated in the ’80s. Since then, it has been an unmissable oasis of cowboy chic for travelers needing to recover from a day of hiking in the park or driving in the car. The restaurant is award-winning, and the bar draws locals and tourists alike.
9. Loop west down Route 90 to the neighboring town of Alpine
Big Bend Brewing Company (Photo: irbypace/Flickr)
Home to Sul Ross State University, featured in the recent Texas-eccentric film Boyhood, this town is also full of Western atmosphere. The Holland Hotel has been operating from the center of town since 1928 and is a combination of historic Southwestern style and German beer hall. It was formerly the site of one of the state’s early microbreweries. Big Bend Brewing Co. now holds the responsibility of producing the local brew. It’s worth a taste.
10. Drive north to Interstate 10 to return home
The pool at Balmorhea State park (Photo: Courtesy of Balmorhea State park/Facebook)
Travel back through Fort Davis on Route 118 and then Route 17 to Balmorhea State Park. This park is the site of a spring-fed fresh-water swimming pool that was built in the 1930s by the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps. The constant flow of water from the natural spring requires no chlorine and enchants swimmers and scuba divers to explore its depths year round.
Whatever your expectations of this road trip, you will not be disappointed. Take time to make a realistic evaluation of how much highway you can cover each day, and be open to the unexpected detours you are certain to encounter in this enchanted corner of the country. The vast, rugged landscape never fails to captivate visitors who come here to experience the iconic atmosphere of the Wild West.
WATCH: Robert Irwin on painting, architecture, and Marfa