One of Tanya Tucker’s most famous songs asks God to let her go to Texas when she dies because it’s as close to Heaven as she’s ever been. I don’t know what part of Texas she was singing about, but this song makes the most sense to me in Big Bend country. There’s a reason Texas is the subject of so many love songs by its home-grown musicians.
Of all the places I’ve been, West Texas feels the most like home. I was born and raised in the Dallas suburbs, so it may seem strange to call the vast, isolated desert an eight-hour drive from my front door “home,” but it is, and it’s unlike anywhere else. Nowhere represents what it is to be Texan quite like Big Bend country.
Getting to Big Bend feels like passing through the middle of nowhere, but it’s full of quirky adventures. The fastest route from Dallas takes about 8 hours and follows Interstate 20 through Abilene, Midland and Odessa, much of that at 75 mph. You’ll see in the map below that’s not the route that I went because – no offense to the citizens of Abilene, Midland and Odessa – interstates have no soul. I took my time winding through the backroads, passing through Dublin (the home of Dr. Pepper!), Early and San Angelo. This also combines routes I took on two separate road trips because, well, neither of these road trips were planned or well-thought out ahead of time (it’s more fun that way!) and you live and learn. Below is my ideal itinerary.
Fort Davis (500 miles/804 kilometers from Dallas)
From Interstate 20, take TX-17 south from Pecos. You’ll pass through Balmorhea, which has a state park where you can swim, scuba and camp.
Fort Davis is a town of about 1200 people and home to Davis Mountains state park, the McDonald Observatory and Fort Davis National Historical Site. A fine museum called Rattlesnakes and Reptiles houses a large assortment of live rattlesnakes and other desert animals. I camped in the state park and stayed a couple of nights in the Fort Davis Drugstore and Hotel. Both were wonderful.
From Fort Davis, head north on 118 to Interstate 10 and go west into Van Horn, a small town with just over 2000 people. The town itself is not a big tourist attraction, but it’s the starting point for those wanting to head north toward Guadalupe Mountains National Park or New Mexico’s Carlsbad Caverns National Park (both amazing road trips themselves!). The Clark Hotel Museum is free. The El Capitan restaurant is open in the evenings, and Chuy’s serves great Mexican food.
Valentine is reason enough to go the long way to enter Marfa from the north. There’s really not much to Valentine. Less than 200 people live there, but it’s the place to be on Valentine’s Day when, for the past six years, Big Bend Brewing Company has thrown a party in the town that increases its population 500%. You’ll pass through on U.S. 90, which also takes you past the art installation called Prada Marfa (just be careful not to miss it going 80 mph on the two-lane highway!).
Marfa is weird, and I mean that in the best way. It’s an artistic oasis in a desert known for cowboys and ranchers. There are several art galleries you can visit, and a cool bookstore. The town is most famous for its paranormal activity; the Marfa lights can be seen just about every night dancing and hovering over the desert mountains before they disappear. The town is also the home of El Cosmico, one of my favorite places to sleep. You can pitch a tent, stay in a revamped travel trailer, a yurt or a teepee and spend your days dozing in a hammock. Fill up on gas in Marfa! There is nowhere to stop for the next 60 miles.
Presidio is a border town about 60 miles (96 km) south of Marfa. There isn’t much between Presidio and Marfa besides a two-lane road and desert, but you will pass Elephant Rock, a large rock formation that looks like an elephant. The only point on the map between Marfa and Presidio is Shafter, a ghost town that dried up long ago when the silver mines closed. I didn’t stop there, but you can.
I didn’t linger in Presidio – just got a coffee and filled up my gas tank again, but there is a lot to see and do, including exploring the Shafter ghost town and visiting the Chinati Hot Springs or the town of Ruidosa. And if you have your passport, you can even cross the border into Ojinaga. Again, fill up on gas, water and anything you may need! There won’t be another gas station or store until you get to Study Butte, over 60 miles (96 km) away.
The River Road
FM 170 between Presidio and Terlingua is the most beautiful drive in the world, in my humble opinion. It’s absolutely spectacular. The road follows the Rio Grande and passes through Big Bend Ranch State Park. You can drive it in a little over an hour, but I took three hours because there are a lot of places to stop, get out and hike, or just sit and have a sandwich while you look out at the immensity and vastness of the desert and soak your feet in the river. This place can make you feel both small and unstoppable.
The road turns away from the river in the town of Lajitas. Lajitas has a golf resort and a beer-drinking goat, who also happens to be the elected mayor. He receives visitors (and snacks, beer and Gatorade) from his pen next to The Trading Post, where you can get gas, use the restroom and buy snacks and souvenirs.
Terlingua is a ghost town with a living population that offers a few places to eat and stay. It used to be the quicksilver capital of the world, but the town died after World War II. You can visit the old ghost town and find some interesting Air BnBs out here. You can also find really good tacos. (Note: You can enter Big Bend from Terlingua by heading east on 170, then taking a right on 118, but I chose to see Alpine and Marfa.)
From Terlingua, I turned North on 118 to Alpine, one of my favorite little towns in Texas; after the last several towns, you’ll feel like you’ve arrived in the big city. It’s got a whopping 6,000 people (almost), a university (Sul Ross State), plenty of hotels and restaurants, a lovely bookstore, several art galleries and food trucks.
Marathon is a fascinating place about 30 miles west of Alpine on US-90. It boasts the darkest, starriest night skies in the whole country (It’s a Class 1 Dark Sky). It’s a great place to spend a night or two. The Marathon Motel and RV Park has rooms for rent and space for RVs and tents. You can get a coffee at the V6 Coffee Bar and sandwiches, snacks and odd camping supplies at the French Grocer.
From Marathon, it’s 42 miles to the entrance of Big Bend, and then another 40 miles to Panther Junction, where there’s a single gas station. From Panther junction to the campgrounds is at least another 30 miles, so fill up on gas and supplies in Marathon.
Big Bend National Park
There are three main campgrounds: Chisos Basin, Cottonwood, and Rio Grande Village. I’ve stayed at both Cottonwood and Rio Grande Village, but a ranger at Panther Junction told me that Cottonwood was quieter. The time I stayed in Rio Grande Village, I was with a group of college students. Chisos Basin campground is higher up in the Chisos Basin, and thus cooler and in walking distance to the the lodge and restaurant. It fills up fast. In addition, there are a number of other primitive sites that require a 4WD vehicle to access.
The park has hiking trails through desert, mountains and along the river; some hikes are long and strenuous, especially in the summer when it’s really hot, but there are several day hikes that aren’t too strenuous. One of my favorites is the Boquillas Canyon trail, which leaves from the parking lot and takes you up a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande until you descend into the canyon along the river until the bank disappears and the water touches the canyon wall. The Hot Springs Historic Trail is probably the easiest in the park, and takes you past some really cool petroglyphs to a hot springs that sits right on the river.
Other stuff to do
- Photography and Telescopes! This is one of the greatest places in the United States to take pictures of the night sky. Last time I was there, a ranger saw me setting up my tripod a little ways from my camp, but he suggested I wait an hour or two and drive about a mile up the road for some great landscapes to complement the Milky Way. I drove in the pitch black and found a place to park on the side of the road and set up my tripod. There was no moon, which is the best time to take pics of the Milky Way, but that also meant I couldn’t see anything at all. I had a red light flashlight I used to set everything up, but other than that, no light whatsoever. It’s very rare that we find ourselves in absolute darkness, and it’s thrilling and kind of terrifying (what the hell was that sound?!) I tried to make as much noise as I could to frighten off any animals rustling around (and I definitely heard them!). If you’ve never tried night sky photography, it’s a lot of fun. I wish I had had a telescope to set up out there – I know it too would’ve been incredible!
- Geek out! I spent a lot of money in the gift shop on books. Books about plants. Books about clouds. Books about native species. Books about the night sky. I love learning, and if you do too, Big Bend is a great place to geek out. The geology, ecology, and human history of the region are fascinating, and it’s a great opportunity to hone your skills as a naturalist.
- Dinosaurs! Big Bend is a treasure trove of fossils. The Fossil Discovery Exhibit opened in 2017. The pavilions cover the four historical environments that Big Bend has experienced and has life-size replicas of many of the fossils that have been discovered in the park, including Quetzalcoatlus and Bravoceratops polyphemus!
Have fun, and make sure you take plenty of water and sunscreen, stay on the marked trails, and if you’re alone, let a ranger or someone know where you’re going. It would be extremely easy (and possibly fatal) to get lost out there. Always close the door to your tent when you aren’t present, even if you’ve just gone to the bathroom. Flatten your tent during the day to discourage curious wild animals from going inside, or strong winds from uprooting it. Keep your food in the bear safe. In my experience this isn’t so much for bears as it is for the javelinas (aka peccaries), who will go inside your tent looking for food (or just because they’re curious) and pee everywhere, leaving a smell you’ll never get over (The first time I visited the park, some unfortunate European tourists learned this lesson the hard way).