From the entrance of Maverick Road, at a distance of 13 miles, the 1,500-foot walls of Santa Elena Canyon blend into the surrounding landscape, indiscernible from the rock formations and mountains that litter Big Bend and the greater Chihuahua Dessert. Upon approach, however, the towering canyon walls rise up from the horizon to eclipse the late afternoon sun, replacing a dry desert heat with the damp air of a shaded river bed.
The winding, unpaved, and somewhat rugged road from the west entrance of Big Bend National Park to the mouth of Santa Elena is one of the most scenic and desolate drives in Texas. A true bit of outlanding at the edge of one of the country’s most unforgiving national parks. Having just left the canyon, my travel companions and I race against the dying light of sunset to make it back to paved roads and, eventually, our Airbnb in Alpine with enough life in our bones for dinner and a movie.
In most parts of the world, the two-hour drive from the canyon’s mouth to our beds in Alpine would be considered an unreasonably far distance to travel for nightly accommodations. In Big Bend country, that’s a reasonable drive for groceries.
The Terlingua Ghost Town, a once-forgotten mining settlement reborn as an off-the-grid tourist destination, lies a few miles outside the park and offers fine lodging and dining options. Its growing notoriety, however, makes the once-treasured secret a veritable tourist trap during the peak summer and holiday seasons.
Inside Big Bend's national and state parks you'll find dozens of campsites and lodges, though roughing it in either restricts the scope of one’s travel to the park itself. I have found, in my yearly western pilgrimages, the towns of Alpine and Marfa are ideal West Texas base camps when traveling through Big Bend country.
Both are centrally located within a two- to three-hour drive of everything worth seeing at the far edge of Texas. Between them you’ll find a month's worth of art, food, drink, and oddities to explore.
A 19th-century desert town turned artist community, Marfa now serves as an aesthetic travel destination for luxury minimalism and high-end “glamping.” Popularized most prominently by contemporary minimalist artist Donald Judd—who founded the town’s most important contribution to American art, The Chinati Foundation—Marfa has evolved to near-folkloric stature within the greater mythos of the region. Its position directly north of the desolate Big Bend Ranch State Park and just two and a half hours from the more renowned national park, makes it an ideal point of departure for all manner of adventure.
The historic Hotel Paisano is an hacienda-looking building with 41 rustic rooms and suites surrounding a central courtyard. The lodge-style lobby is a vision of cowboy fashion pulled from the pages of a Louis L’amor novel, with buffalo and longhorn busts complementing the building’s Tejano architecture and ranchero decor.
A fireside bourbon after an indulgent dinner in the hotel’s adjacent restaurant, Jett’s Grill, proves a transcendent moment of unfettered joy after a taxing day of hiking and driving.
Just down the street in downtown Marfa, Stellina serves rotating menus that dabble in New American, Interior Mexican, Mediterranean, and whatever else strikes chef-owner Krista Steinhauer’s fancy.
The intimate and contemporary space offers a sharp contrast to the hotel’s “hacienda on the range” charm. Despite its four-day schedule, no reservation policy and lines out the door, the fare is, by all accounts, worth the wait.
On the drive back to Alpine after a night of self-indulgence, my wife and I—no longer traveling with friends—stop at the fabled Marfa Lights Viewing Area. Adding to the town’s mystique, the unsettling lights—thought to be atmospheric reflections—have been observed from the same location for more than 100 years.
They have inspired no shortage of ghost stories, UFO sightings, and paranormal explanations. My yearly returns to observe them first-hand have become more ritual than tourism.
Back in Alpine, our Airbnb is a beautifully renovated 105-year-old bungalow three blocks from downtown, and it may or may not be haunted. Its old bones and original hardwood creak under the weight of our steps, while a linen closet reveal human-sized spaces between its old walls.
Alpine itself is roughly twice the size of its artsy neighbor to the west, though in recent years it's been less revered as a travel destination. The county-seat of Brewster County and cultural center of the 12,000-square-mile Big Bend Region, the former cattle stop is the heart and soul of the Texas high desert.
Its small downtown is anchored by the historic Holland Hotel. Built in 1928 and designed by the famed El Paso architecture firm Trost and Trost, the boutique hotel is all Texas charm and elegance. The exquisite setting makes the hotel’s restaurant, The Century, one of the finest hotel bars in Texas.
While in Alpine, we visit the region’s most notable brewery, the Big Bend Brewing Company. The small microbrewery opens its taproom Thursday through Monday to thirsty locals and tourists alike. Its flagship beer, Tejas, is a (barely) north of the border take on a classic Mexican lager brewed in classic and “negra” varieties.
From Marathon to Marfa, the small towns of far West Texas abound with quaint Airbnbs, historic hotels, and cowboy saloons serving backpackers and ranch-hands alike. Within a morning's drive of the most breathtaking natural wonders of the Southwest and surrounded on all sides by endless plains leading to distant peaks, these small towns are woefully underappreciated gems of the Texas backcountry; all too perfectly isolated from civilization.
As we head home on our return journey, a 10-hour haul from Alpine to Houston, it’s 45 minutes before our phones pick up enough signal to stream music. The time is spent in blissful observance of our surroundings, already dreaming of next year’s trip.