If the Blanton’s newest exhibition, Photography and the American Road Trip, has you itching to hit the highway, look no further than West Texas. Between Liz Lambert’s chic outpost, El Cosmico, and countless contemporary galleries, Marfa has become a buzzworthy destination for art lovers and festival-goers alike.
But, if you're looking to take a trip beyond Marfa, these nearby adventures offer perfect alternatives for truly getting off the grid.
Framed by Hancock Hill and the picturesque Paisano Peak in the distance, the drive into Alpine alone is worth the trek to West Texas. Celebrated in the final scenes of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s nostalgic nod to his home state, the Highway 67 turnoff takes you to Marfa, Alpine, Marathon, and, eventually, Big Bend. At Alpine's Sul Ross University, the beautiful, 100-year-old campus is the perfect place to catch a West Texas sunset on your first night in town. Stretch your legs as the sky fades from brilliant red to deep purple, then head to Saddle Club to unwind with tapas and live music.
In the morning, enjoy a classic diner-style menu from the bakery at Judy’s Bread and Breakfast. Grab a guide to the Historic Alpine Walking and Windshield Tour and be sure to grab one of Judy’s huge, homemade cinnamon rolls for the road. Whether on foot or by car, the tour winds through Alpine’s architectural history and back to campus at Sul Ross, where you can visit the Museum of the Big Bend. A fascinating permanent collection explores the region’s natural and human history, while the special fall 2017 exhibition (which runs through December 17) displays the impact of painter Charlie Russell on present-day Western artists.
For a more leisurely stroll, simply browse the galleries, murals, and antique shops on Holland Street, or cross the railroad tracks to the newly revitalized Murphy Street. Book lovers won’t want to miss Front Street Books, which offers an excellent selection of West Texas lore, current fiction, and topographic maps. Alpine afternoons call for day drinking at the Big Bend Brewery. Drink in the views with West Texas views at this tap room, which is open five days a week, and welcomes dogs on its picturesque patio.
In the evening, head to the historic Holland Hotel for cocktails at the Century Bar, featuring a locally inspired menu, live music, and Texas bistro cuisine. The hotel’s architect, Trost and Trost, also designed Marfa’s recently renovated Hotel Paisano and Marathon’s Gage Hotel.
Per the Lone Star State’s unofficial anthem, the stars at night are indeed big and bright in the heart of Texas, and one of the best places to view them is at the McDonald Observatory. Benefiting from some of the darkest night skies in the nation, this state-of-the-art research facility offers interactive educational exhibits and a full program of public events at the Frank N. Bash Visitor Center. Book your spot in advance for an unforgettable Star Party, featuring night sky constellation tours and celestial views through telescopes in the Rebecca Gale Telescope Park. The experience is truly out of this world, and evening programs are available on Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday.
On the morning of your visit, grab coffee at Alpine’s Cedar Coffee & Supply before the drive down Highway 118 to the Chihuahan Desert Nature Center. This 507-acre site offers some of the best hiking in the area, with nearly five miles of trails and spectacular views from spots like Clayton’s Overlook. For less strenuous nature activities, visit the center’s Desert Botanical Garden or check out more than 150 different species of plants in the Cactus and Succulent Greenhouse. Whether you’ve worked up a hiking appetite or simply want to step back in time, head another four miles north for lunch at the famous Fort Davis Drug Store & Hotel. This historic soda fountain is the perfect spot for groups or solo travelers, so grab a table in the dining room or nab a single swivel stool at the bar. Either way, be sure to save room for a root beer float or classic sundae.
While in town, stop by the Fort Davis National Historic Site to tour one of the Southwest’s best surviving examples of frontier defense. Now part of the National Parks system, the fort’s strategic location at the crossroads of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahuan Trail made it a crucial military outpost from 1854 to 1891.
Four miles of trails connect the historic site to the Davis Mountain State Park & Indian Lodge, and the road that leads beyond Fort Davis is one of the best drives in the state. This 75-mile scenic loop on the highest public highway in Texas winds past the state park, Limpia Canyon, McDonald Observatory, Mount Livermore, Sawtooth Mountain, and back to Fort Davis. Also ideal for cyclists, the route provides plenty of picnic areas and rest stops along the way.
When the inevitable day comes to head back east, make Marathon your last hurrah. En route from Alpine, your first stop is the Marathon Target — but blink and you’ll miss West Texas’ newest public art installation. A tongue-in-cheek response to Prada Marfa, look for an abandoned cinder block shack sporting the famous bull's-eye logo of the beloved national brand.
Continue your drive into Marathon, named by its first postmaster in 1883 for the similarity of the valley and its surrounding hills to Marathon, Greece. Today, the town has earned the rare distinction as a “Class 1 Dark Sky” community — meaning residents and visitors enjoy breathtaking views of the stars in the darkest possible night sky, protected from the intrusion of exterior light pollution.
The main street’s crown jewel is the Gage Hotel. Built in 1927, the historic hotel remains a hub of activity for residents and tourists alike. Sip a cappuccino or smoothie on the porch of the V6 Coffee Bar while the train scoots past before wandering over the tracks to the Gage Garden and Nature Trail. A true desert oasis, the hotel’s landscaped garden comprises 27 acres of walking trails with a lavender field, rose garden, and more.
For more history, check out the Marathon Historical Museum next to the public library. Originally the site of the first schoolhouse in Buchel-Brewster County, the museum showcases the ranching, railroad, and mercantile industries that founded this tiny Texas town.
The only problem with saving Marathon for last is that you may not be able to resist that turnoff for Highway 385, where a 40-minute drive south leads straight to Big Bend National Park. If you have time, grab the makings of a picnic at The French Grocer before leaving Marathon, but be sure to factor in another 45-minute drive once inside the park. You’ll arrive in the Chisos Mountains Basin, where awe-inspiring vistas span across the river into Mexico. Camp overnight or head back to the Gage Hotel for drinks at White Buffalo Bar or dinner at 12 Gage Restaurant. Or better yet, save Big Bend for its own weekend adventure, heading home down I-10 with the stars in your eyes and desert air in your lungs — until next time.