As a native Californian whose first trip to Texas was my senior year Rice visit, I was largely unfamiliar with the tourist attractions that this state has to offer. However, this past weekend changed that as I was able to leave the Rice, and Houston, bubble to do some exploring with a willing partner. This is a two-part series, this week will cover Big Bend National Park and Marfa, Texas and the next part will focus on Texas Hill Country Our road trip was four days total; this article will discuss the two days in Big Bend and Marfa and the next article will discuss the two days in the Hill Country. If you’re looking for unforgettable art and nature during midterm recess in February or spring break in March, consider this road trip.
You might not know this, but Big Bend isn't a single place but actually two different parks — Big Bend National Park and the much smaller Big Bend Ranch State Park. As neither of us had been to Big Bend, we opted for the national park. A day in the park is $25 per vehicle. We spent 7.5 hours at the park, which was not enough time to even drive around all of the park. As a result, we had to carefully choose what trails to hike and routes to drive.
We started our visit with the Lost Mine Trail, which is a five-mile trail that winds up a ridge above Juniper Canyon. At the top there are incredible views of the canyon and varied rock formations that are well worth the hike. We didn’t have time to do the top-rated Window Trail, so we substituted the shorter, similar Window View Trail.. The Window View Trail is about as convenient as it gets — it’s a half mile paved trail next to the Visitor Center with views that aren’t too different from the more rigorous Window Trail. The visitor center guide highly recommended that we do the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive next, which is a 30-mile drive that includes several vistas and stops leading to more trails, such as the Burro Mesa Pouroff. When you hear Big Bend, you probably picture the bend of the Rio Grande. At the end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive is the trail to the Santa Elena Canyon, which winds along the banks of the Rio Grande and has some great views.
Now for logistics. There are some visitor centers where you can buy food and there is one gas station in the park, but I would recommend going to a grocery store to get food for lunch and snacks as well as filling up your tank before heading down. Campsites are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, but advance reservations are recommended. Some of these campsites are only accessible via unpaved or primitive roads, which means you need a 4x4 vehicle to get to them. We chose to stay at a VRBO (which is like Airbnb) in Alpine about an hour away. This option was more expensive but also offered more amenities and a chance to visit Reata, a cute small town with cool murals and a tasty restaurant that serves a stellar carne asada.
Marfa is an artist outpost just about as hipster as you can imagine, and then some. Downtown is filled with contemporary and modern art museums, like Ballroom Marfa and Marfa Contemporary, as well as interesting architectural spots such as Marfa National Bank, the Brite Building and Presidio County Courthouse. The first floor of the Brite Building houses The Ayn Foundation and some works by Andy Warhol, but was closed when we were there. Friday and Saturday are the best days to visit Marfa, because some restaurants and museums were closed on the Sunday we went.
In addition, Marfa is a bit of a mecca for lovers of the minimalist artist Donald Judd. For those who, like us, have never heard of Judd, the Block tour is a great way to learn more about his life and visit both his domestic and working spaces. It is a 1.5-hour guided tour and offers a student discount leaving tickets $12.50 per person. After the Block tour, I would recommend visiting the Chinati Foundation, which houses a few different permanent installations by Judd and Robert Irwin. The outdoor concrete installation by Judd is free to visit; otherwise, it costs $5 per person (with a student ID) to visit Judd’s brushed aluminum installation and Robert Irwin’s “Dawn and Dusk” installation.
Of course, there are a few popular activities that you may have already heard of. Prada Marfa is a permanent art installation housing some pieces from the fall 2005 Prada collection that can be viewed from outside. However, the name is misleading as it is actually located 35 miles away from Marfa. The drive is easy aside from an occasional army of tumbleweeds crossing the road. Nine miles from downtown is the Marfa Lights Observation stop, where you can see the mysterious Marfa Lights for yourself. There are several theories surrounding the lights’ existence, but none have been confirmed. We decided to spend more time stargazing than waiting to see the Marfa Lights — a trip to such a remote place would not be complete without appreciating the incredible night sky.
Most importantly, where’s the food? There are some cool restaurants and cocktail bars on the main drag, one of which is called Squeeze. Squeeze is a Swiss cafe that serves amazing breakfast, including waffles with mixed berries and chocolate, a ham and cheese baguette breakfast sandwich and amazing hot chocolate with your choice of milk or dark chocolate. Seeing as Squeeze is Swiss, it serves Swiss chocolate, which makes the hot chocolate the best I had ever had). One of the most popular and well-loved restaurants in town for both tourists and locals is the Pizza Foundation, so expect an hour wait to build your own pizza. Luckily, you can leave your phone number and continue to explore the town while you wait for your customized order.
Finally, there are a few different options for accommodations at night. El Cosmico Hotel is by far the most eclectic, offering safari tents, teepees, Mongolian yurts and vintage trailers, ranging from $65 to $195 per night. Some of the cheaper accommodations only offer communal bathrooms and showers, so be sure to bring your own toiletries. On some Saturdays, El Cosmico puts on a happy hour with music, tacos, drinks and free use of the wood-burning hot tubs. The priciest option is the posh Hotel Saint George, starting at $199 per night. Adjacent to the lobby is Marfa Book Co., which offers books about art, photographs of Marfa and other souvenirs.