4 Days in Big Bend: A West Texas Road Trip Pt. 2

This is part two of our four-day Big Bend road trip through West Texas. If you missed it, here’s part one, with days 1 and 2 of the trip.

West Texas Road Trip Day 3: Terlingua to Marfa (122 Miles)

Good morning! Hope you got up early to check out one of those famous West Texas sunrises.

We’ll spend the morning in Terlingua, getting to know the charms of this mining settlement-turned-ghost town. But first, let’s fuel up for a busy day ahead. Hop in the car and head on down the road to the Espresso Y Poco Mas. Keep an eye out for some of the other eclectic dwellings of Terlingua along the way – from Airstream trailers to luxury camping tipis.

Grab a coffee or juice and one of their excellent breakfast burritos to go. You’ve got a busy day ahead.

Terlingua Cemetery

Before leaving Terlingua, it’s worth checking out the town’s historic cemetery. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Sites and has graves dating back well over a century. With so many graves and so few living residents, it’s safe to say the area has earned its “ghost town” status – literally!

Memorials of all types dot this rambling graveyard. They range from humble but well-preserved crosses to more, er…non-traditional styles, including piles of beer bottles. There’s even the grave of a Civil War veteran. The unique graves are a testament to the unusual people who’ve chosen to call the area home.

After you’ve had your fill of history and paid your respects, it’s time to hit the road for one of the best drives in America – FM 170/River Road.

River Road – FM 170

The first town you pass through on today’s portion of our Big Bend road trip will be Lajitas, TX. This tiny town is essentially just a few small businesses and dwellings and the Lajitas Golf Resort. This high-end oasis in the desert includes multiple places to stay, a spa, activities like zip-lining, and of course, an award-winning golf course.

If you need gas or supplies, make sure to stop by the Lajitas General Store. But even if you don’t, it’s worth stopping. After all, how often do you get to meet the mayor and buy him a drink?

This is Clay Henry IV, and he loves wine coolers. Clay IV is the latest in a long line of goat mayors for this tiny border town. Clay Henry Sr. won his first term as mayor of Lajitas in 1986. He was known to drink up to 40 beers in a single day! He served until 1992 – when he was killed in a drunken brawl with his son and heir, Clay Henry Jr. These days, he resides (in stuffed form) at the Starlight Theater in Terlingua. By the early 2000s, Clay Henry III had taken over. But his reign was marred in 2002 when a local man castrated him. He survived, and the man was charged with animal cruelty. These days, it’s the fourth iteration of Clay Henry ruling this little town – and the first of his line to prefer wine coolers over a longneck beer.

(Your correspondent, unfortunately, visited on a Sunday, when alcohol sales weren’t permitted until later in the day. But you can check out this video for an idea of how it goes)

Now that we’ve got that out of the way…

FM 170/River Road near Lajitas, TX – Dec. 2018

As you head down the road, you may spot some adobe-style buildings down closer toward the river. If it seems like a photo op too good to be true – it is. The buildings are the remains of the Contrabando movie set. Hollywood production crews built it in 1985 for the comedy Uphill All The Way, which featured some country legends like Glen Campbell, Mel Tillis, and Burl Ives. It’s one of nine movies filmed here, as well as a music video for Brooks and Dunn’s My Maria.

Feel free to take a little stroll around the area and snap some pictures. This is one of several opportunities to pull off River Road and appreciate the gorgeous scenery along this section of our Big Bend road trip. As the road weaves and meanders up and down hills, you’ll get a true taste of this rugged country and just how different the border can be from what we saw in El Paso.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Big Bend Ranch State Park – Dec. 2018

It’s time to get out of the car and stretch your legs a bit. Think of Big Bend Ranch State Park as the wilder sibling of the nearby national park. The narrow slot canyon known as Closed Canyon is just over 20 miles from Lajitas. Park your car and head down into the canyon, where near-vertical walls stretch toward the sky as you weave toward the river. At just 1.4 miles round trip, it’s a brief walk (and doesn’t get you all the way to the river), but a perfect, quick way to get better acquainted with the striking geography of the area. Make sure to dress in layers! No matter the time of year, the canyon’s bottom gets very little sunlight, making the temperature much cooler. Keep an eye out for a variety of birds, and even javelina or a mountain lion!

Back on the road, you’ve got another 30 miles or so until your next stop. Take it slow and soak in these unbelievable views and incredible solitude. As you approach Redford, keep an eye out for scattered settlements in the distance on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

History lovers may be interested in another stop before the drive wraps up. Fort Leaton State Historic Site was a frontier trading post with a checkered history, built in 1848 and operated through the early 20th century. Today, it functions as the western visitors center for Big Bend Ranch State Park. You can also take the self-guided tour if you’re so inclined.

Lunch in Presidio

Slowly but surely, you’ll see buildings and other telltale signs of civilization begin to return. After passing through Redford, you’ll arrive in Presidio, TX. This tiny border town is dwarfed by its still-modest sister city in Mexico, Ojinaga. Residents of the two cities cross the border with regularity for reasons as mundane as dentist appointments or as meaningful as weddings.

For lunch, pop into El Patio on O’Reilly Street to eat like the locals. This place is old school. As in, so old school they don’t even have a website, and it doesn’t even matter. Try the delicious chile relleno or beef flautas. Don’t miss out on the chile sauces, made fresh in-house every day.

El Patio, Presidio, TX – Dec. 2018

Stroll down the street while you’re digesting and check out the Santa Teresa de Jesus church – the site of some true Texas history. Spanish missionaries founded the church in 1683. It claims to be the location of the first Christmas celebrated in Texas.

Real adventurers looking for an extended Big Bend road trip can take a detour here if you’ve got some extra time. Instead of heading north up US-67, continue west on FM 170 along the Rio Grande. You’ll pass the tiny settlements of La Junta, Indio, and Ruidosa on the way to Candelaria – a town so remote it wasn’t reached by paved roads until 1985. This is some of the most beautiful, remote, and unique scenery in all of the west. From here, the road turns to dirt and continues out into the west Texas desert – an adventure for another time, perhaps.

Presidio to Marfa

Back on the road, you’ll now be heading north to our final destination for the day, Marfa. Be aware – you may run into a Border Patrol interior checkpoint. This stretch, along with I-10 near El Paso, is home to some of the more stringent enforcement you’ll find in the area, which is part of the Border Patrol’s 100-mile zone of operation. Having your identification ready to go will speed along the process and hopefully help you avoid any issues.

Other than this, the drive is fairly uneventful. Keep an eye out for a rock formation that resembles Abraham Lincoln’s profile just before you pass the silver mining ghost town of Shafter.

Profile Of Abraham Lincoln, US-67 Between Presidio and Marfa, TX – Dec. 2018

Afternoon in Marfa

By mid-afternoon, you’ve arrived in Marfa – a town so talked about in recent years it hardly needs an introduction. This distinctive little town was founded as a water stop for the railroad and, by some accounts, draws its name from the Dostoyevsky novel “The Brothers Karamazov.” It would be a fitting origin for such a town of contradictions. On the one hand, it’s become an art hub, famous across the country and the world and drawing thousands of visitors every year. But this is west Texas, after all. And Marfa has managed to keep a handle on its cowboy roots, too.

Marfa can thank minimalist artist Donald Judd for its most recent art boom. In 1971, Judd moved to the town. He began to permanently install his art in some of the large buildings there, leftover from Marfa’s military past. A few years later, he and others acquired the former Fort D.A. Russell, which remains the current home of the Chinati Foundation. We’ll check that out tomorrow.

But a decade and a half before Judd’s arrival, another type of art also put Marfa on the map. The town was a hub for the production of the 1956 film “Giant,” starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson. It tells the epic story of a Texas ranching family and their reactions to a changing world. It would be Dean’s last film. While filming in the area, Taylor, Hudson, and Dean, as well as much of the production staff, stayed at the historic Hotel Paisano. The hotel even offers the exact rooms where these actors stayed for guests to stay in! Pick your favorite (or the one that fits your budget) and check out your accommodations for the night.

If you’ve got the time and the energy, take a stroll along Highland Street outside the hotel and check out some of the quirky shops and galleries that dot the town’s main strip.

Dinner and Drinks in Marfa

It’s been a busy day, and you’ve come a long way. You’ve probably worked up an appetite. Foodies should treat themselves to a trip to Cochineal. This five-course, prix fixe menu changes weekly based on seasonal ingredients, but you can expect dishes like warm pheasant salad, cast iron trout, and Texas elk osso bucco. If you’re not feeling quite as adventurous foodwise after a day of adventuring, grab dinner at Jett’s Grill, located downstairs at the Hotel Paisano. Try the famous pistachio-crusted steak or Giant Angus burger. Diners also rave about the margaritas!

Speaking of a drink, Marfa is a great place to grab one. Stroll on over to the Lost Horse Saloon, a truly unique combination of cowboy bar, dive bar, and hipster bar. On any given night, you might find “ranchers, punks, elected officials, teachers, city workers, weirdos, tourists, artists, and misanthropes” hanging out at the bar, shooting pool, or enjoying live music. Grab yourself a Shiner or Lone Star and see where the night takes you.

Getting Weird: The Marfa Lights

Marfa Lights Viewing Area, Marfa, TX – Photo via Anna Spies/Flicker

The desert can be a strange, unexpected place – and the vast expanses of nothingness around Marfa are certainly no exception. People from around the world have traveled to this area for hundreds of years to catch a glimpse of the mysterious Marfa Lights. The multicolored lights appear randomly far off in the distance southeast of Marfa, in a difficult-to-access area with nearly no residents. Viewers have spotted them in all sorts of weather and all seasons, but they remain entirely unexplained. The Marfa Lights even have their own dedicated viewing area nine miles east of town on US-90. Finish off your night with a bit of time here – you may catch a glimpse of something you’ll never forget.

West Texas Road Trip Day 4: Marfa to El Paso (194 miles)

Sadly, we’ve reached the final day of our Big Bend road trip, but we’ve still got a lot to do! A breakfast at Buns N’ Roses is a perfect pick-me-up, whether you’re sleepy from a late night checking out the Lights, or a little under the weather from a long stay at the Lost Horse. Try the waffles or huevos rancheros, and appreciate the only-in-Marfa weirdness of a combination flower shop, cafe, and restaurant. It’s only going to get weirder from here.

Art in Marfa: The Chinati Foundation

Marfa is home to a lot of art these days, but we’re checking out the original – the Chinati Foundation. The organization supports and displays work from a variety of artists in the sprawling complex near the edge of town. Many works are permanently installed, reflecting Judd’s vision for the space. Some of the most famous are the “15 untitled works in concrete,” arranged in geometric patterns in a large field adjacent to the foundation buildings. Self-guided walking tours of the installations and buildings are available for $15. It’s also definitely worth checking out the interior collections if access to the buildings is allowed during your visit.

Back to El Paso

As our road trip comes to an end, it’s time to point your car west on US-90 and head back toward El Paso and real life. Don’t miss the roadside art pieces commemorating the area’s role in “Giant.”

“Giant” Roadside Artwork, US-90, Near Marfa, TX – Dec. 2018

But there’s one more stop on your way. A Big Bend road trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the most iconic non-store store in Texas, the Prada Marfa.

This bizarre art project by Elmgreen and Dragset sticks out like a sore thumb amid the flat, mostly featureless plain. Technically located in the nearby town of Valentine, it remains Marfa’s most famous attraction (as tens of thousands of Instagram posts reveal.) The building and its items were designed with the help of the head of Prada herself and was constructed to slowly degrade back into the earth. It’s been the target of heavy vandalism since its opening in 2005. As a result, bottoms have been cut out of all the handbags, and all of the shoes are right-footed. Still, it’s an incredible sight and one not to be missed under any circumstances.

From here, it’s only a short drive until the quiet, two-lane US-90 meets the bustling I-10 that will shuttle you back to El Paso.

Wrapping Up Your Big Bend Road Trip

In just four days, we’ve traveled almost 800 miles, seen seven towns, a national and state park, and hundreds of miles of unspoiled, rugged US-Mexico borderlands. Tiny towns like Marathon, Terlingua, and Marfa burst with charm and personality, and Big Bend National Park and State Park showcase some of our country’s most incredible wilderness. But there’s so much more to experience in this vast and wild region. Before long, you may find the area calling you back for another Big Bend road trip.

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