Off in the furthest reaches of West Texas is a rugged region synonymous with outdoor adventure, awe-inspiring terrain, and Texas lore. From the sprawling landscape of jagged rock bluffs and just about every prickly plant species you can think of, to the wide open stretches of blue skies and a sparse arrangement of little back roads that seem to go on forever, this part of Texas is for those who are looking for a little quiet, and perhaps a taste of years gone by.
The best time to visit is the spring, when chilly winter gives way to generally sunny days in the mid 70s and 80s.
Get the most out of your trip off the beaten track with our insider’s guide to West Texas, from Big Bend to Marfa.
Big Bend is an iconic landmark in this part of Texas. The entire landscape is home to a looming expanse of limestone cliffs along the meandering Rio Grande River that cuts right through the terrain.
There are two different parks to choose from: Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The general topography and terrain of the parks look the same. The National Park is about 800,000 acres of public property operated by the US Forest Service while the smaller 300,000 acres State Park is managed by the Texas Department of Natural Resources. Both offer a wide range of outdoor activities like fishing, hiking, backpacking, and the opportunity to explore a vast array of fossils, artifacts, and historic sites.
The Big Bend National Park has a number of campsites that include flush toilets, running water, picnic tables, grills, and some overhead shelters. (There is only one site with an RV hookup.) Big Bend Ranch State Park, by contrast, has several lodges located throughout the park at different price ranges, and while there are campsites, they are limited only to a tent area, picnic area, and fire ring. (There is no water or electrical outlets. All showers and restrooms are located at the visitor’s center, which means the old adage of "pack out what you pack in" applies.) Note that both parks require permits for camping.
Reservations are recommended, especially in the spring and fall, when the temps are prime for being outdoors.
Big Bend by River
While camping, jeeping, and hiking are all excellent ways to get a piece of Big Bend, perhaps the best way to experience the region is by floating the Rio Grande river through the canyons. Paddling into the 1,800-foot canyons lets the magnificence of the landscape sink in. While floating more than 10 miles of river, you’ll see old landmarks like Smuggler’s Cate, which is said to have served as a livestock hideaway for ranchers during Comanche raids in the mid-1800s.
One of the best outfitters who can arrange a floating trip for you is Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua. Owner Greg Harrington not only manages a staff of expert guides, but is a paramedic for the Terlingua EMS and Fired Department, a credential that eases any fear you may have of spending a few days in a rugged canyon.
They also host a few special trips throughout the year. Each fall, Harrington partners with award-winning Llano Estacado Winery of Lubbock for a three-day wine float with head winemaker Greg Bruni featuring top selections from the winery’s portfolio.
West Texas In Style
Looking for a little luxury with your outdoor adventure? Check in to the the Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa. With a manicured ranch-style environment, rustic-yet-spacious rooms, a restaurant that serves Texas-sized fare, a relaxing spa, and equestrian center, Lajitas is a West Texas oasis. You can even take advantage of the resort’s competitive skeet and sporting clay range as well as a ghost-town "Cowboy Action Shoot," which allows guests a chance to shoot a classic single-action Colt 45 pistol, under the guidance of an instructor, of course.
Less adventure, more luxury? Try the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon. Marathon is but a mere blip on the map (like most towns in this region), but it owes even that blip in large part to the grandeur of this restored 1927 hotel. Get a taste of the Old West mixed with modern amenities and dine in the hotel’s renowned 12 Gage restaurant.
Mystery in Marfa
What began as a century-old tale of an inexplicable light phenomenon along the western horizon of the night’s sky in Marfa, has now evolved into an eclectic and diverse mélange of artists. The result over the last decade is a creative and progressive little town that has attracted big city investors, top movie producers, urban hipsters, and old school hippies alike. Stroll the streets of the historic Texas architecture blended with modern art galleries such as the Chinati Foundation and you’ll see why. Dine at Maiya’s, Austin Street Cafe, or The Get Go for an authentic taste of Marfa and be sure to stay at either The Thunderbird, a funky 1950s vintage motel or at the El Cosmico, a campsite/RV hotel where tricked out safari tents, teepees, and Airstream RVs are as in demand as a room at any Four Seasons Hotel and just as cosmic and intriguing as the Marfa lights themselves.
Photo Credits: Big Bend: Big Bend National Park via Shutterstock.com; Big Bend by River: Rio Grande River via Shutterstock.com; West Texas In Style: Courtesy of Lajitas Golf Resort & Spa; Mystery in Marfa: Courtesy of El Cosmico.