Road-Tripping West of the Pecos: Exploring Art and Nature in the Texas Borderlands

For decades, novels and movies have mythologized the region west of the Pecos River as the point where the "real" American West begins—a vast, untamed swath of high-plains desert, jagged mountains, and red sandstone mesas where only the hardiest souls survive.

Viewed from above, these borderlands of far west Texas may seem as barren as when ranchers first set up their homesteads here more than a century ago, but spending a few days on the ground reveals cultural and natural treasures that richly reward travelers who make the effort to visit its small towns and expansive parklands.

DAY1

El Paso to Marfa

 

The small town of Marfa—steeped in both history and cutting-edge contemporary art—is an ideal base for exploring the borderlands, but reaching it is neither easy nor quick; it’s best to budget a full day of travel just to get there. It’s equidistant from Midland and El Paso (the two closest large airports), but the three-hour drive down from El Paso gives the best introduction to the region.

If possible, time your arrival in El Paso for late morning or noon; this will allow plenty of time for the drive east (you’ll want to stop and take pictures), but most important, it’s the optimal time to fuel up for your journey at H&H Coffee Shop and Car Wash. Yes, it’s really a car wash, but the attached restaurant has been serving what many locals consider to be the city’s best Tex-Mex food for nearly 60 years. Belly up to the worn green counter and enjoy fresh plates of green chili, huevos rancheros, or brisket-filled flautas. If you’re lucky, owner Maynard Haddad will visit with you and offer his gruff (but friendly) advice on what to see and do in this compact, vibrant city.

 

1. H&H Coffee Shop in El Paso 2. U.S. Border Patrol Museum 3. An exhibit at the museum.

 

One must-see stop on your way out of town is the U.S. Border Patrol Museum, just east of the city limits. Lest you forget that you’re quite literally a stone’s throw from Mexico, this small museum displays artifacts from nearly a century of the often contentious efforts to monitor the flow of traffic across our borders. No matter how you feel about this complicated issue, it’s an informative primer on the history and culture of the area.

As you drive southeast on I-10, the strip-mall sprawl of suburban El Paso quickly falls away as you begin a steady climb through open country along the Texas Mountain Trail, where jaw-dropping vistas of buttes, mesas, and mountain ridges stretch endlessly in every direction. Note: expect at least one stop at a Border Patrol checkpoint before the highway turns east, so keep your ID handy.

You’ll leave the Interstate at Van Horn and head southeast on Highway 90 through cattle ranches, pecan orchards, and cotton fields. Just before you reach the hamlet of Valentine (pop. 212) you’ll get the first glimpse of the area’s unique dual personality in one of its most famous landmarks: Prada Marfa. This small roadside structure, an installation by Belgian artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset, is a replica of a Prada boutique, filled with items from the Italian fashion house’s 2005 collection. The stylish bags and shoes on display have slowly deteriorated over the years, covered with dust that has blown in through the cracks in the windows and faded by the fierce Texas sun.

Another 30 minutes’ drive will bring you into Marfa proper. This town of about 2,000 residents has impressively stylish lodgings, but they are limited, so it’s wise to make reservations well in advance. Facing each other on Highland St. in the center of town are the two most upscale options: the historic Hotel Paisano (where Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson stayed when they were in town to film the 1956 classic Giant) and the sleek, modern Hotel Saint George. More retro-chic accommodations sit slightly outside of downtown, at the Thunderbird Hotel; and visitors with a sense of quirk and adventure will feel at home in the well-appointed safari tents, teepees, and Airstream trailers of El Cosmico.

El Cosmico

Don’t linger too long in your room (or tent); Marfa has a handful of excellent restaurants, which can fill up quickly. Tonight, try the upscale-rustic Stellina; the warm service, communal seating, and inventive seasonal menu (which changes nightly) will be welcome after a long day on the road.

One popular evening activity is to view the mysterious Marfa Lights. Many theories exist as to their origins—some believe they’re due to paranormal activity, while pragmatists attribute them to car headlights reflecting off heatwaves rising through the cool desert night air. Believers and skeptics alike gather nightly at the Marfa Lights Viewing Area 9 miles southeast of town to marvel, argue, or simply gaze upward at the Milky Way.

DAY2

Art Adventures

 

Start your day with a hearty Swiss-style breakfast at Squeeze Marfa, a cozy café tucked into a side yard across from the Presidio County courthouse. Patrons with a sweet tooth will want to browse their selection of fine chocolates as well.

Art lovers are in for a treat in Marfa, whose main attraction is the spectacular Chinati Foundation, established on a former military base in the 1980s by sculptor Donald Judd. Even a basic tour at this 340-acre art museum is an all-day commitment—and, at $25, a bargain. Note that galleries are accessible only by guided tour; groups are limited to about 12-15 visitors, so reservations are highly recommended. A well-informed guide will take the group on a 4-hour tour: the first half from 10 am to noon, and reconvening from 2 to 4 pm. For lunch, try the fresh Mediterranean fare at Marfa Food Shark, a food truck parked alongside Highway 90 just west of downtown.

Donald Judd sculpture at the Chinati Foundation

For dinner tonight, splurge on Cochineal (reservations essential), whose fresh, modern American cuisine and extensive wine list have garnered wide acclaim since the restaurant opened in 2008. Aside from festival weekends (such as the Trans-Pecos Festival or Chinati Weekend) Marfa doesn’t have much nightlife, but if you’re looking for after-dinner entertainment, the Lost Horse Saloon or Planet Marfa (closed in winter) sometimes host live music and always plenty of local color.

DAY3

Explore Downtown Marfa

 

For breakfast today, try the pour-over coffee and hearty sweet or savory toasts at the cheery Do Your Thing, located in a former lumberyard that has been converted to artists’ studios and an event space.

At first glance, it may not seem like a full day is necessary to explore this tiny town, but with 20 art galleries and more than a dozen unique shops, most within easy walking distance of each other, you can easily spend several hours browsing, especially since you’ll end up chatting with friendly curators, artisans, and shop owners.

 

1. Do Your Thing Cafe

 

Two standout galleries are Ballroom Marfa (which also oversees Prada Marfa) and Marfa Contemporary, both of which host exhibitions of cutting-edge work by artists from around the world. Off the lobby of the Saint George Hotel, Marfa Book Company stocks a well-curated selection of titles that focus on the natural and cultural history of Texas, as well as locally made gift items. For other local wares, check out Cobra Rock Boot Company for custom-made boots and fashions, and Mano Mercantile for beautiful handmade clothing and accessories that blend Texas style with Japanese artisan techniques.

Head a little ways out of town tonight for a spicy Tex-Mex feast at Mando’s; on your way back to town, stop for a well-crafted nightcap at Capri (attached to the Thunderbird Hotel), or else turn in early to rest up for a long day of driving tomorrow.

DAY4

Big Bend and Border Towns

 

Directly after breakfast (try the pastries at Frama, inside the Tumbleweed Laundry), fill up the car and head south on Highway 67, which runs through a spectacular landscape populated by more hawks, pronghorns, and roadrunners than people, through a gap between the Chinati and Cienega Mountains, down to the scrappy border town of Presidio. Slightly east of town, the Fort Leaton State Historic Site sits at the entrance to the vast Big Bend Ranch State Park, whose dramatic landscape easily rivals the more famous national park to the east, but has far fewer tourists. Follow the park road, which meanders for nearly 50 miles along the bank of the Rio Grande through canyons and fields dotted with wildflowers and yucca. Take advantage of the numerous pull-offs to snap photos of the unforgettable views. During the rainy season, pay heed to warnings of washout areas along the roads; flash floods rushing down from the mountains pose a very real danger.

Terlingua ghost town

You’ll exit the park at the tiny crossroads town of Lajitas; turn north here on Route 170 toward Terlingua; this former mercury mine bills itself as a ghost town (it does have an old cemetery and a section of tumbledown homes), but has developed into a semipermanent RV community and collection of saloons and gift shops. It’s all a bit kitschy, but also a good place to stop for a late lunch (Terlingua is justly famous for its classic Texas chili) and to get a sense of the Wild West spirit that still pervades this part of the country. From here, pick up Highway 118, which will carry you due north about 80 miles to Alpine, the largest town in the region; from there, drive west on Route 90 for about 30 miles back into Marfa.

Brush off the dust of the day and head over to the Hotel Paisano; if the weather permits, try to score a table next to the fountain in the courtyard. Relax with the best margarita in town, order some bar snacks from the hotel’s restaurant, and chat with your fellow diners (trust us—by now, you’ll know about half the people in town).

 

1. Marfa Burrito 2. The Rio Grande

 

DAY5

Leaving Marfa

 

If you’re lucky, before embarking on the long journey home, you’ll get to enjoy one of Marfa’s greatest treats: breakfast at Marfa Burrito. It’s easy to miss this private home tucked behind a high fence, but if you find it–and find it open–you can sit in the cheerful dining room or sunny patio and feast on hearty breakfast tacos and giant breakfast burritos filled with eggs, cheese, chorizo, and homemade salsas on chewy tortillas hot off the comal. This final taste of small-town comfort will warm you all the way back to the real world.