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The Funkiest Town in Texas Is Not Where You Think

Move over Marfa.

More often than not, far West Texas conjures up some variation of tumbleweeds and cowboys, all languishing beneath a blistering southwestern sun. There’s usually whisky, a dim bar, wide-brim hats, silver spurs, and the furrowed brow of an angsty lawman ready to take on the world or whatever bad guy is threatening the natural order of things.

You can thank Turner Classic Movies and the old spaghetti westerns of a bygone era for that, not to mention neo-Western thrillers like No Country For Old Men or Nocturnal Animals, neither of which are particularly recommended viewing before driving through these parts unless you’re feeling particularly intrepid.

Set along the old Southern Pacific Railroad in the far reaches of West Texas, Marathon—with a population of around 400-year-round residents, give or take—has remained something of a stalwart of the old west. Dating back to the 1880s when it was established as a shipping and supply hub for nearby ranchers, today, this dusty town set along the tracks is perhaps best known as the “gateway” to Big Bend National Park.

Blink, and you might just miss it, especially if you’re speeding through on your way to get to Big Bend or nearby Marfa just 50 miles up the highway. But if you’re eager to get a true taste of the old west, this tiny town comes brimming with Texas-style eateries serving up delicious “cowboy cuisine” and craft beer along with one of the most authentic western-style hotels you’ll ever hope to find.

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Here’s a look at how to make the most of your next visit to Marathon.

Always Take the Scenic Route

Forty miles south of the main entrance to Big Bend National Park, the road to Marathon twists and turns its way through a sea of never-ending cacti, thorny shrubs, and chaparral. While this stretch of Texas has developed a reputation for being long, flat, and unrelentingly boring, the terracotta slot canyons, cacti, and rolling hills, off the scenic road on Highway-90, take some of the sting out of your journey.

Just be sure to gas up before you go, and don’t be surprised if your Wi-Fi connection is spotty sometimes.

The scenic road in west Texas_Michelle Gross
Mule Ears Peak in Big Bend National Park_Michelle Gross
Michelle Gross

Post up at This Historic West Texas Hotel

Sprawled across the main drag in Marathon, The Gage Hotel was built in 1927 by Texas cattle baron Alfred Gage. Today, this charming 45-key boutique includes a mix of accommodations types in the main building as well as the Pueblo-style Los Portales wing and separate casitas and houses for bigger groups and weddings.

Michelle Gross

INSIDER TIPSuites in the Los Portales wing are a bit pricier than rooms in main part of the hotel, but they come with their own private fireplaces and patio, which is the perfect place to kick back and do some stargazing.

While you won’t find any TV’s in the guest rooms here, you will find plenty of West Texas kitsch, from the cowhide rugs and kiva fireplaces right down to the longhorn skulls and ristras of red chili peppers lining the walls here.

If you’re up for some rough and rugged adventure, Big Bend also offers four campsite options.

One of the archways at The Gage Hotel in Marathon_Texas_Michelle Gross
Exterior room at The Gage in Marathon, Texas
1. One of the archways at The Gage Hotel in Marathon, TexasMichelle Gross 2. Exterior room at The Gage in Marathon, Texas

Fuel Up on Cowboy Cuisine, Brisket, and Beer

For a town that’s more than 160 miles from the nearest airport in Midland, Marathon’s food and drinking scene packs a big punch. If you want to fuel up on Texas-style BBQ and beer, you can’t do much better than Brick Vault Brewery. Set in a former gas station just off the main drag, Brick Vault serves a killer smoked brisket and barbeque, along with a rotating menu of craft beers and one hell of a banana pudding.

For some tried and true West Texas fine dining, 12 Gage Restaurant serves up a hearty mix of cowboy cuisine –think thick cuts of beef served with a generous side of garlicky potatoes and green beans. The menu changes seasonally, but if it’s in stock when you visit, you’d be wise to opt for the Cornmeal oyster tostadas and spicy fried quail.

For a nightcap, margaritas at the White Buffalo Bar are requisite in Marathon. A popular local hang, the bar gets its name from the giant white buffalo that graces the bar menu and offers some of the same offerings as you’ll find in 12 Gage Restaurant, so if you’re looking for a casual place to post up with a burger and a stiff drink, this is the spot. Not to be missed is the JP Margarita that comes topped with top-shelf tequila, fresh squeezed lime juice, and a splash of Cointreau.

For all of your Big Bend Provisioning, French Company Grocer is a general store just off the main drag that’s an ideal place to load up on water, snacks, or grab a quick breakfast taco and coffee before setting off.

The French Grocer in Marathon, Texas_Michelle Gross
Brick Vault Brewery and BBQ in Marathon, Texas_Michelle Gross
1. The French Grocer in Marathon, TexasMichelle Gross 2. Brick Vault Brewery and BBQ

INSIDER TIPIf you happen to be in Marathon on a Friday, don’t miss a chance to check out Burger Night at The French Grocer, where you’ll find live music and a convivial atmosphere comprised of locals and visitors.

Stroll Through the Gardens, Score Some Local Swag

Just across the train tracks, Gage Gardens is a relative oasis in the middle of the desert. With plenty of walking paths, beautifully manicured gardens, and hand-painted artwork, this is as good a place as any to stretch your weary legs after a long day of driving.

If you’re looking to pick up some souvenirs, the V6 Collection in town features one-of-a-kind artwork, home décor, leather-bound made gifts, and paintings and prints by local artists.

The Post Office in Marathon, Texas at SunsetMichelle Gross

Make Your Way Into Big Bend National Park

One of the country’s most remote National Parks, Big Bend spans more than 800,000 miles along the West Texas-Mexico border.

There’s no shortage of trails and wonderful places to stop and explore, but the Santa Elena Canyon cliffs that tower over 1,500 feet along the Rio Grande river are truly a magnificent sight to behold.

INSIDER TIPIn addition to making sure your car is fully gassed up, make sure you stock up on plenty of water, snacks, and sunscreen at French Grocery Market before making your way into the park. Ranger stations are scattered throughout Big Bend, but supplies are limited, and stops are few and far between.


Whatever You Do, Don’t Forget to Look Up

According to the National Park Service Night Sky Team, Marathon, Texas, has been credited with one of the darkest skies in the country.

Outside Marathon, the McDonald Observatory is a beloved stop for astronomy aficionados for solar viewings and star parties. If you want to see the stars, head across the tracks and drive just a few miles in any direction.