The State’s Weird and Wonderful Western Expanse Rewards Committed Explorers

Drivers from North Texas can reach Marfa in seven to eight hours. The drive awards a true appreciation for the vastness of Texas, with long stretches where scrub trees and fences provide the only obstruction to the horizon.

If you’re averse to long drives, consider this: Marfa’s nearest airports, located in El Paso and Midland, are three hours from the town. The experience of the long drive — much of it through unremarkable country — provides the ideal preparation for the eventual shock and awe of high desert scenery. The final stretch along Highway 67, usually reached in the late afternoon after a hard day of driving, offers mental and spiritual deliverance. Fatigued eyes receive the balm of a drastically evolved landscape of rugged mountains and, depending on the time of year, lush greenery. The sky itself seemingly changes: the light softens, and the clouds become infused with shades pf pink, blue, and orange. Road noise evaporates as you travel onward, with the world and its cares abandoned somewhere back along Interstate 10.

If you’ve made the effort to drive out to Far West Texas, you do not want to limit your experience to Marfa. The region has a host of flavorful towns and destinations, and jaw-dropping scenery abounds practically everywhere you look. The town of Alpine provides a useful home base for a wide-ranging exploration. A college town, Alpine hosts Sul Ross State University, and has a central drag full of art galleries and shops. Visitors from Fort Worth will appreciate a pair of connections: Alpine is home to the original Reata Restaurant, and just outside of town lies the vineyard of local winemakers Times Ten Cellars.

Marfa and Alpine provide two points of a geographical triangle, with Fort Davis as the third. The towns lie about 30 minutes apart, barely a commute in such a vast region. Fort Davis, the highest elevated town in Texas, hosts the University of Texas’s McDonald Observatory. The observatory is one of the region’s top attractions, and its Star Parties — outdoor events where guests are encouraged to bring snacks and wine — attract locals and tourists alike. Like seemingly every town in the region, Fort Davis has its historic hotel and quaint shops, and also the meticulously restored frontier fort that gives the town its name.

Another half-hour north of Fort Davis takes drivers to one of the region’s true wonders — Balmorhea, which trumps Barton Springs as the largest all-natural, spring-fed swimming hole in the world. No visit to Far West Texas is complete without at least a drive through Big Bend. The country’s largest national park is the main draw for many area travelers, and a visitor could easily spend a week or two tramping down trails, hiking the South Rim, or canoeing the various canyons. At the very least, a day-trip to Big Bend should involve a drive down into the basin of the Chisos Mountains. There you can find the Chisos Mountain Lodge, the park’s restaurant and hotel, along with a scenic outlook area and quick access to several hiking trails.

Drivers who enter Big Bend from the west must go through Terlingua. It’s not uncommon for travelers to go no further, as this surreal and supremely isolated town inspires a unique kind of fascination. Terlingua once hosted a thriving copper mine settlement, the ruins of which now dominate the tiny town. At one point largely abandoned, the town has revived as a haven for artists, wanderers and eccentrics, with the Starlight Theatre acting as the community’s nexus. The Starlight hosts the occasional touring performer, and serves dinner and drinks to all and sundry. The theatre’s front porch boasts a near-panoramic view of the barren, rugged Big Bend wilderness. It’s excusable if, after a long day’s drive, your best intentions of hiking Big Bend wither and die on the Starlight’s front porch. As the sunlight dies over the Chisos and you order another beer, you join a long and proud lineage of those who found exactly what they were seeking, somewhere out in Far West Texas.