Recently, my wife and I were interviewed on the Amateur Traveler podcast about our experiences in the Big Bend National Park, Alpine, and Marfa, Texas. If you want to hear us recount our adventures with Chris Christensen, check it out!
If you like dark skies, wide open places, and uncrowded parks, then Big Bend National Park should be high on your list of U.S. national parks to visit.
Big Bend National Park is the 20th least visited national park in the United States, with around 450,000 visitors per year (though COVID-19 may skew the numbers higher for 2020 and 2021) – compared to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 12 million visitors.
Not only is it relatively unvisited, it is one of 10 parks in the world to achieve an International Dark Sky Park designation, the only National Park in the continental 48 states to achieve that designation.
It is also immense. It has 801,163 acres, making it the 15th largest national park in the United States.
But, while the Big Bend National Park is a destination in and of itself, if you are going to make the effort to go there, then there are several other places that you should visit while you are in the area. In the theme of parks, you can visit the 311,000 acre Big Bend Ranch State Park, which also has the International Dark Sky Park designation. To the north, there is the Davis Mountains State Park, and, continuing the theme of dark skies and astronomy, there is the McDonald Obsrvatory of the University of Texas at Austin.
There’s more to do than just parks, though. We visited and enjoyed Alpine, Marfa, Terlingua, and Fort Davis during our recent one week visit to the area.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- How to get there
- Our itinerary
- The itinerary we’d have if we had it all to do again, and
- Our budget for our trip
How to Get to Big Bend National Park
First, let’s put Big Bend National Park and the surrounding area on a map.
As you can see, it’s pretty remote and far removed from a lot of cities.
If you are flying in, you can fly into either Midland Airport (MAF), which is 139 miles from Alpine and 196 miles to the Panther Junction Station in the middle of the park or El Paso Airport (ELP), which is 190 miles to Alpine and 257 miles to the Panther Junction Station.
You can take the train into Alpine. The Amtrak station code is ALP. You can also take Greyhound into either Alpine or Marfa.
If you are flying, taking the bus, or taking the train, you will need to rent a car. You can rent a vehicle at the airport or in Alpine.
Since we live in Fort Worth, Texas, we decided to drive. The trip was a little over 450 miles and took us about 7 1/2 hours once we included food and gas stops.
Regardless of how you get there, you will need your own transportation in this area. If you can afford it, a 4 wheel drive vehicle, preferably with high clearance, is desirable, as that will allow you to get the fullest experience from the region. We took our car, a 2011 Toyota Avalon, and while we were fine for getting around, there were some roads that would have been interesting to take that we were not able to take because we were in a passenger car.
Our One Week Itinerary for Big Bend National Park, Alpine, and Marfa, Texas
Admittedly, our trip was a very hastily planned one. We had to put our dog to sleep, and decided that we needed a getaway to help with the grieving process. While the trip was fantastic, as I’ll describe and show below, the combination of last-minute planning and COVID-19 restrictions meant that we didn’t get to do everything that we would have wanted to do; I’ll cover some of what we missed and how we’d do it again in the next section.
Lodging: Alpine, Texas
We drove from Fort Worth, Texas to the Antelope Lodge in Alpine, Texas. Because we wanted to visit the Big Bend National Park and see the towns of Alpine, Marfa, and Fort Davis, we decided to stay in Alpine for the entirety of our trip. The Antelope Lodge is a 50s style motor lodge with about a dozen or so small outbuildings that house two rooms per building. Our room had a queen sized bed, a smallish bathroom, and a small kitchen area with a sink, a microwave, and a small refrigerator/freezer. There was also a nice common area courtyard with a fire pit and a couple of charcoal grills. The lodge also had a shared kitchen if you wanted to cook for yourself. Given the sheer amount of driving that we put in every day, we opted to eat in restaurants rather than try to wait until we got back to the lodge to do cooking. Furthermore, we found plenty of fantastic dining options for a range of budgets, so we felt the decision was justified.
Day 1: Travel to Alpine
We got a somewhat late start and left for Alpine a little before noon. Once we made a couple of gas and food stops, we arrived in Alpine at about 7:30, as the sun was just starting to set. We traveled on a Tuesday, and, from Monday through Thursday in Alpine, several places are not open that are open on the weekend. As a result of our late arrival and midweek travel, we found that restaurant options were limited. We tried to go to a Mexican restaurant, but arrived shortly after it had closed. We were trying to avoid the Reata in Alpine becausee we live in Fort Worth and are very familiar with Reata, so we were hoping to try something new. Alas, the travel gods conspired to force us to go to Reata, as it was the only place that was not a fast food chain that was still open, so we suffered through a delicious meal there. Let me be clear. If you are not from the Fort Worth area and do not already know about Reata, it is amazing. We take all of our out-of-town visitors to Reata in Fort Worth. So, we know all about it. We were just trying to do something different, but, in the end, we went there and were equally as delighted with the original Reata in Alpine as we are with the sister location in Fort Worth. The menu was slightly different, but mostly the same, and equally as delicious.
Day 2: First Pass Through Big Bend National Park
One theme through this trip will be that we were not early risers. We’d spent several months waking up every night in the middle of the night to take care of our dog, so this trip was as much about catching up on sleep as anything.
We wanted to get our orientation to the area, so we headed to the excellent visitors center in Alpine. The woman who helped us was a genuine enthusiast, so she gave us a lot of very useful maps and ideas for what to do during our time in the area. She also gave us a heads up about the Mercantile Days that were happening the next afternoon (they happen on Thursdays from 4-7 PM right behind the visitors center).
Getting Around in the Big Bend National Park Area
Not only is the Big Bend National Park area vast, it is sparsely populated. As a result, most of the time, you will not be in cell phone range. Furthermore, even when you are, you may have one bar of 3G or Edge network, which is effectively the same as no cell phone service.
Some smartphone based mapping services will not recognize where you are. I was shocked to find out that Waze, 20 miles or so south of Alpine on the way to the Big Bend National Park, had no idea where we were, showing the Waze equivalent of the Blue Screen of Death.
How do you combat this?
First, make sure that you have physical maps. When technology fails, you can always use a map. CPT Swiergosz, my Officer Basic Training Course teacher, would be proud of my land navigation skills.
Second, download a local copy of the map area onto your phone. We did this with Google Maps, downloading the Big Bend National Park, Terlingua, Brewster County, and Presidio County. From that point on, we could always both find our way as well as find local restaurants and attractions, since I couldn’t find a way to download Yelp or TripAdvisor to my phone for offline use.
Third, download the Just Ahead app and load up the Big Bend National Park guide before you go. We had used Just Ahead for Yellowstone National Park and thought it was excellent, and we were treated to a similar experience this time. Just Ahead is like having a guided tour in your car. It also covered Alpine and Marfa. We weren’t running it when we went to Fort Davis, so I do not know if it extends that far or if it extends into the Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Since it was close to lunch time when we went to the visitors center in Alpine, we asked the guide there where we should eat. She nearly stomped the floor when recommending the Cow Dog food truck. It was not open when we left, so we had to wait for about 15 minutes in pretty chilly (not chili…that’s discussed later) weather. It was totally worth the wait. I’m pretty sure I sounded like a snuffling pig while inhaling my monster dog. Stuffed with Cow Dog dogs, we headed south to the Big Bend National Park.
A Quick Orientation to the Big Bend National Park
There are three main areas to the Big Bend National Park:
- Rio Grande Village. This is one of the two areas of the park that is extremely close to the Rio Grande River, which serves as the border between the United States and Mexico. In non-COVID times, you can cross the border here into Boquillas, Mexico, where you can spend a couple of hours browsing wares, eating tacos, and drinking beers. If you wish to cross into Mexico, you must bring your passport. There is a border control here.
- Chisos Mountains. This is the main mountain range of the Big Bend National Park. Whereas most of the rest of the park is a desert, this area has a different ecology, so you see pine and maple trees, different wildlife, and, if you’re (un)lucky, bears and mountain lions.
- Santa Elena Canyon. This is a nearly 1,500 foot high canyon that the Rio Grande runs through. This also has an easily accessible swimming area in the Rio Grande if you want to take a dip to cool off or just to say that you’ve stepped in the Rio Grande River.
Each of these is roughly equidistant from the Panther Junction Visitor Center in the heart of the Big Bend National Park, with each between 20-30 miles from the main visitor center, and roughly 45 minutes of driving.
We came in to the park through the Maverick Junction entrance right outside of Study Butte (pronounced “stoo-dee boot”). Since I am a disabled veteran, we are able to get in free from our park pass. Otherwise, you will have to pay a fee to enter the park. If you plan on visiting multiple national parks, you may want to look into the America the Beautiful pass. If you are a disabled veteran and this is your first time visiting a national park, bring proof of your service-connected disability. I had my VA letter, and my VA identification card has my disabled veteran status annotated on it. The park ranger at the station accepted my VA card as proof and gave me a new, updated card, since mine had expired during the pandemic. Then, we were on our way into the park.
We went to the Panther Junction Visitors Center, which is in the middle of the park, to see if there were any upcoming park ranger led tours that sounded interesting to us.
If you are traveling during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, first off, only travel if you are fully vaccinated. There is only one regional hospital, and it was recently overrun with reckless travelers who spread COVID-19 to the region. If you catch or transmit COVID-19, you are a long, long, long way away from medical care. Don’t expose yourself, and more importantly, others, to that unnecessary risk.
Secondly, expect that services will be either different, limited, or unavailable during your trip.
We saw this right away with the Panther Junction Visitors Center. While the center has some exhibits that are supposed to be good, they had closed off most of the indoor area, so we were unable to look at them. The rangers were outside, and there was a small space open to buy souvenirs.
There is a nature trail at the center which I found very useful in orienting us on the types of flora that we would see in the park.
While driving into the visitors center, we were listening to the Just Ahead app, and the guide had mentioned Dugout Wells, a hike that went around an area that was once settled by settlers and had a very small community.
Since we’d been in the car for nearly 3 hours, we decided to go check it out and hike around the area.
Once we parked, we started to do the short trail that led to the windmill and the well itself. We passed a couple who was just coming off of the trail.
“Look out for the pretty rattlesnake by the palm tree,” one of them advised us.
I grew up in Georgia. Pretty and rattlesnake are two words that do not go together in a sentence in my experience.
So, wary of encountering this “pretty rattlesnake,” we inched along the path until we were well clear of the palm tree in question. We met neither a pretty rattlesnake nor an ugly rattlesnake, but we did warn others to be on the lookout.
The windmill was a working windmill that still pulled up water from underground.
We then took the nature walk and saw more interesting flora, although we did not see any fauna (to include rattlesnakes of any level of beauty).
Weather in the Area
We went to this area at the end of March and the beginning of April. We saw temperature ranges from the low 40s in the mornings in Alpine to the low 90s in the Big Bend National Park.
Even within the park itself, temperatures can vary by as much as 20 degrees from one spot to another.
When you are in the Chihuhan Desert (where the Dugout Wells hike was) or in the Rio Grande Village area, it will be approximately 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it is when you are doing the Lost Trail hike in the Chisos Basin area.
Therefore, it is very important to bring lots of layers. It is also, in general, aside from the Chisos Basin, a desert environment, meaning that it is very dry.
Resultantly, you should bring a lot of water. My wife and I both use the Osprey Hydraulics LT reservoirs (#aff). I use the 2.5 liter bladder and my wife uses the 1.5 liter bladder. I’ve never even come close to using up all of the water in the bladder, even when we did the Narrows hike in Zion National Park. If I were trekking, the 2.5 liter bladder would be great, but, for day hikes, even long ones, 2.5 liters is overkill, and 1.5 liters is likely sufficient. But, if I were to do some of the hikes that I’ll discuss missing later on and do them in warmer weather, the 2.5 liter would be perfect.
We did bring a cooler with us, and kept ice, water, and snacks in the cooler as we traveled. We filled up Contigo AUTOSEAL water bottles (#aff) to drink from when we were going from place to place, and I daresay that we drank much more water in the area than we do normally.
Additionally, during our first day in Big Bend National Park, the winds were topping 30 miles per hour. Even though the temperatures were fairly pleasant, the winds made being outside downright unpleasant. At Boquillas Canyon, we encountered a Border Patrol officer and chatted with him for a few minutes. We asked him if it was always this windy.
I’ve been here for three years, and I am done with this wind!
Therefore, be prepared with wind blocking gear and assume that you’ll encounter strong winds while you are there. We avoided the park when the weather forecast called for high winds. Depending on your itinerary, you may not have such a luxury.
So, even though, in Alpine, the weather was similar to the weather in Fort Worth, it was much hotter and drier down in the Big Bend area.
We had seen while driving in that the road to Chisos Basin was being worked on and was closed during certain hours. It was closed when we finished our hikes, so we decided to go down to the Rio Grande Village area.
Rio Grande Village is a campground with tent and RV spots. It also has a small general store and coin operated washers and dryers. The showers are currently closed because of COVID-19.
This is the area where visitors can cross into Boquillas, Mexico if they have a passport. In normal times, they can. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the border is currently closed. However, we were curious to see what we could see.
There was a parking area near the entrance to the crossing overlooking the small canyon.
The locals from Boquillas had placed some trinkets for sale on the U.S. side of the river.
A Border Patrol truck drove up and stopped in the area, so I walked over to speak with the officer. I asked him about the wares. He was noncommittal, but did point out that, because the border crossing was closed, the people in the town of Boquillas were having a difficult time, as the town relies on cross-border tourism.
Furthermore, I’d read that some of the goods could be considered contraband (you can also click on that link to check to see if the crossing is now open). We had seen a Border Patrol checkpoint on our way down to the park, and, while we wanted to support the people in Boquillas, we certainly did not want to risk doing something illegal. So, I put some money in the can and yelled “¡buena suerte!” to the locals on the other side, and we went on our way.
I later read that Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico has a population of approximately 200, and only one landline telephone line into the town. The operator will state a specific time to call back, and then go get the recipient of the call. The next settlement of any size is 4 hours away. It is an extremely isolated town, so I can only imagine the hardships that the destruction of tourism brought on by the closure of the border due to COVID-19 has brought them.
After visiting the Boquillas Canyon area, we decided that we wanted to go get dinner. The Chisos Basin road construction was done for the day, so we drove to the Chisos Basin, as there is a lodge and a restaurant there.
Little did we know that the restaurant was also closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the restaurant offering box lunches from the hours of noon to 4 PM.
So much for those plans.
During the week, many restaurants in the area close early or do not even open at all. Some closed at 8 PM and some closed at 9 PM.
Given that, by the time we discovered we were not going to be able to eat in Chisos Basin, it was about 7:30 PM, we knew that we could not get back to Alpine in time to go to a restaurant unless we wanted to eat at McDonald’s, or eat gas station food.
We decided to give the Terlingua/Study Butte area a try. I looked on Yelp for places that would be open. The highest rated one was the Starlight Theatre in Terlingua, so we drove there.
When we arrived, it was PACKED. My wife got out and inquired about how long the wait was. They informed her that it was an hour and a half. So, fighting exceptionally slow 3G service, we looked for an alternative.
We finally were able to find another place, Taqueria el Milagro, and had dinner there. It was fantastic!
We really liked it because all of the seating, while covered, was open air. If you want to consume an alcoholic beverage with your meal, then you will need to bring it yourself, as they do not sell alcohol.
Sated by our delicious dinner, we headed back to Alpine.
On the way, we were able to spot some wildlife. Spotting wildlife, for me, is a rarity. Despite having 450 bird species in the area and over 25 species of snakes, we saw very few fauna in our trip. However, we did see some javelinas along the side of the road, a herd of mule deer grazing near the roadside, and my wife spotted what she thought was an oryx near the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area.
So, while we may have imitated the Top Gear episode where the hosts were near Vegas with a superimposed spedometer set to the speed limit on the way down to the Big Bend area, since we traveled back at night, we were much slower on the way home. On one trip home, we encountered a road sign with the word INCIDENT on it, and could see a ton of flashing lights ahead of us. A WTG Fuels truck appeared to be involved in a single vehicle crash that we believed nobody survived. It was pretty brutal, and reinforced our decision to go slow at night.
Day 3: Alpine
Since the worker at the Alpine Visitors Center had told us about the mercantile days on Thursday, we decided to spend the day in Alpine. A weather forecast of high winds also played into the decision.
We’d received three different tour guides of Alpine: a walking tour, a driving tour (they called it a windshield tour), and a mural tour.
We ate a late breakfast at Judy’s Bed and Breakfast. Inside, there was a decent-sized group of people who were clearly bicyclists. We asked someone about it, and the bikers were at about the halfway point of a cross-country bicycle tour. We spoke with the owner of the company, who explained that they had started in San Diego and were bicycling to St. Augustine, Florida, for a 23 day bike trip. The legs were between 40-50 miles per day. There were around two dozen bikers with about eight support staff. It seemed like a pretty interesting trip. If you want to learn more, you can check out the annual coast to coast cycling tour from Timberline Bike and Hike Adventures.
After breakfast, we set off to do the walking tour of Alpine. The early part of the tour was on the Murphy Street side of Alpine, which, for us, was on the other side of the train tracks. Normally, this would present no problem, but, at that time, there was a train stopped at the train station, blocking the way across. So, we decided to blend in the walking tour with the mural tour, which, in hindsight, was a much better decision.
In all of the reading that I did before we took the trip, I was under the impression that Marfa was the artistic town in the area. After all, Beyoncé is a huge fan of Marfa. So is Matthew McConaughey.
However, after doing the mural tour of Alpine, I’d argue that it can give Marfa a run for its money, particularly after Marfa seemed to be so hard-hit by COVID-19. More on that later.
This one was my favorite mural.
However, murals were not the only art on public display in Alpine.
Once we were able to cross the railroad tracks, we discovered more art…
…including a toilet cactus!
The buildings themselves on the walking tour were not particularly interesting, but when combined with the abundance of murals and art, our wandering throughout Alpine was a pleasant way to spend 4 or 5 hours.
We had some time to kill before the start of the Mercantile Days, so we went to the Old Gringo for drinks. This is part of a hotel that bills itself as a biker (motorcycle, not bicycle) hotel. The vibe was friendly, and the drinks were good. The interior was also very eclectic and interesting to walk around in.
We headed back over to the Visitors Center for the beginning of the Mercantile Days. It is a small setup. There were probably eight or nine vendors who had put their wares out on a closed off side street for people to walk through and peruse. There was live music at the Visitors Center as well.
There was only one hot food option to go with a couple of vendors who were selling baked goods. There was a spread of great-smelling food cooking in several tins.
There was a person next to the woman who was running the food stand who asked us if we’d ever had her food.
“We’re not from here, so no,” I replied.
“Then you have to try her food,” he implored us.
Needing no further inspiration, I tried not to drool on the table as we ordered the sampler plate, which was, effectively, one of everything.
It tasted as wonderful as it looked and smelled.
I never caught the name of the woman who ran the table. I called her Auntie, since she is Ghanaian, and Auntie is a term of respect and endearment in Ghana.
If you plan on going to Mercantile Days and eating, make sure that you have cash. Most vendors do not accept credit cards.
After dinner, we waddled back to the car and decided to try to catch some of the “out of town” places that were on the windshield tour. We wound up going to Kokernot Field right on the outskirts of town, to check it out.
It was quaint. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it Yankee Stadium. It seemed like a smaller, more run down version of Davenport Field at the University of Virginia. My wife was the one who brought up the comparison, primarily because of the large set of stands behind home plate. Nobody was playing that day, except for a small field that had some Little Leaguers. The field was wide open, though, so (shhhhhh….)…
Let’s say that I did not throw any better than Dr. Fauci’s opening pitch.
To end the day, we went to the grocery store to stock up on foodstuffs. I had assumed that, since it was a small town, the grocery store would be like, say, the Big Buy in Villa Rica, Georgia, the town of 1,500 where I was born and spent the younger years of my life – spare with limited variety.
We were pleasantly surprised to find that Porter’s grocery store was well-stocked with an excellent variety of foods. Granted, it’s not a Whole Foods or Trader Joes, but we were quite happy to stock up there before heading back to our lodge for the evening.
Day 4: Big Bend Ranch State Park
When we went to the Visitors Center in Alpine, I saw a large map of the area on the wall. I immediately picked out that there was a town named Redford, which was very meaningful to us, since our dog was named Redford, and we were taking this trip as a sort of a grieving/celebration trip of the 14 years that we got to spend with him.
The woman at the Vistors Center was perplexed about why we would want to visit Redford, Texas, given that it has a population of 120 or so. Once we explained, she was much more enthusiastic, and, additionally, she was very enthusiastic about visiting the Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Having learned our lessons from the previous jaunt down to this area, we decided to load up in case we were caught out late before we got back. We got breakfast at Alicia’s Burrito Place. OH MY GOODNESS! The breakfast burritos were astounding. Be warned: you need to pay in cash, and you will probably need to wait 30 minutes for them to cook the food. I imagine you can call ahead and order, but we did not try, nor did we ask when we were there. For us, the wait was fine, because my wife had left something at the lodge, so we were able to go get it and come back. It was worth the wait!
I swear, that picture does not do the burrito justice. We tried, twice more, to get another breakfast burrito from Alicia’s, but the restaurant was not open either day. This reinforces the fact that restaurant opening hours and days are hit or miss in the Alpine area.
We drove down and went through the town of Lajitas. We were surprised to see a golf course there and figured we’d check it out on the way back if we didn’t head back to Alpine via Presidio.
We entered the Big Bend Ranch State Park at the Barton Warnock Visitors Center, where we picked up our passes.
Little did we know how much we would enjoy the scenery on this drive.
It seemed that around almost every curve or over every hill was a new, amazing vista.
After about an hour and a half of driving (and gawking), we made it to the west end of the park at the Fort Leaton Visitors Center. Fort Leaton was both a fort to protect from raids from the indigenous people, but also a trading post. It was an interesting place to spend a half hour or so.
We did pass through Redford and stopped to pay our respects. The guide at the Alpine Visitors Center was correct: there’s not a lot there. There was a beer joint that was closed, disappointingly, as we’d have stopped and had a beer and poured one out for our dog. Otherwise, unless you’re a fan of the name Redford, there’s nothing to see there.
Given that it was midafternoon, we decided to take a coffee break. We went to the Bean Cafe in Presidio to grab a coffee. It was a cute, quaint place with excellent service. The coffee was adequate. We weren’t expecting Starbucks, even though there was a sign in Redford indicating that we might find one!
Because the drive was so beautiful, we decided to go back the way that we came, retracing our steps through the Big Bend Ranch State Park.
We stopped off at a couple of roadside cutouts to take in the view. In one place, we saw a person who was carrying what looked (to our untrained eyes) to be a pretty fancy, professional camera. I quipped to him that he had the right idea, and he asked us if we wanted him to take a picture of us. He showed us a Polaroid of him sitting up on an isolated rock and said he’d take a picture of us at the same place.
“Do you trust me?” he asked.
“Sure!” I responded.
So, off we went, bounding over rocks to get to the rock where he’d taken a Polaroid selfie previously. We climbed as much as we dare, and balancing precariously, we said we were ready for the close up.
Not pictured: the copious amounts of sweat underneath my shirt and the white knuckles from hanging on, trying not to fall off the rock and down to certain doom!
The gentleman introduced himself as B and said that he liked to travel around and take pictures. He didn’t do it for Instagram fame or to make money. It was just an enjoyable hobby of his, and whenever he met people like us, he tried to take their pictures for them. He was very friendly, and we were fortunate to meet him at a quite propitious time!
We also decided to pull off and check out some hoodoos that we’d seen going out.
While these hoodoos were not as impressive as the ones that you see in Bryce Canyon in Utah, they were still pretty neat to see.
When we got back out of the park, we decided to check out Lajitas. There is a spa/golf course resort there. There was a sign for a Lajitas boardwalk, so we parked and walked over. There were a few little shops, but, because we got there later in the day, most of them were closed. We did catch a peek at the golf course.
Since we’re not golfers, the place was only interesting for its curiosity value, but, apparently, if you like desert golf courses, you should check out the Lajitas resort.
Finally, we returned to Alpine, and had dinner at Guzzi Up. If you’re visiting during the COVID-19 pandemic, be aware that they are seating at 50% capacity, and they advise that it will take about 30 minutes to make your food. We were fine with that, and had outstanding beers from Marble Brewery while we waited.
I had the meatballs with shells and my wife had the pizza.
The meatballs were quite good, but the pizza was phenomenal. We adore Cane Rosso pizza in Fort Worth and Dallas, and this pizza was every bit as good as our local favorite.
Stuffed, again, we returned to the lodge to sleep off our carb comas.
Day 5: Marfa and Fort Davis
When I was preparing for this trip, I had read some other itineraries to get an idea of what to do. One blog called out a place called Buns and Roses for breakfast, and, hey, who could resist a place called Buns and Roses?
So, being a sucker for a play on words, I convinced my wife that we should start our day with breakfast at Buns and Roses in Marfa. It turned out to be a good call!
We watched with a slight amount of envy as a group of travelers at the table near us played with their three dogs and talked about good hikes to take them on. Our server came out and talked about her partner’s dog, who had an affinity for digging out from under the fence and attacking passersby.
Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, except that they live right next to a pretty commonly photographed spot in Marfa: the water tower.
Note: I took this picture from a very safe distance after hearing the story from our server at Buns and Roses!
We also got our first taste of Marfa art.
I’d read that Marfa was a pretty artsy place, so we were looking forward to discovering more, even though neither of us are particularly artsy types.
We decided to go to the Visitors Center in Marfa first to get an idea of what to do.
After having visited the Visitors Center in Alpine, the Visitors Center in Marfa was a strong disappointment. They did give us a nice bag, which we used to keep all of the brochures and papers from the trip, but, otherwise, it was a waste of time. There was a tasteful exhibit of Marfa’s citizens’ involvement in U.S. wars. If you are interested in that type of history, it’s worth a visit; otherwise, you can skip the Visitors Center in Marfa.
We went to the main square and wandered around.
The Presidio County Courthouse is a pretty building, but it was closed, since we were there on a Saturday, and we did not get to go inside.
Walking down the main little shopping strip, it was readily apparent that Marfa’s tourism industry had been hammered by COVID-19. Marfa is a very small town, with a population of slightly over 1,800, and it is very dependent on arts and tourism.
For example, I had read that one of the “must see” attractions in Marfa was the Andy Warhol Last Supper painting. Unfortunately, the gallery appeared to be closed permanently.
The Hotel Paisano seemed to have more activity than anywhere else where we’d walked, so we decided to peek in and have a look.
The James Dean film Giant was filmed mostly in Marfa and, interestingly, in Keswick, Virginia, right next to Charlottesville, where we’d lived for 12 years. There was a large display with paraphernalia from the movie inside of the hotel, which was interesting to browse.
Little did we know that Giant was my wife’s godmother’s favorite movie until we showed her the above picture!
We decided to grab a drink at the bar and sit poolside while I watched Arsenal lifelessly lose to Liverpool.
It had only taken a couple of hours, but we felt like we had seen all that there was to see in Marfa. We thought about going to see the renowned Prada store artwork, but discovered that it is in Valentine, Texas, which was another 40 or so minutes away and out of the way from both Fort Davis and Alpine. So, we decided not to become Instagram famous with our picture at the Prada.
Instead, we decided to head up to Fort Davis. The highlight of Fort Davis is the McDonald Observatory. If you are planning on doing during the COVID-19 pandemic, note that you can only go if you have purchased a ticket. Given the last-minute nature of our trip, we were never able to purchase tickets, as they were sold out on the days that they were open when we were there. We had also read good things about Balmorhea State Park, but it was closed due to reconstruction that had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, we wound up at the Fort Davis National Historic Site. If you’ve been to older forts in the United States, such as Fort Sumter or Fort Pulaski, then this fort is nothing special. However, as a West Point graduate, it had some meaning to me, as it was where Henry Flipper, the first Black graduate of West Point, was stationed. So, we spent about 45 minutes walking around there before a rain shower menacingly approached, driving us to seek shelter.
We were not ready to head back to Alpine, but felt like we’d done what we could do in Fort Davis and Marfa. I’d seen a sign for a winery, so we decided to look it up. We wound up at Château Wright Winery. We tried all of their wines and wound up purchasing their Riesling and their Jack Rabbit Red, which helped us waive our $15 each tasting fees. There was a woman singing and playing an acoustic guitar, and the views were reminiscent of the Stellenbosch region in the Western Cape in South Africa. We stayed until they closed and headed back to Alpine.
When we got back, we took the easy route and did Reata again, since they had outdoor seating. Unfortunately, there was a gentleman huffing a cigar in the outside area, but the wind rarely blew his smoke into our faces. That was the only downside to our experience over both dinners at Reata.
We were also able to catch a mural that we had missed from the mural tour that we’d done in Alpine previously.
Even though this Reata is the original (which may surprise some people in Fort Worth), the menu is slightly more scaled back than the location in Fort Worth. The food is still fantastic, though!
Also, make sure you save room for dessert!
Day 6: Back to Big Bend National Park
We were determined to get another day of hiking in, and a cooler weather forecast seemed to be a good portent for our plans.
On the way, we tried to go to Judy’s again, but, given that it was Easter morning, they were closing early. However, a server offered us free day old pastries, so we took a couple of huge muffins and headed on our way. Carb loading for a day of hiking for free? Sure!
We decided that we wanted to start off with the Lost Mine Trail hike. Also, since we had not been to Marathon, we decided to drive through there on the way down. Marathon is another small town in the area, so the main attraction is the Gage Hotel. Had we gone before December, 2020, we could have also seen the world’s smallest Target, but it was demolished due to safety concerns. It looks like the Prada won the shopping wars.
While the drive to the park was interesting, it was not that different from the drive from Alpine, so, if you are pressed for time, going out of the way to go through Marathon to the park, or back into the area from the park, is something that you can skip.
We had heard that you should arrive early to catch one of the few parking spaces at the Lost Mine Trail hike; otherwise, you would have to park a ways out and hike along the road. We arrived at about noon on Easter Sunday. We’d actually gone to the Chisos Basin station to make a restroom stop before heading back up to the trail, and we found a few open spots.
Also, we had been listening to the Just Ahead app, and the tour guide had mentioned bears and mountain lions. Bears and mountain lions are not something that one typically expects to encounter in southern Texas, but, lo and behold, the National Park Service agreed! My wife ensured that we took appropriate precautions to protect ourselves from encroaching bears.
The hike was moderately strenuous, with a 1,100 foot elevation change over 2.5 miles. If you do not feel like doing the entire hike, you can go about 1 mile up, and you get a great overlook over a valley.
The trail is fairly well marked until the end, when it opens up onto a ridgeline. The National Park Service says that the hike up is 2.4 miles, but my wife, ever the overachiever, turned on her mountain goat mode and kept going until she found a little crevice at a point where we’d probably need mountain climbing equipment to go further, and we stopped for a snack.
The surprising thing to me was that the trail had some truly forested, covered areas. We saw a lot of Douglas firs, pines, and a few maples. It was strange, to me, to see cacti and other desert plants right alongside mountainous trees. Also, again, the weather was much cooler on the hike than it was down in the lower elevation areas of the park.
After a well-deserved snack and water break, we headed back down the trail. We did encounter several people who asked us how much farther it was to go. I figure that it’s better to overstate the amount of time remaining in the hike than to understate the amount of time remaining. After all, if you say 30 minutes, and it takes 45, people will be deflated on the way up. However, if you say 45 minutes when it only takes 30, they’re pleasantly surprised. Always underpromise and overdeliver.
At the bottom of the trail, I did notice a puzzling box.
I’m sure that they were not storing food for the bears here…
The final area that we wanted to check out was the Santa Elena Canyon area. My wife, in doing her research for the trip, had seen some beautiful pictures of the Santa Elena Canyon and wanted to check it out for herself.
The scenery on the drive down to Santa Elena Canyon was very different than what we’d seen elsewhere in the park. It was more volcanic than the other places, including large fields of condensed ash, called tuff, which is the white stuff you see in the picture of Mule Ears below.
We had thought that we could swing by the general store in Castolon, but it was closed when we arrived. Also, a fire in 2019 had destroyed much of the historic area of Castolon, so there wasn’t much to see at that stop.
When we arrived at Santa Elena Canyon, the sun was just starting to set. The walk up to the Rio Grande had some boardwalk on it, and was very flat. It might even be accessible for those with physical limitations, but check with the Park Rangers to be sure. It was definitely a good place to go for a swim, and we saw a lot of people in the river.
For those of you who may be tempted to cross over into Mexico just to say that you did, be warned that the fines for doing so are steep. We saw a warning sign in the Big Bend Ranch State Park a few days earlier stating that fines for illegal crossing into Mexico could reach $5,000, and that warning quashed whatever temptations we may have faced.
From the river, it’s possible to go right and walk along the canyon for a while. There are steps that lead up to a trail that has about a 75 foot climb. Eventually, the trail ends, and you’re left with a beautiful view of the canyon.
If only I’d have achieved Instagram fame earlier…or at all…
The entire walk took about an hour. Since we knew we would not make it back to Alpine before the restaurants closed, we decided that we wanted to try Taqueria el Milagro in Terlingua again.
However, as we were driving into the Terlingua ghost town (made as a result of the mining of cinnabar, which led to processing of mercury, which got into the air and killed a bunch of people before they discovered that mercury was not good for you), my wife decided that it would be worth seeing if the Starlight Theatre had a shorter wait. We found a zone where there was enough 3G coverage to make a phone call, and they said that it was pretty quiet, and the wait was about 20 minutes. However, they do not take call-ahead seating, so if you want to get in line, you have to go there yourself. We decided that 20 minutes was worth the wait and headed to the Starlight Theatre.
While there was no live music playing that night, it was still a fun atmosphere.
My wife discovered the joys of the prickly pear margarita, and we waited for our seats while watching the sun set.
A short while later, the hostess called us, and we went inside for dinner.
The menu is definitely higher end eating, and that makes the restaurant stand out compared to the others in the area. It’s probably the only fine dining that you can find in the Big Bend National Park area. Our server was from Cape Town, South Africa, so we told her about our visit to the World Cup in South Africa and our stay in Cape Town.
Feeling adventurous, I ordered the chicken fried antelope and my wife ordered the grilled quail.
Since we’d been speaking with our server about the great food we had in South Africa, I was hoping for something that would taste more like springbok or barbecued warthog. The antelope was well prepared, but a little too gamey for me. For example, it is more gamey, to me, than elk is. The quail was outstanding, though.
I also gained a new drinking buddy.
On our way back to Alpine, we decided to stop and see if we could see the stars. We pulled off of the road slightly south of the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, stopped the car, and turned out the lights.
Immediately, it was PITCH BLACK. It took about 15 seconds for my eyes to adjust, and then we were treated to a sky full of twinkling stars. We sat there in amazement for about five minutes before starting back up and heading on.
On the way, we saw a terrible wreck, where a WTG Fuels vehicle had split in two and rolled. We didn’t really need the reminder to drive carefully at night in the area, but we had an unfortunate one.
Day 7: A Final Day in Alpine
Since we got back so late the night before, we slept in on the last full day. We’d debated going back down to the park to do some hikes, but decided against it. We tried to go to Alicia’s for breakfast again, but it was closed on Mondays.
Instead, we decided to check out one of the highest rated attractions in Alpine, the desk.
Yes, a desk is a top-rated attraction in Alpine.
If you want a little fun, enter the desk into Google Maps and follow those directions. There’s a payoff, as a land owner with a good sense of humor has some information for you in your travels.
Once you do that, then you want to go to the Entrance 4 of Sul Ross State University. We went up to the Industrial Arts building – basically, go as far uphill as you can and park when you run out of pavement. There will be a bike rack right before the point where the fenceline breaks and you can enter the trail.
There are a lot of trails that all lead up to the desk. Generally speaking, if you start heading uphill and keep going uphill, eventually, you’ll get close. The trail to the desk, at least the way we took it, was about a mile, with a roughly 250 foot elevation gain.
You’ll know you are close when you come upon a quaint tree.
Keep going up the hill from there, and you will reach the desk. If you reach the desk first, don’t forget to head down the hill a little and see the bicycle tree.
When you get there, make sure that you sign your name in the log book as a record of your accomplishment at reaching the desk!
We would have enjoyed visiting the Museum of the Big Bend to tell us what we’d seen and give us more context about the area; however, it was not open on Mondays, so we decided to do lunch instead.
Since that was the day that my wife had her full immunity from her COVID-19 vaccine, we had originally planned on doing pizza at Cane Rosso in Fort Worth; however, we figured we could do almost as well by going back to Guzzi Up for pizza.
That was a wise choice!
Given that we still had leftover wine from our winery visit, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon chilling in the inviting and pleasant courtyard of the Antelope Lodge before packing up to leave the next day.
The Itinerary We Would Have Pursued, If We Had It All to Do Over Again
As much as we liked the Antelope Lodge and being able to sit out in the courtyard with a glass of wine or a beer and chill out after a day of exploring, the reality is that having to make the 1 hour 45 minute drive each way to go to the Big Bend National Park meant that we limited our time there. Combine that with the fact that almost all of the restaurants in Alpine closed at or before 9 PM (and some were only open on limited days), and we were either hustling to get back to Alpine or we were dining in Terlingua and then making the drive in the dark, when we were at risk for hitting wildlife.
Furthermore, since Marfa has been so hard hit by COVID-19, there just was not a lot to see there. We’d assumed that we would be spending a full day in Marfa, and we were pushing it to stay more than a few hours.
We’re very cognizant that a combination of limited planning beforehand and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic affected our travels. We would have enjoyed seeing more in Fort Davis, and much of what we would have liked to have seen (McDonald Observatory, Balmorhea State Park, and the Indian Lodge) were either closed or had limited capacity, meaning that we, effectively, skipped out on it.
Because our time in the Big Bend National Park was limited, we also did not do many of the hikes that we would have liked to have done.
Don’t get me wrong; our trip was fantastic, and just the tonic that we needed, but we were forced to be a lot more flexible and find alternative plans because of the two factors I just mentioned.
Therefore, in a perfect world, this would be our itinerary.
Where to Stay
Day 1: Terlingua
Day 2: Terlingua
Day 3: Terlingua
Day 4: Fort Davis
Day 5: Alpine
Day 6: Alpine
Day 7: Alpine
If you have a RV, then you can substitute Big Bend National Park for Terlingua. I would prefer to stay in the Chisos Basin campground myself.
Also, if you are visiting in November, and you are a fan of chili, then you want to check out the Terlingua chili cook-off, where upwards of 10,000 come to get their mouths lit on fire. No beans!
The 7 Day Itinerary
Day 1: Big Bend National Park
During this day, we would start off by getting oriented at the Panther Junction Visitors Center and doing the nature walk there. Then, we would head down to the Rio Grande Village and park there. The first hike would be the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail to get some views of the Rio Grande river. Then, I would go to Boquillas Canyon, cross over (don’t forget your passport), have a beer and some tacos, and then head back to the other side. I’d finish up the day with either the Grapevine Hills trail that leads to Balanced Rock or the Hot Springs Historic Area (bring swim trunks).
Day 2: Big Bend National Park
On day 2, we would head to Santa Elena Canyon. On the way, we would stop and do the Chimneys Trail to catch some indigenous petroglyphs. Then, we would do the Mule Ears Trail. Finally, we’d head into Santa Elena Canyon itself to do the river hike that I discussed previously. If there’s still daylight and you still have energy, the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Trail was pretty interesting and informative.
Day 3: Big Bend National Park
On day 3, we would stay in the Chisos Basin. Get up early to do the Lost Mine Trail, as parking is limited there. Come back down the mountain to the basin and do the Window Trail. You’ll also want to be at the Window overlook on Oak Springs Trail at sunset. If you have time, you could start along the South Rim Trail, or, if you have an extra day and are an avid and fit hiker, you could hike to Emory Peak to be able to say that you hiked the highest mountain in the park.
Day 4: Big Bend Ranch State Park, Marfa
Get up early to hit the road. Drive north and west through the Big Bend Ranch State Park, stopping off to explore anything that looks interesting to you. Grab a snack in Presidio, and then head north on Highway 67 to Marfa. If you’re not hungry in Presidio, you’re an hour away from Marfa, which will have, in my opinion, a wider range of food and drink choices. For us, the Presidio County Courthouse and the El Paisano Hotel in Marfa were the highlights, but if there are galleries that are open, you can check them out, and if you want to shop for tchotchkes, you can check out Wrong Marfa. It’s probably not a family friendly place…you need some lowbrow humor to enjoy it (which meant I was cackling in there).
In Fort Davis, check out the Fort Davis National Historic Site while the sun is still up. You can grab dinner in Marfa or in Fort Davis, and then do a stargazing outing at the McDonald Observatory.
Day 5: Balmorhea, Indian Lodge
This is a day’s worth of itinerary that COVID-19 took away from us. Assuming that both are open, start out checking out the Davis Mountains State Park. There are plenty of hikes there which looked interesting to me, so feel free to pick a couple to explore that area and see how it differs and resembles the hikes that you did in Big Bend National Park. Check out the Indian Lodge as well.
Then, head to Balmorhea State Park with your swim gear to take a dip in the 25 foot deep pool.
Finally, drive to Alpine. Grab dinner at either Reata or Guzzi Up.
Day 6: Alpine
In the morning, you will want to hike up to the desk and leave your name in the notebook to prove that you were able to find it amongst the winding trails. Then, head to the Museum of the Big Bend. For fun, after you’ve done the hike and the museum, drive the way Google Maps tells you to go!
Then, go to the Visitors Center and grab the mural tour pamphlet and the windshield tour pamphlet. We were able to catch most of what was in the downtown part of the windshield tour while doing the mural tour. Once you’ve done the mural tour, do whatever parts of the windshield tour looks interesting to you.
Finally, head up to Kokernot Field and see if you can either catch a game at the field, or a Little League game on the fields nearby.
Eat dinner at whichever place you did not eat last night.
Day 7: Wrapping Up, Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area
During day 7, if the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area is open, head south and check it out. They have specific types of game on the reserve that we would have been interested in seeing were it open.
If it is not open, then grab coffee at Cedar Coffee and then peruse the books at Front Street Books. We had coffee there, and they use Novel Coffee, the same that our friends who run Civil Pour in Dallas, Texas use, and the coffee is fantastic. It was fun to look at books at the bookstore. I got the same wave of nostalgia that I did when watching the Neflix documentary The Last Blockbuster.
Then, head out of town. If you’re heading back to El Paso, check out the Prada near Valentine. If you’re going to Austin or the Dallas Fort Worth area, check out the Gage Hotel in Marathon.
Budgeting a 7 Day Trip to Big Bend National Park, Alpine, and Marfa, Texas
This is how much we spent for our 7 day trip to the Big Bend National Park area.
We drove from Fort Worth, Texas in our own car, so if you need to fly in and rent a car, you will need to budget for your travel.
Additionally, since I am a disabled veteran, we got into the Big Bend National Park for free, and we received a discount to get into the Big Bend Ranch State Park.
In total, we spent $1,706.77 on our trip to the area.
The breakdown of spending is below.
|Gas & Fuel||$132.00|
Wrapping It Up
We had a great time in this area. It was a perfect antidote to our grieving. The scenery is majestic, and unlike anything that we had seen. Perhaps, if we travel to New Mexico, Arizona, or northern Mexico, we’d see similar scenery, but, for us, particularly compared to the I-35 corridor, it was vastly different from the Texas that we know and are familiar with. We had a great variety of experiences, got to see some dazzling stars, see interesting art, and eat great food.
With more advanced planning once the pandemic is over (PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE GET YOUR COVID-19 VACCINE!), we could have done more things that were on our wish list.
That said, it was a fascinating place to visit, and we’ve already recommended the trip to several of our friends and family.
Finally, RIP Redford. You were a great pal, and we miss you every day.