Before you begin a Big Bend adventure, bear one thing in mind: Once you arrive at your destination, you might not want to go home again.
It might be the dry, temperate afternoons and cool evening breezes that keep you here—especially in the summer months, when the rest of the state is sweltering. Or it might be the sensational vistas with their high desert grasslands; rugged, sky-island mountaintops; and miles of empty blacktop countering the traffic-packed freeways and crowded suburbs. Maybe it will be the challenging nature hikes, the one-of-a-kind artworks, the fine dining and luxury getaways, or the quirky vacation rentals. Or perhaps it will be something as simple as the unexpected stillness when you pause during your morning cup of locally roasted coffee and realize that the only things you can hear are birdsong and your own quiet thoughts. But whatever ends up taking your breath away, rest assured you’ll return, if not for good then at least for more.
Big Bend covers a considerable amount of territory. Although composed of only three counties—Jeff Davis, Presidio and Brewster—it encompasses more than 12,000 square miles. That’s more area than Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Its vast size means a lot of driving. To minimize road time and maximize downtime, you may want to focus a trip around the Big Bend’s “golden triangle”—Fort Davis, Marfa and Alpine. You’ll sample everything Big Bend has to offer with the least amount of tire rotation. In fact, less than an hour separates one town from the next, yet each one offers something unique.
If traveling first to Fort Davis, the triangle’s apex, you’ll likely be driving south along Texas Highway 17, one of the prettiest routes in the state. You’ll be cruising through the Davis Mountains, the second-highest range in Texas, and slowly gaining elevation with each bend in the road. The range is a result of volcanic activity that took place millions of years ago, making it ground zero for geology enthusiasts. Avid birders and wildlife watchers also favor the range, particularly the upper elevations around Mount Livermore—at 8,378 feet above sea level, it’s the fifth-highest peak in Texas. Considered a “sky island” for its wetter, cooler, more diverse habitat than the elevations below it, Livermore offers a friendly environment for hundreds of species, including a variety of birds making their seasonal migration across North America. Much of the mountain is protected by the Nature Conservancy, which provides opportunities to visit its Davis Mountains Preserve on open-to-the-public days.
My own decision to move to the Big Bend, 20-plus years ago, occurred during one of the preserve’s open weekends in the late 1990s. Over the course of a 24-hour period, I hiked to the craggy peak of Livermore, took a dip in a rainwater tinaja—a natural pool, saw a Mexican spotted owl and sheltered in a ponderosa pine forest during a torrential rainstorm before camping under a canopy of starlight. “I want all of this right outside my own back door,” I thought to myself that night.
Fort Davis features an assortment of quaint, old-fashioned lodging, including the grande dame of them all—Hotel Limpia. Constructed from locally quarried stone in 1912, the Limpia features 21 rooms and 10 suites, an outdoor patio, indoor fine dining courtesy of the Blue Mountain Bistro, and a pool for you and your fellow “summer swallows” (as guests were known during the hotel’s early years). Or, for adventurers on a budget, try the Stone Village Tourist Camp with its creature comforts, a pool and the best deli market in town.
Once you’ve unpacked and relaxed, get out of this world with a visit to nearby McDonald Observatory. Check for sun flares through the observatory’s solar program, in which live, safe views of the sun are projected onto a giant auditorium screen. Then join a star party and see the stars the way the observatory’s researchers see them—up close and personal.
To continue, view some luminaries of the art world by heading to Marfa, where the internationally known Chinati Foundation houses works by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and Roni Horn—members of the American art canon. Designed specifically for the location, the works include Things That Happen Again: For a Here and a There, Horn’s hand-lathed identical copper forms; Irwin’s ethereal untitled (dawn to dusk), an installation of scrimlike material that transforms the interior space as the light changes outside; Flavin’s colorful large-scale fluorescent light piece called untitled (Marfa Project), installed in six Chinati buildings; and Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, in which each of the works retains the same outer dimensions but features unique interior dimensions. They are installed throughout two enormous former artillery sheds on the Chinati grounds.
Marfa offers visitors an opportunity to indulge at the town’s latest lodging addition, the elegant Hotel Saint George. The Saint George adds an international chic to the local character, providing stylishly appointed rooms and fine art throughout. The hotel also offers day passes to its Bar Nadar pool and grill, a fine place to swim and socialize.
If you feel a little more adventurous, set up a tent at El Cosmico, a 21-acre campground within walking distance of downtown. El Cosmico sponsors the annual Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love with its lineup of bands from all over the country. If tenting is not your thing, book one of El Cosmico’s luxury tepees, yurts or vintage travel trailers.
Then satisfy your hunger at Al Campo, Marfa’s indoor-outdoor wine bar and bistro. With a relaxed atmosphere and uncomplicated menu, Al Campo offers rustic countryside cooking, inspired by Chilean and Argentinian cuisines, and a robust selection of wines and beers. Or score a meal at Stellina, where you can order small plates of queso fundido and seafood tostadas or fill up on enchiladas suizas or wild salmon Veracruz. Stellina, possibly the most popular eatery in Marfa, doesn’t take reservations. Just walk in and you’ll be seated on a first-come, first-served basis. If it’s busy, relax. It’s worth the wait.
When you’re ready to leave the high life behind, head to Alpine and back down to earth. You’ll find yourself in cowboy country, home to rodeo cowboys, cowboy poets and plain ol’ hardworking ranch hands. Alpine, the largest of the three communities, is also home to Sul Ross State University, considered the frontier university of Texas. The campus is home to the Museum of the Big Bend, where visitors learn about the region’s history, from its ancient geology to its 19th-century ranching culture. Changing exhibits complement an array of permanent displays designed to provide a comprehensive overview of Big Bend’s unique character.
Explore history and then overnight in some with a room at Alpine’s Holland Hotel, designed in 1928 by Henry Trost, the acclaimed Southwest architect. Trost designed the hotel in the Spanish Colonial Revival style of the period, and after decades of renovation and repair, its splendid lobby now reflects its original grandeur. The ground floor also features the Century Bar and Grill, a lively gathering spot for locals and guests.
Alpine offers year-round events for visitors, including the annual Trappings of Texas, an exhibition and sale of contemporary Western art and custom cowboy gear; an entire professional baseball season featuring the homegrown Alpine Cowboys; and the Viva Big Bend Music Festival, with big-name headliners among the more than 50 bands that perform all over the region during the four-day fest.
A trek around Big Bend’s golden triangle won’t leave you struggling to fill your time. You’ll have plenty to do, even if it’s just sitting on a porch rocker sipping a favorite beverage and watching the sun drop. But consider this: The triangle comprises only the Big Bend’s high country. A vast network of desert and mountains, national and state parks, river drives, hiking, lodging and dining await throughout the rest of the region. In other words, your adventures in the Big Bend have just begun.
E. Dan Klepper is a photographer, author and artist who lives in Marathon.