My college-aged son absolutely thrilled me the other day. Not when he cooked dinner, or when he did his laundry, but when he said, “I think I’d like to take a road trip this summer.”
Raised him right, we did.
We’re still bouncing around some itineraries, including a simple up-and-back run up into Oklahoma, or a more ambitious north Texas/Oklahoma/western Arkansas/bit of northern Louisiana/back through eastern Texas loop, but what I’m trying to sell him on is a West Texas road trip.
Here is what I’m suggesting based on my own drives out there:
San Antonio to Del Rio: Fun Small Towns, Alsatian Culture, Desert Springs
Once you work your way past the western outskirts of San Antonio on Highway 90, start looking for signs to Castroville in Medina County. It was settled by French Alsatians in the 1840’s, and there are still touches of their culture in town.
Stop in at Haby’s Alsatian Bakery, and if you’re already ready to crash for the night, you can stay at the Landmark Inn State Historic Site right on the Medina River. If you’re still on the move, stop in anyway to look around; you might catch one of their open-hearth cooking classes.
Keep driving west – in Hondo you’ll see the sign “This Is God’s Country; Please Don’t Drive Through It Like Hell” – until you get to Uvalde. I’ve written here about the summer jukebox dance, good food, and fine art in Uvalde, but if you don’t have much time, do stop into the First State Bank to see their Briscoe Art and Antique Collection, including Rembrandt etchings.
Yes, in a bank.
Past Uvalde on Highway 90, you’ll come to Brackettville. Look for the Fort Clark Springs complex. Fort Clark was a frontier and horse cavalry fort from 1852 through World War II, and it’s now the gated Fort Clark Springs community and resort. You can spend the night in quarters that are built in the original cavalry barracks – it is also the only way to get access to the gorgeous spring-fed swimming pool on the property.
After Brackettville, continue on to Del Rio. It’s pretty dusty and desert-like at this point, but you’re approaching the giant Amistad National Recreation Area and over 40,000 acres of water surface that make up the Lake Amistad reservoir.
In Del Rio, dip your toes into the blue-green San Felipe Springs waters. There’s a municipal park right on Highway 90 – Moore Park, across from the San Felipe Country Club – where you can enjoy the springs. It’s constant-temperature spring water, though, so it’s chilly!
This was also a spot where the U.S. Army Camel Corps camped in the 1850’s.
If you like aviation, Laughlin Air Force Base (a large pilot training facility) is located here, and you can pick up some history of the U-2 aircraft that flew from Laughlin.
In downtown Del Rio, try Buffalo Girls and the Brown Bag for a little local shopping and something to eat.
Del Rio to Marathon: Lake Amistad, Cave Art, “Law West of the Pecos”
Continuing west on U.S. 90, you’ll cross sprawling Lake Amistad on a bridge that is only a short distance to the east of the U.S. – Mexico border, which runs right through the middle of the reservoir. Past the town of Comstock, look for signs for Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site.
People have hunted and lived in this part of Texas for over 12,000 years. The park has a nice visitor center that explains the history of the canyon and the rock art that draws many people to see it, plus an overlook. There are guided hikes one or two times per day, depending on the season, to see the 4,000-year-old pictographs up close; check the Events calendar.
If you arrive on a Saturday, arrange in advance, and are in good physical condition for hiking, you can go on the guided White Shaman tour to “one of the most remarkable and well-photographed rock art sites in the Lower Pecos,” with the Witte Museum Rock Art Foundation.
There is also camping and geocaching in the park.
Here’s a quick look at the country and a close-up of some of the art, courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife….
A final note – you can access Panther Cave and Parida Cave pictographs from the water (Lake Amistad and the Rio Grande) if you can get ahold of some sort of watercraft. I have not done this myself, but would like to try it. There are boat docks at both caves, then you walk up some stairs. Learn more about seeing rock art from the water on the Amistad National Recreation Area website.
Soon after leaving Seminole Canyon State Park, you’ll cross the Pecos River. Be aware that this area is still close to the Texas-Mexico border, so there’s a lot of routine Border Patrol activity and traffic stops.
You’ll be in Langtry soon, where Judge Roy Bean announced that he was the “Law West of the Pecos,” so stop to look around before entering what was “his” territory.
The tiny town of Langtry is mostly a shrine to an eccentric lawman.
The small Judge Roy Bean Visitor Information Center, rest stop, and museum are run by the Texas Department of Transportation.
Judge Roy Bean spent much of his life getting thrown out of places or running away from trouble in Chihuahua, Mexico, plus California, New Mexico, and San Antonio, as the Pecos Trail heritage region website explains:
“An escape across the Pecos River landed him at the heart of the railroad construction boom where tracks from the east were moving at a furious pace (courtesy of Chinese labor) to meet tracks arriving from the west. Ever the opportunist, Bean established his Jersey Lilly saloon, helping to stir an already roiling pot of lawlessness, before capturing the position of justice of the peace, permanently securing his place in Texas folklore. Today, the Jersey Lilly and the opera house Bean built in honor of his long-distance, unrequited (and one-sided) romance with English singer Lillian Langtry, combine to create the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center.”
I liked looking through the cases of memorabilia, in addition to stepping into the small preserved saloon as the west Texas wind blew through a few cracks.
Did you use the restroom?
Good, because there’s a whole lot o’ nothin’ between here and Marathon.
Marathon and Alpine: Big Bend Side Trip, Wide-Open Spaces, Fun College Town
Marathon, Texas – “where the Big Bend and Dark Skies Meet” – claims a population of 430 people, which seems ridiculous on some days when nothing is moving on any street. It’s cool even in summer, because it sits at around 4000 feet elevation.
If you don’t know where to look, the town would seem to consist mostly of a couple of buildings and some railroad tracks, plus the magnificent historic Gage Hotel.
I’ve written about how a stay at the Gage is travel that lets your brain breathe. It was a highlight of my last trip to west Texas.
It’s a beautiful property and I’d love to go back, park myself there for more than one night, and then make a run about 30 minutes south of it to enormous Big Bend National Park. If you only have one day for Big Bend, you can still pack in a scenic drive in the park plus some short hikes and a bit of Santa Elena Canyon – take a look at these suggested itineraries on the Big Bend park website.
Other than camping or RV parking, the only lodging actually inside Big Bend is the Chisos Mountains Lodge.
While you’re in the area, here are ideas for three dreamy days in Big Bend country.
Continuing west from Marathon (yep, still on Highway 90!) you’ll reach Alpine, a lively college town thanks to Sul Ross State University.
Alpine also has an historic railroad hotel that’s not quite as fancy as the Gage but still well worth a stop – the Holland Hotel – and some quirky public art that you’ll have to do a little hiking to see.
Fort Davis and Marfa: Frontier History, Indian Lodge with Star Party, and an Arts Mecca
Down the road from Alpine is the town that you see covered in almost every gushing travel story about west Texas – Marfa.
Although it raised a bit of a stink with some folks when I wrote on here that I think Marfa is over-hyped and overrated, I stand by the assessment. As you can see from this post, there are plenty of other things to see in this part of west Texas, so if you roll into Marfa and nothing’s open and the place is midweek-dead, roll right on out and go to Marathon, Alpine, or Fort Davis instead.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad town; it just has a hard time living up to the hipster artist hype that others have shoveled onto it. If you go on a weekend or when there’s a special event, you’ll find places open and some fun things to do and see.
I do like the Hotel Paisano in Marfa; lots of history and the place where the crew of Giant stayed during filming, so there’s classic movie memorabilia everywhere. Make sure you tune the car radio to KRTS 93.5 Marfa Public Radio, too – “Radio for a Wide Range.”
For a town with a lively Western feel, head a bit north from Marfa to Fort Davis.
Spend time learning frontier history and Buffalo Soldiers lore at the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Wander the buildings and listen for the audio program broadcast a few times a day onto the parade grounds – “Retreat Parade.”
“Let us journey back in time to a late summer day in 1875. The low light of the setting sun casts shadows across the parade ground, where officers are inspecting companies of the 10th U.S. Cavalry and the 25th U.S. Infantry in front of the row of barracks. The soldiers are in full dress uniform, their polished brass insignia glistening in the sunlight. Also present is the 25th U.S. Infantry Regimental Band, ready to strike a note upon completion of inspection of the soldiers. The evening Retreat Parade is about to begin.”
Close your eyes in between the band music and bugles. Imagine the isolation of serving out here. Appreciate their sacrifice.
A bit outside of the town of Fort Davis is another historic lodging property that is well worth a stay.
The Depression-era CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) built Indian Lodge in the 1930s, and it has been painstakingly restored and maintained by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.
The rooms are simply but comfortably furnished, and the property fits so well into its surroundings. I loved it.
Besides activities in town and at the National Historic Site, you can plan your stay to coincide with a Twilight Program and Star Party at McDonald Observatory, a University of Texas astronomical facility in the mountains outside of Fort Davis.
It’s the perfect way to spend time in a “Dark Sky” part of Texas.
Book early, because they often sell out far in advance.
Finish With a Splash at Balmorhea State Park’s Giant Pool
You are in luck if you’re ready to leap into an enormous spring-fed swimming pool in the middle of the west Texas desert.
Balmorhea (Bal-mo-RAY) State Park, like Indian Lodge, was a CCC building project in the 1930’s. In mid-2018, engineers found big structural problems with the swimming pool during its annual cleaning, and it had to be closed for extensive repairs.
It reopened last month, and is ready for the busy summer season. Book passes early!
The nearby Balmorhea State Park San Solomon Courts where I stayed years ago are closed for renovation; once they reopen, grab a reservation there, too.
You’ll notice that this post doesn’t take you all the way out to El Paso. That is only because it’s a long way further west. If you have time, great, head on out there. If not, you can either turn around and head back east the way you came on Highway 90, or head north from Balmorhea a few miles, jump on Interstate 10, and blast along heading back towards Fort Stockton at Interstate speeds.
The bucket list west Texas road trip is complete….or is it? What did I miss? Tell us down in the comments.
(All photos by the author except as noted)
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