Thngs to do in Texas when you're . . .
December 29, 2006 8:35 PM   Subscribe

January-in-West-Texas-Filter: visiting Alpine, Marfa, and Big Bend for a week. Suggestions for food, art, cultural wonders, and Big Bend trails that are particularly nice in Winter are earnestly sought.
posted by fourcheesemac to Travel & Transportation around Texas (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is in Marfa, it is one of the things I have on my list to make a pilgrimage to. You may or may not find it interesting.
posted by edgeways at 8:48 PM on December 29, 2006

Best answer: I was last in Alpine about 8 years ago. I ate in a restaurant called Reatta, named after the ranch in Giant. The food and decor were very, very good. Every time I think of west Texas I want to go eat there again.

I insist that you spend one night at the Gage Hotel in Marathon. It's like stepping back in time 75 years (in a good way). And do have breakfast there as well.

The prime cultural wonder in the area is the McDonald Observatory.
posted by neuron at 9:10 PM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Big Bend National Park is there, and a friend of mine visited it last weekend and said she had a good time bumming around ... but spent most of her time on the nice roads on her motorcycle. The town hall in Marfa is pretty cool, and there's also an astronomical observatory nearby, the McDonald Observatory. I think she said that Santa Elena Canyon would've been cool to hike down if she hadn't been in motorcycle boots, but it might've been another location.
posted by SpecialK at 9:12 PM on December 29, 2006

Although there generally seems to be a 100% correlation between familiarity with the town of Marfa and familiarity with the Marfa lights, I'm going to go ahead and suggest the obvious, hoping you are an exception: the Marfa lights.

I don't know if you're willing to stand in one place outside for that long in winter weather, but it's a humbling and mystical experience if you can suspend your disbelief.

On the other hand, if the idea of seeing tiny lights on the horizon that could very well be the product of cars on a highway does not excite you enough for you to see the journey as worthwhile even if they don't appear, I wouldn't recommend it. I got lucky, but I'd probably have been kind of annoyed if nothing had happened.
posted by invitapriore at 9:32 PM on December 29, 2006

Art near Marfa? That'd be Prada Marfa.
posted by forallmankind at 9:33 PM on December 29, 2006

Food: I've heard the Edelweiss Restaurant and Brewery in the Holland In in Alpine is the place to stay and drink.

Art: As for the park, my favorite winter backpacking trip is to the Mesa de Anguila outside of Lajitas. Desolate mesa top with lots of huecos.

Cultural Wonders: While in Lajitas, visit the mayor, Clay Henry III the beer drinking goat.
posted by Seamus at 10:02 PM on December 29, 2006

Seconding the Edelweiss Restuarant. Great brews, great brats. The brewmaster is from Bavaria.

Also second the Marfa Lights. Head east on highway 90 from Marfa and there is a viewing area set up on the side of the road. I was out there one night and saw weird lights jumping, changing color, splitting in two and coming back together. Pretty freaky. A couple years later I came back and nothing happened. Maybe you'll get lucky.

Also seconding the McDonald Observatory. Try to show up on a night that they are doing a star party. As the stars come out, they point out all the constellations, and then you get to look at cool stuff through their telescopes. Most recently, they showed us a cool binary star system, and some close-ups (relatively speaking) of Pleiades.

Not much to add other than the last time I was camping in the Davis Mountains, I got up in the middle of the night to walk to the restroom, only to be greeted by about 15 javelina outside my tent. They'll usually leave humans alone, but if you have cats, better keep 'em close or they'll be javelina lunch in a jiffy.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:11 PM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

I've not stayed at the Guage Hotel, but I want to. The wing of the hotel that's single floor SW style architecture is very appealing. It's at least worth making a stop to check it out.
posted by Good Brain at 10:26 PM on December 29, 2006

Please do support the above-mentioned local emporia, and Chinati is always worthwhile.

Then haul ass for the park. It's all unmissable. The top of the escarpment is rocky alpine, with crystal-clear waterfalls down to rushy riverbottom and Tejano desert. Anywhere you go will be extraordinary.
posted by vetiver at 11:37 PM on December 29, 2006

Best answer: I've been to Big Bend several times. I'd recommend the hotels and restaurants mentioned by others, above, as well as the Marfa Lights (which I've seen, and I'm a skeptic).

I'd also add the following about Big Bend National Park:

- Big Bend National Park (not the state park) is over 1200 square miles, and you also want to see some of the things outside the park (quite a distance away, actually). So, be settled that you will not be able to see the entire park, and that, like most people, you'll return again and again to see the rest. If you like scenic views, hiking, water rafting, history, geology, camping, animals... this is all at the park.

- When you first enter Big Bend, go to one of the information shops. Pick up some of the maps/booklets as these are invaluable. They cost $1 - $3 each, and are worth it as they give maps as well as information about what you see on each trail and drive. The books are labeled "Road Guide" (several in the series), "River Guide" (again, several), and "Trail Maps" (yes, quite a few in this series, but the "Chisos Mountains Trails Map" is the best one).

- One early morning, go to the restaurant in the park. There is only one, and it is in the Basin, which is at the center of the park (Chisos Basin). The coffee is terrible, and the food matches the coffee plus is overpriced. You are there strictly for the view. One entire side of the restaurant is windows. Sit near the windows and watch the sunrise through the Basin. It is startling.

- After seeing the sunrise, take the short-ish hike down. The trail (Window Trail) starts near the restaurant, and is easy enough even if you are not a hiker. It is 2.6 miles long.

- After finishing that trail, leave the restaurant area and drive the very short distance to the Lost Mine Trail, a 4.8 mile hike. These are marked very carefully to explain all the plants and views that you will see, and it is another of the most-popular hikes. During the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps blasted the rocks to make the steps that are part of the trail. You can still see where they laid the dynamite to do this - they are now the little round indentions in the rock. The views are fantastic.

- On another day, if you are a true hiker or just up for a lot of walking, do the rim. The rim is divided into several trails, mostly East Rim Trail and South Rim. The Emory Peak trail is actually my favorite - this is the highest point you can get to, and only the last mile or so is tough, with the trail reduced to basically rock. You don't have to be an athlete to do it, but you need to be determined.

- Another sunrise moment that should not be missed is seeing the sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon. Drive most of the way, then the hike to the canyon is only a few minutes. The sun blasts across the canyon walls, which turn gold and pink. Bring a camara.

- If you like desert, desolate areas, hike the Panther Pass trail. I love it, but not everyone does.

- If you like the idea of camping in this area, the prettiest area is the campground in the Basin. This is most popular for tent camping. However, do know that there are not showers in this campground. The showers are found at the Cottonwood campground (near Santa Elena canyon). They work on timers, activated by quarters, so bring quarters.

- If you don't like the idea of camping, there is a lodge next to the restaurant in the Basin. It is plain but clean and warm. However, you usually have to make reservations 1 year + in advance. Alpine, Texas is the nearest place to look for lodging, as well as shops, restaurants, places to rent a raft, and so on.

- In my opinion, the best drive in the United States - rivaled only by Highway 101 along the West Coast - is El Camino Del Rio (The River Road), which is FM 170. It goes from Study Butte to Presidio. This is a day trip round-trip, through very mountainous area. Again, the views are amazing. Please note the little white crosses on the sides of the road, mostly on the curves. Drive carefully so your passage is not marked by one of those crosses! Many years ago, this road was called Muerte del Burro (Death of the Donkey).

A few practical notes about Big Bend:

- Take the notes about animals seriously. Food goes in the little boxes at the campgrounds. If you leave food in your car, bears will tear through your car to get it - and they don't use the doors. I've seen snakes, tarantulas, black bears, and mountain lions. So, read the information beforehand (available at the visitor centers) about what to do if you encounter the animals.

- You'll also see roadrunners (much smaller than the cartoons lead you to believe), jackrabbits, and tiny mule deer and whitetail deer which only exist in this area. You'll also see herds (packs?) of javelina, which are almost blind and extremely curious, and use their sense of smell to identify the things around them - so they get close to you, but are only curious about you!

- Big Bend gets COLD in the winter. Long underwear. Layers. A hat.

- Drink water, even when you are not thirsty. This area is a "green desert" and you need more water than you think. At least, this is true if you are not from a very dry area (as a Houstonian, this gets me every time). A little backpack with water, a hat, sunglasses, a camara, and maybe something to eat is a good idea - you'll have all you need, and you won't be trying to carry it all in pockets or your hands while you walk around.

- Bring a camara with lots of memory or film. Believe me, whatever you think you'll need, you'll actually need twice as much. And, since you are hours (in driving distance) from the nearest real town, bring everything you need or be settled with paying a fortune.

Enjoy your trip! There is something magical about this area. Its vastness, and knowing that these mountains have stood here since the beginning of time, somehow put the troubles of our world into perspective. I hope you will fall in love with it as much as I have.
posted by Houstonian at 5:09 AM on December 30, 2006 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, Houstonian, and everyone . .. thanks so much! I know other rural parts of Texas fairly well and have driven through and around West Texas many times, but never as a tourist (though I've done that elsewhere in the mountain west, so I know about the distances and the need to be equipped). Big Bend NP is indeed the centerpiece of the trip, hoping for two days of good weather (the signs look good) to get in one mountain and one canyon hike. The observatory was also on the list. Planned to stay at the Holland in Alpine and the Thunderbird in Marfa (anyone have any reason not to?), but the Gage in Marathon sounds intriguing and I'll check it out.

Anyway, keep the suggestions coming in . . . and thank you to everyone!

By the way, I had no idea the NPS made such excellent websites for the national parks. I can't say enough about how pleased I am that my tax dollars are actually well used. Big Bend NP has a terrific website.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:35 AM on December 30, 2006

Don't forget to visit the Food Shark in Marfa -- open for lunch Wed-Sat. They make fantastic west texas falafel (called marfalafel) and the the truck the great food is served out of is super cool. Good videos of it on youtube.
posted by gingembre at 11:17 AM on December 30, 2006

(full disclosure -- I live in marfa. Email is in my profile if you want more info.)
posted by gingembre at 11:22 AM on December 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Has anyone mentioned the scenic loop through the Davis mountains that starts & ends with Ft. Davis? I know it's not on your itenerary at this point, but if you find yourself having the time, (we took about 6 hours to do it, I think) It's a great drive. Ft. Davis is also a very picturesque town, with a fine hotel & restaurant. Sunset at Davis Mountains state park was nice, too.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:49 PM on December 30, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks again to gingembre and Devils Rancher.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:49 PM on December 31, 2006

Response by poster: Belated thanks to everyone. We drew nice weather in Big Bend and it was amazing. High marks to the Holland Hotel in Alpine. Chinati was weird but worth it. And the FM170 drive was a total trip. But the biggest thrill was visiting the GW Bush childhood home in Midland. Well, okay, not the biggest. Thank you again, all.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:23 PM on January 21, 2007

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