In my previous post, I wrote about how celebrities and artists flock to Marfa, Texas. For our second day in West Texas, we decided to mix it up, and break away from all the Marfa madness with a side trip to Big Bend National Park.
Even if you’re planning just a weekend in Marfa, I’d still recommend spending most of your second day here. Why? Well, besides getting in some outdoor activity, when else will you be this close to Big Bend?
If you think Marfa is in the middle of nowhere – keep on driving. Big Bend is still 1 1/2 hours Southeast of Marfa – so remote it remains one of the least visited national parks in the system. In other words, your iPhone will likely think you’re no longer even in Texas — switching over to Mexican carriers (if you can even get a signal).
Kevin and I woke up early so we could turn our day into a road trip. Besides seeing Big Bend, there are a few places you won’t want to miss along the way.
First stop: Alpine, Texas
With a population of just around 6,000 people — and home to a local college — Alpine is much quieter than you might expect. Stores open around 10 AM (or later) with Holland Avenue as the main drag with several independent coffee shops and art galleries. No Starbucks here (I even looked on the app!). But don’t expect Alpine’s art scene to be anything like Marfa, just 30 minutes down the road. Marfa is all about minimalist/modern art. We’re not that hip or cutting-edge frankly. Alpine is more traditional – and frankly, more our style.
I’d definitely recommend stopping by the shops on the main drag and seeing the art galleries, which are significantly less expensive than Marfa. I even ended up buying a handcrafted ceramic bowl from one of the galleries for just $40 (and there were other galleries even cheaper). The artist later even called my number to answer a few questions about it and thanked me for my purchase.
Alpine, like Marfa, has been the backdrop for TV and films, including the Oscar-winning Boyhood. You’ll even drive right by the college featured in the movie on your way to Big Bend as you head out of town.
Second stop: Marathon, Texas
You almost expect to see a tumbleweed come barreling down the main street of Marathon, Texas. Blink, and you’ll practically miss this place along the drive to Big Bend. But there is one very good reason to make a stop here — to visit the historic Gage Hotel. The hotel was built in 1927 for Alfred Gage who was a man of many talents as a rancher, banker and businessman. Though, shortly after the place opened Alfred passed away and never really got to spend much time here. Like many places in these parts, the hotel is believed to be haunted but fortunately we had no encounters with the paranormal kind. After decades of neglect, the property was renovated in 1978 with West Texas and Mexican-inspired decor. If you have the time and want to spend more than a day in Big Bend, this would be the place to stay.
Another stop is the French Grocer Co. I know what you’re thinking, “What an authentic French market all the way out here?” Well, don’t expect to pick up escargot or baguettes here. What you will find is place that’s open past 5 PM that has water, a few cowboy hats for sale, but more importantly — where you can get a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie (or in our case, a few cookies!).
Third Stop: Big Bend National Park
We finally made it! Big Bend National Park spans 1,252 square miles – so yeah, the place really is enormous. Having a game plan is key. Whenever we arrive in a national park, one of the best places to start is at the visitors center. Shortly after paying the $25 entrance fee (good for 7 days), a small visitors center will appear on the right side of the road. Rangers generally seem happy to share any advice on hiking trails and the current conditions.
If you’re a daytripper like us, the best trail to check out is the Lost Mine Trail. It’s about another 45 minutes drive from the park entrance to reach the start of the trail where you’ll pass through the desert landscape and eventually gain elevation into the mountains.
The hike is considered to be “medium difficulty” by the park at 4.6 miles out and back. The trail climbs slowly at first through gentle switchbacks that will eventually reach about 1,300 feet. We saw families, kids and couples with varying degrees of physical ability. I mean, I just had knee surgery. With that said, you’ll certainly feel the burn after 1.5 miles as the trail gets steeper and you’ll eventually navigate some rocky paths.
The park is known for its unique flora and fauna, especially its giant agave plants. I definitely slowed things down as I snapped photos of several along the way.
About a mile into the hike, there is small area where you can step off and look out over the park’s other landmark sites, Juniper Canyon and South Rim. If you’re less athletically inclined, you can turn around at this point. But I’d suggest pushing through to the very end where you’ll find 360 views from the top where you can see just how large the park is and feel like you’re practically in Mexico.
This is a popular spot on the weekends, and you’ll find people lounging on the rocks, having lunch and admiring the view. I had one of the people hanging out on top take our photo – but who knows what backdrop he was trying to take.
Before you go:
Big Bend’s busy season is generally November through April, and the park is often full to capacity during Thanksgiving week, Christmas holiday season, and spring break (mid March). Advance reservations for camping and lodging are highly recommended. To maximize your visit, plan ahead and have a flexible itinerary.
Dress for the Weather
Year-round, a wide-brimmed hat, comfortable clothing and sturdy walking shoes or boots are necessary . Sunscreen is always a must and hikers must always carry plenty of water; one gallon per person per day is recommended. It’s dry heat and it’s very easy to get dehydrated here. Summer visitors should be aware of heat safety; and wear clothing that protects you from the sun. Winter visitors should be prepared for anything; temperatures vary from below freezing to above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.