Road Trips

On the West Texas Trail to Big Bend

West Texas has always fascinated me. The legends of the old west are in full sway, but that is not all. Quirky artists rub shoulders with the cowboys and cattle to make a unique mix of Texas history. The landscapes are right out of a Charles Russell or Frederic Remington painting. Towns like Marfa, Alpine, Terlingua and tiny Marathon all share that rugged, endearing spirit. They are on the edge of Big Bend National Park and the Chihuahuan desert which borders Mexico. No other place in the world is quite like this area of Texas.

On our road trips through West Texas, we either stay in vacation rentals , or in historic hotels designed by El Paso architect Henry Trost (1860-1933); ( an interesting guy worth looking up). On our most recent trip we started in Van Horn stayed at El Capitan, a splendid Trost hotel of Spanish Colonial Revival design built in 1930. It is currently undergoing some room renovations.

Our favorite room is room 240 because it has the largest and best balcony. Yes, the rooms are a bit small but this historic hotel was built before large king sized beds or double queens were prevalent in hotels. The style of the rooms is right out of the 1930s and the pleasant sound of trains passing in the night out in front of the hotel is as magical as is the sound of the fountain in the courtyard. The restaurant, too, is good: romantic and dimly lit with white tables cloths and plenty of locals sitting at the bar. The pecan crusted salmon is delicious.

The Clark Musuem is one of the most interesting sights in Van Horn as well as one of the oldest surviving buildings here,It went through several incarnations before it was a museum from courthouse to hotel then it was purchased by the Museum Association. Worth a look if you have any extra time in Van Horn.

The next morning we headed out to Marfa where we hoped to stop before lunch. On a previous visit, we stayed at the Hotel Paisano, built in 1928, by Trost in the “Rock Hudson Suite.” The 1956 classic “Giant” was filmed near Marfa, and the cast of the movie (including Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean) stayed at the Paisano. A number of rooms are named for those stars. The Rock Hudson Suite has a huge roof top patio with great views of downtown Marfa, and a cozy wood burning fire place inside. The Jet restaurant in the hotel is full of locals as well as visitors. Its walls are lined with huge behind-the-scenes photos from the filming.

Marfa is a charming West Texas town with an artsy edge primarily because of Manhattan artist Donald Judd who came to Marfa in the 1970s. He established the Chinati foundation, a contemporary arts organization which has made the town known worldwide in the arts community.

We made the short drive to Alpine where we planned to have lunch and again many places were closed due to Covid-19. We stopped at the Holland Hotelbuilt in 1908 by John Holland. In 1927 Henry Trost added a third floor, and remodeled the entire space in his signature Spanish Colonial Revival style. It is a stunning hotel with Trost touches of embellished wood beams and arches, exquisite tile floors and a roaring fireplace which was burning during our visit. We were hoping to eat out in the courtyard but the restaurant was open only at night because of Covid. We would have come back for dinner but our destination for the night was Terlingua. We will definitely be back for a meal or to stay on a future trip. This hotel had a rustic historic ambiance.

A short drive brought us to the ruggedly handsome town of Marathon, another gateway town into Big Bend in the high desert, and to an additional Trost creation. The Gage Hotel was our first stop, and we were still hoping to get some lunch. Legendary author of tales of the old west, Zane Gray, stayed at the Gage, and is believed to have written one of his western novels there. Among the other famous guests is Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum. The Gage, too, is Spanish Colonial Revival with a bit more cowboy and old west blended in.
The hotel is named for Alfred Gage, who developed a huge ranching empire in the area and commissioned Trost to build the hotel to use as a base to oversee his ranching ventures. This unique property is worth at the least a stop for a meal or a drink in the bar. It is definitely on my list for a stay on a road trip in the future. Unfortunately the restaurant did not open until 5pm. We pushed on into town and picked some food at the French Company Grocer, a general store with plenty of fresh food made out of a kitchen at the back of the store. The hummus was delicious and they offer fresh sushi some days of the week. They also have great photographic cards designed by James H Evans who also has a gallery in town. The artist just happened to be in line in front of me at the grocer. It was getting late for lunch so we ate in the car in the parking lot and were perfectly content.

We absolutely loved one-of-a-kind Marathon. It would be a great place to stay and relax after a day of enjoying Big Bend.

We stayed the next two nights in Huffman Pond Cabin, in Terlingua. “In Terlingua” is a relative term, as this “small” town is spread over quite an area. From Marathon to Terlingua led us through Big Bend National Park, and off the park’s main paved road through about 30 miles of dirt-gravel-stone road. Big Bend is nestled near the Rio Grande River along the Texas Mexico border (though you can drive for hours in the park without seeing the river). Legend has it that it is named for the great curve of the Rio Grande, where Pecos Bill lassoed a wild tornado and carved a series of impressive river canyons in remote Southwest Texas. It includes an entire range of mountains known as the Chisos. Big Bend contains geological wonders, historic and prehistoric riches and a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life. Elevations range from 1,850 to 8,825 feet. It may be the most diverse of the national parks in terms of plants, birds, reptiles and butterflies. Don’t miss Santa Elena Canyon, Hot Springs Historic District, Chisos Basin Area and Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive–a 30 mile scenic drive which presents some of the best views in the park.

Huffman Pond Cabin is on 88-acre Terlingua Ranch. It is a remote secluded property. A SUV or truck with excellent tires is recommended for the journey to the cabin. It is solar powered and has no AC but you will never forget the views or the night sky. We had a grey fox as our frequent visitor and plenty of birds (See a room with a view).

Terlingua is a unique West Texas destination. It is a turn of the century mining town most known for its famous chili cookoff which began in 1967. The cook-off attracts over 10,000 people each November. It has a ghost town with a small number of galleries and restaurants. It is also known for the fact that the town was bought by racing legend and automotive designer Carroll Shelby in the 1960s. At that time there were fewer than 10 people that populated the town. This is a real mining town that went bust and was abandoned . The Starlight Theater is the most well known spot with TexMex Cuisine a full bar and frequent live entertainment.
On the rough roads on this particular trip the Starlight meant quite a drive for us and we had visited the ghost town on a previous visit. We opted instead for the Bad Rabbit Café near the Terlingua Ranch Lodge for lunch. The food is simple and very-well priced. The fish and shrimp tacos were excellent and it has a scenic outside deck for dining with striking views of the rocky hills which surround it.

We continually return to this region of Texas again and again. The character of this area is what Texas is known for. The high desert landscape and the hypnotic night sky are simply unforgettable!


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