With the charm of a single-stoplight West Texas town and the quirky-creative energy of an artist commune, Marfa has garnered a bit of hype over the years and become quite the in-vogue destination. Once a mere stopover on the way to remote Big Bend National Park and points south, the artsy, high-desert city in the Trans Pecos region, where mountains and desert meet, started to draw artists and resourceful entrepreneurs in the 1970s. It hasn’t really stopped since. These days, Marfa is as alluring as ever.
As a midway point between the nearest major airport city, El Paso, and Rio Grande attractions at the southwestern-most edge of Texas, Marfa may be one of the most isolated hipster meccas in the country. Of course, that’s part of the fun. Marfa is full of imaginative independent shops, and a mix of posh galleries and open-air art installations, like the iconic Prada Marfa store sculpture, technically located in neighboring Valentine, Texas. The town also features charming eateries and food trucks for every budget and taste.
Marfa is quite unlike any other Texas town, and it’s sure to please all palettes with its eclectic blend of stylish pioneertown and groovy weekend getaway. For those with the time and intrepid spirit, there’s a bounty to explore outside of small-town Marfa, too, and this is where your journey will be elevated to a whole new level of Texas adventure. Not sure where to start? Here’s our roundup of not-to-miss sights, scenes and trips in, and outside of, Marfa, Texas.
Behold the Mystery of the Marfa Lights
A trip to Marfa wouldn’t seem complete without a visit to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area, just a few minutes outside of town. If you’re lucky enough to catch the eye-defying, mind-bending spectacle of mysterious orbs and color-changing lights when the sun goes down, it’s sure to leave an impression, and perhaps an existential question or two. The Marfa “ghost lights” have intrigued curious visitors for nearly a century, and the theories surrounding the unexplained sightings are plenty.
Regardless of your interest in the paranormal, a trip to see the Marfa Mystery Lights is a truly special way to experience a communal star-gazing with a splash of enigma. We recommend coming early for sunset and staying for a while to really experience the experience.
Get Starry-Eyed at the McDonald Observatory
Less than an hour from Marfa, the University of Texas’ McDonald Observatory makes for a truly memorable excursion that’s bound to please anyone with a curiosity of what lies beyond our planet. The Observatory is definitely worth a visit during daylight hours- especially when combined with a hike in nearby Davis Mountains State Park or a visit to historic Fort Davis. Once the sun sets, check out one of their famous nighttime “Star Parties,” where you can get an out-of-this-world telescope viewing and constellation tour from passionate staff. It’s such a fantastic way to experience space and get perplexed with the beauty of the galaxies, planets, and moons of our solar system. Plus, the drive from Marfa to the McDonald Observatory is one of the loveliest in all of Texas!
Small Town Charm and A Dose of History in Alpine, Texas
Part college town and part wild-west stop, this remote, high-elevation Texas city is a perfect mash-up of history, creativity and cowboy soul, and it’s just a half-hour skip from Marfa. With an attractive downtown full of historic facades, old-timey cafés, mom-and-pop shops, and a handful of hikes that really show the beauty of the Trans Pecos region, Alpine is a great place to stretch your legs and recharge for a few hours; or even, a few days. Don’t miss the two-mile jaunt up Hancock Hill to see the characterful Sul Ross desk (you’ll know when you’ve found it!) and soak in the expansive view of Alpine and the surrounding area.
Kokernot Field is legendary among baseball buffs, and Sports Illustrated rewarded it the title of “The Best Little Ballpark in Texas (or Anywhere Else),” so it’s worth swinging by to learn about its unique past- or even better, catching a game if you schedule aligns. If you’re craving a bigger dose of history, a trip to the Museum of The Big Bend, located on the quaint Sul Ross State University Campus, is an excellent, easily digestible introduction to the area. It tends to leave visitors very impressed. The most difficult part about a visit to Alpine will surely be finding a way to squeeze it all in, so if you can, give Alpine a couple of days on your itinerary.
Get Elevated in Davis Mountains State Park
Many don’t associate Texas with high-elevation mountain terrain, and that’s only bound to make a trip to the Davis Mountain State Park even more exciting. With one of the darkest skies in the lower 48 states, cool mountain air even at the height of summer, and some of the tallest peaks in Texas, the Davis Mountains are volcanic giants that leap dramatically from the surrounding desert lowlands. The range offers hundreds of miles of scenic hiking, biking, and equestrian trails to suit every level of challenge.
A couple of our favorite hikes include the Skyline Divide Trail, a thigh-burner that rewards hikers with one of the best viewpoints in all of Davis Mountains State Park, or the slightly shorter but equally stimulating Indian Lodge Loop Trail, which offers an incredible view of Mount Livermore, the fourth highest peak in Texas at 8,378 feet. There are several accessible campgrounds in the park, too, and some primitive sites for those looking for more of a wilderness experience. The historic Indian Lodge, built in the 1930s, is also worth stopping by (or staying in, if your budget allows) for its history and pueblo-inspired architecture.
Feel the Open Sprawl in Big Bend National Park
As one of the most biodiverse, expansive, and remote parks in the United States, Big Bend National Park is one of the crown jewels of Texas, and one that will give you a whole new appreciation of the endless open sprawl of the Far West of the state. When we said remote, we weren’t kidding; Big Bend National Park is three hours from Marfa, and Marfa itself is already very remote.
Home of the Chisos Mountains and the winding Rio Grande River that elegantly dances with the Mexican border, Big Bend National Park is a utopia for hikers, paddlers, birders, off-roaders and backcountry campers alike. On one hand, The Chisos Basin will impress with its jagged ridges and surprisingly lush vistas; some of the most rewarding hikes include the scramble to Emory Peak (7,825 feet, the highest in the park), the Window Trail, and the Lost Mine Trail. On the other hand, in the western part of Big Bend, the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic drive is not to be missed, and it will take you to one of the most spectacular sights in the park, the Santa Elena Canyon, where 1,500-foot behemoth cliffs hover over the Rio Grande below.
If it’s even more solitude you’re craving, head to the Big Bend National Park backcountry office and try snagging as remote of a campsite as your vehicle can handle. If you’ve got a high clearance 4×4, there’s nothing quite like getting off the beaten track in one of the most isolated parks in the United States.
TIP: Before you drive to Big Bend National Park, know that you’re heading for some of the most remote territory in the United States, and the park sits on the border of Mexico. Cell service is spotty; be sure to have plenty of gas in your tank, at least a day’s worth of food and water, and you’re prepared for potential emergencies. Check out our Big Guide to Big Bend National Park for more.
Experience “The Other Side of Nowhere” in Big Bend Ranch State Park
While the adjacent national park typically gets all the attention — and the crowds — Big Bend Ranch State Park offers an equally extraordinary experience that holds right up to its more popular neighbor. Nicknamed “The Other Side of Nowhere,” the state’s largest park is a hidden gem for outdoor enthusiasts, with unmatched river access and hundreds of multi-use trails that pass through old mining camps, former movie sets and wildlife viewing areas galore.
If you’re going to drive only one state park road in all of Texas, the rollercoaster known as El Camino Del Rio should be it. Touted as one of the most scenic drives in the entire country, the fifty-mile stretch of Big Bend Ranch State Park’s Highway 170 twists and turns from the town of Lajitas to Presidio, offering awe-inspiring views of the canyon and Rio Grande throughout. If you have the time, investigate the option of a river float; or, for more experienced paddlers, a multi-day kayak or canoe trip that takes you from Big Bend Ranch State Park through the majestic Santa Elena Canyon. Camping on the river’s edge right on the border of the United States and Mexico is a bucket-list adventure that will leave you starry-eyed for years to come.