This road trip starts and ends in Houston, Texas however you could start your journey from any one of the major cities in Texas including Dallas, San Antonio, Austin or Midland. The main point of interest on this trip is Big Bend National Park and adjacent Big Bend State Park. The parks have national significance, combined it is the largest protected area of the Chihuanhuan Desert in the United States and covers more than 1 million acres. The area offers a diverse range of plants, birds, reptiles, mammals and topography. Also highlighted within this post are some of the small towns you will pass through on your way to and from Bid Bend.
Important: Learn from my mistake, if you are not an American citizen make sure you have your passport and visa with you at all times. Border Patrol are very active in this area and failure to produce these documents can result in a $100 fine and up to 30 days in Jail.
Day 1: McDonald Observatory & Marfa
I started this trip the night before to break up the driving, day one begins in San Antonio which is a 3 hour 193 mile drive from Houston, Texas. From San Antonio you will drive 6 hours and 413 miles to the McDonald Observatory which is located just outside Ford Davis, Texas. During the day you can partake in a sun viewing where the observatory displays live images from the sun. You may wish to participate in an informative lecture about the sun where you will learn how it works and what some of its unique characteristics are including a discussion on sun spots and prominence's.
You can also choose to take a guided tour of the observatory and get up close and personal with the Hobby-Eberly and the Otto Struve Telescope which are still in use today.
Fun Fact: With its 11-meter (433-inch) mirror, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET) is one of the world's largest optical telescopes. It was designed specifically for spectroscopy, the decoding of light from stars and galaxies. This makes it ideal in searching for planets around other stars, studying distant galaxies, exploding stars, black holes and more.
After leaving the observatory you will head south to Marfa, Texas which is a 40 minute 37 mile drive. For those of you who are into fashion and/or art a stop at the Prada Marfa installation is a must. Erected in 2005 Prada Marfa is a permanently installed sculpture by artists Elmgreen and Dragset. The installation is actually located 1.4 miles outside of Valentine which is approximately a 26 mile 30 minute drive northwest of Marfa.
The town of Marfa is very charming and unique. I would highly recommend grabbing dinner and a drink at Hotel El Paisano which is best known as the location headquarters for the cast and crew of the 1956 film Giant staring James Dean. The hotels old world charm and beautiful courtyard is very endearing and makes for a relaxing way to spend the early evening.
Fun Fact: Rumor has it that if you stay in the town overnight you may see strange unexplained lights in the distance known as the Marfa Ghost Lights.
I didn’t stay in Marfa however looking back I would have loved to stay a night at the Paisano Hotel. If you want to hit the road it’s a 2.5 hour 110 mile drive to Lajitas. The road is quite windy and is much more impressive during daylight hours. Watch out for the native animals as they become quite active once the sun sets.
Day 2: Big Bend National Park & Lajitas
You are now officially in Big Bend State Park, I chose to stay at Lajitas Spa and Golf Resort and I would highly recommend this resort to anyone considering staying in the area. The resort is located between Big Bend State and National Park and is the perfect setting for an all adventure get-away. The resort boasts 101 rooms each designed to transport visitors back to the days of the old west, trust me you won’t be disappointed.
The State Park is significantly hotter than the National Park in summer due to elevation levels. I would recommend driving the 20 miles which takes approximately 25 minutes to the National Park for spectacular hiking. Two hikes of particular interest include:
Balanced Rock Hike
To get to Balanced Rock you enter the park from the Western Entrance and follow the main road until you reach Grapevine Hills Road. You will turn off here and drive 7.7 miles on an unpaved road until you reach the car park and start of the trail head. The trail is a 2 mile round trip of easy to moderate difficulty. The hike begins in a picturesque valley which can become quite hot so be sure to take water with you on your adventure. At the end of the valley you will need to scale some rocks to reach Balanced Rock, however the path is clearly marked. The views are well worth the walk and climb.
If you are in need of food your options are limited within the park, however located in close proximity to the Lost Mine trail is the Chisos Mountains Lodge which serves lunch daily. The food is quite basic but they offer a good selection of sandwiches, burgers and salads.
Lost Mine Hike
Next up on today’s adventure is the Lost Mine trail which weaves its way up the mountain and provides breathtaking views of the valley and surrounding mountains. This hike is approximately a 5 mile round trip and is predominantly all uphill until you turn around for the return journey. The trail is very well maintained and isn’t too difficult, be careful if it is raining as the rocks become quite slippery.
After a long day of hiking if you can’t bare the thought of trekking to the town over for dinner the hotel does offer a bar and restaurant onsite. I ate at The Thirsty Goat and it was quite tasty not to mention the beautiful patio which offers a lush surroundings and a tranquil fountain.
Day 3: Big Bend National Park, State Park & Terlingua
Santa Elena Canyon
Today will be an early start if you want to go canoeing through the Santa Elena Canyon, which I highly recommend. You can rent canoes from Desert Sports located in Terlingua which offer them at reasonable prices. They will also give you information on river levels, if there has heavy rain in the area you may not be able to canoe inside the canyon. The canyon is located inside Big Bend National Park and is a 1 hour 22 mile drive from Terlingua. The canyon divides the border with Mexico so depending on which side of the canyon you stop on you can technically eat your lunch in Mexico. I would highly recommend taking snacks with you as you will paddle 1.5 miles upstream and 1.5 miles downstream to get back.
The drive to and from the canyon is quite breathtaking, the road was designed by a geologist and takes you past some amazing naturally occurring features the park has to offer. Lookout points are dotted along the road so keep an eye out.
Closed Canyon Hike
Closed Canyon is located in Big Bend State Park and is a 35 minute 20 mile drive from the hotel. You will want to return the canoe and changed into more hiking appropriate clothing before setting out on the next adventure. This hike is a 1.4 mile round trip and is easy to moderate in difficulty. The canyon dead ends at the Rio Grande at which point you will need to turn around and start your return journey. It is important to note that this canyon is an outlet for flash flooding, never enter the canyon if it has been raining nearby.
Dinner: Starlight Theater, Terlingua Ghost Town
The Starlight Theater is a bar and restaurant located in the Terlingua Ghost Town which is a 15 minute 12 mile drive from the hotel. Originally constructed in the 1930’s during the heyday of the Quicksilver mining the Chisos Movie Theater provided entertainment for residents. When the mines went bust in the late 1940‘s the theater was abandoned. When modern “pioneers” began to repopulate the area they used the building for open air parties, jam sessions, converts and theatrical productions. Thus the name Starlight Theater was born. It wasn’t until 1991 when the theater got a face lift and a roof and reopened as a restaurant and bar.
Day 4: Marathon & Fort Stockton
Day 4 will be a long travel day, to get back to Houston it is a 9.5 hour, 663 mile journey. To break things up I suggest taking an alternate route which will add 15 minutes to your journey but will first take you through the National Park and offer great scenery. It will also take you through two little towns including Marathon and Fort Stockton.
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