West Texas is the stuff of Wild West fantasy: parched deserts, ghost towns, looming mesas and, above all, a sense of utter isolation. Although the area south from the Panhandle down to Del Rio on the Rio Grande is, for convenience, also known as West Texas, the fantasy really begins west of the Pecos River; you can drive for hours without seeing another soul to El Paso, Texas’ westernmost city. Many travellers venture into the desolation to explore sublime Big Bend National Park, nearly 300 miles southeast of El Paso in the bend of the Rio Grande, but the region also boasts several small towns that provide delightfully offbeat stopovers.
Minimal rainfall (as little as eight inches a year!) and harsh land were not the only hindrances to settlement. The Apache and Comanche, though accustomed in the 1820s to trading with Mexican comancheros, were infuriated when hapless white pioneers began to trickle in during the 1830s. With their horsemanship and ability to find scarce water supplies, the Native Americans posed a real threat; upon statehood, a string of cavalry forts was set up by the federal government to protect Mexican and Anglo settlers from attack. As trading posts and cattle ranges sprung up after the Civil War, the paramilitary Texas Rangers were sent out on violent vigilante missions. Eventually, as in the Panhandle, a brutal programme of buffalo slaughter, supported by the US Army, starved the natives out. Not long afterward, oil was discovered in West Texas and boom towns appeared, with all the attendant gunslinging and brawling. Those lawless days are long gone, but the area remains susceptible to natural resource-based boom-and-bust cycles and has been capitalizing on its Wild West image ever since.Read More
MARFA, a small ranching town and arts community 21 miles south of Fort Davis on Hwy-17, has three claims to fame. First, James Dean’s last film, the 1956 epic, Giant, was filmed here; the cast stayed at the historic and swanky Hotel Paisano downtown on Hwy-17 (t 432/729-3669, w http://www.hotelpaisano.com; $101–130).
Next, there’s the “Marfa Lights”: mysterious bouncing lights that have been seen in the town’s flat fields since the 1880s, attracting conspiracy theorists and alien-hunters. The town’s visitor centre (varied opening hours), in the Hotel Paisano, can give advice on good vantage points to see the ghostly illuminations; if in doubt, head for the viewing centre, nine miles east of town, four hours after sunset.
Marfa’s third attraction, just outside town, is the extraordinary Chinati Foundation (tours Wed–Sun 10am; $10; t 432/729-4362, w http://www.chinati.org). Founded by minimalist Donald Judd, the avant-garde works on display here include some of the world’s largest permanent art installations, set in dramatic contexts both indoors and out. The Judd Foundation at 104 S Highland also has art spaces open to the public (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm; t 432/729-4406).
There are innumerable, high-end galleries in Marfa that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or LA, and at affable Marfa Book Co, 105 S Highland St (Wed–Sun 10am–7pm; t 432/729-3906), you can browse its selection of art, architecture and Texana titles.
Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park
The Rio Grande, flowing through 1500ft-high canyons, makes a ninety-degree bend south of Marathon to form the southern border of BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK – thanks to its isolation, one of the least visited of the US national parks.
The Apache, who forced the Chisos out 300 years ago, believed that this hauntingly beautiful wilderness was used by the Great Spirit to dump all the rocks left over from the creation of the world; the Spanish, meanwhile, called it terra desconocida, “strange, unknown land”. A breathtaking 800,000-acre expanse of forested mountains and ocotillo-dotted desert, Big Bend has been home to ranchers, miners and smugglers, a last frontier for the true-grit pioneers of the American West. Today, there is camping in designated areas, but much of the park remains barely charted territory. Ruins of primitive Mexican and white settlements are testament to Big Bend’s power to defeat earlier visitors. The park’s topography results in dramatic juxtapositions of desert and mountain, plant and animal life: mountain lions, black bears, roadrunners and javelinas (a bristly, grey hog-like creature with a snout and tusks) all roam free. Despite the dryness, tangles of pretty wildflowers and blossoming cacti erupt into colour each March and April. In the heightened security measures since September 11th, it has become illegal to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico.
The most interesting route into Big Bend is from the west. You can’t follow the river all the way from El Paso, but Hwy-170 – the River Road, reached on Hwy-67 south from Marfa – runs through spectacular desert scenery east from Ojinaga, Mexico, which was practically wiped off the map due to floods in 2008. Before reaching the park boundary just beyond Study Butte, you pass through Big Bend Ranch State Park and the community of Terlingua.
Once in the park, unless you’re prepared to do some strenuous hiking, there are few opportunities to see the river itself; the main road is obliged to run across the desert, north of the outcrop of the Chisos Mountains. West of park headquarters at Panther Junction a spur road leads south for about six miles, up into the Chisos Basin, which is ringed by dramatic peaks – the one gap in the rocky wall here is called the Window, looking out over the Chihuahuan Desert. A twelve-mile loop hike to the South Rim is one of the most popular in the park, and the views deep into the interior of Mexico are humbling. Driving twenty miles southeast of Panther Junction brings you to the riverside Rio Grande Village – unless you choose to detour just before, to bathe in the natural hot springs that feed into the river.
At three separate stages within the park’s boundaries the river runs through gigantic canyons. The westernmost, Santa Elena, is the most common rafting trip; outfitters are available at Terlingua.
For the serious hiker, the thirteen-mile loop hike to the river on the Marufo Vega trail is one of the most stunning in the entire National Park Service. It offers views of the Sierra del Carmen mountain range in Mexico and a descent into a rarely visited slick-rock canyon. Feral burros (wild donkeys) sometimes wail here at sunset, and subsistence Mexican farmers set up camps to harvest candelilla across the border. A more accessible trail leads to the Upper Burro Mesa pour-off; it’s about five mostly flat miles.