Explore the Funky Art Towns and Desert Beauty of West Texas

It’s a hell of a drive, but well worth the journey

Texas being the largest state in the lower forty-eight is just an abstract fun fact… until you actually drive across it. A few hours in the RV often gets you exactly nowhere, a frustrating truth until you decide nowhere is exactly where you want to be. 

Driving West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s the ideal outlook for a road trip to far West Texas. Removed from just about everything in the best ways, the hours melt into the horizon as you roll steadily past mile after mile of dry, desolate rangeland and on to “nearby” towns like Fort Stockton. 

“Flat” and “boring,” the uninspired will utter, but this sprawling landscape is also punctuated by moments of natural beauty, world-class art, funky towns, big sunsets, and oddball surprises that are well worth the long journey. Take your time and fall into the change of pace—the vibe, if you will—that each area offers. 

Birding in West Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a good chance Marfa is your final destination or maybe Big Bend, one of the most far-flung and underrated national parks—a mountainous dreamscape for kayaking, star-gazing, and hiking. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before you get there.

Fort Stockton © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to see on the drive to West Texas

Embrace “the journey is the destination” mindset and prepare for a full day of RV travel. Hopefully, you can budget time to stop at these natural wonders along the way:

Caverns of Sonora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Caverns of Sonora

The founder of a National Speleological Society (read: a group of dudes who love exploring caves) once said “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by a Texan.” Daily guided tours of this remarkable cave system last just shy of two hours and take you 155 feet below the earth’s surface. Sonora is also a great halfway point between San Antonio and Big Bend. Their RV park offers 48 sites complete with water and electricity; several of which are pull-through.  Due to the presence of the cavern, a dump station is not available; however, there are clean restrooms with showers.

Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monahans Sandhills State Park

A mystical place where the wind sculpts sand dunes into peaks and valleys, Mon­a­hans Sandhills offers a Texas-sized sand­box for kids of all ages as well as a close-up view of a unique desert environment. These natural sand dunes are ever-changing and worth stomping around after a few hours behind the wheel. Not far from Midland, stop here for a picnic or sled down the swirling dunes on rentable plastic lids if you’re so inclined. Entry is $4. And spend the night at one of the 26 camping sites with water and electric hookups, a picnic table, and shelter. Camping is $15 nightly plus the entry fee.

Balmorhea State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Balmorhea State Park

Time to bust out your swimsuit. Near the crossroads of I-20 and I-10, you’ll find a literal oasis in the middle of the desert: the largest spring-fed swimming pool in the world. Recharge in the cold, clear waters and get a glimpse of tiny endangered pupfish, found only in the San Soloman springs. Open daily, entry costs $7; buy a day pass in advance to guarantee a spot especially on crowded weekends when the pool can reach capacity. Stay overnight at one of 34 campsites. Or reserve a room at the San Solomon Springs Courts, motel-style retro lodging built by the CCC.

Marfa

There’s no small town in Texas with a bigger reputation than Marfa. In the early 1970s, Marfa became a refuge for the acclaimed minimalist artist Donald Judd who laid the foundation for the thriving international art scene the town is known for today. Indisputably hip, even by big-city standards (perhaps especially by big-city standards), Marfa still manages to feel mythical and off-the-grid.

Driving the Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fort Davis and Alpine

For a glimpse of everyday living in far West Texas, swing through the towns of Fort Davis and Alpine. Both offer easier access to exploring the trails and state parks in the area.

Hike in Davis Mountain State Park. You don’t expect to find “mountain” and “Texas” in the same sentence very often and yet here we are. Take in the rugged landscape with a hike on Skyline Drive Trail or drive the 75-mile scene loop that starts and ends in Fort Davis. 

The Davis Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Comprising 647 acres, Sul Ross in Alpine boasts a beautiful 93-acre main campus and enjoys perhaps the most temperate climate in the state. It is situated in the Davis Mountains and overlooks the center of the city below. The university also has a 468-acre working ranch that serves its animal science programs.

Fort Davis National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the 1980s, some students at Sul Ross placed a large metal desk on top of the very large Hancock Hill behind the university. It’s still there today. Notebooks left in the desk’s drawers are filled with salutations and sage wisdom from past visitors.

McDonald Observatory © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargaze at McDonald Observatory. Just north of Fort Davis, one of the darkest night skies in the country allows for spectacular stargazing. Gaze into the cosmos during one of their evening star parties. Otherwise, they’re open to the public from Tuesday to Saturday. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend is the keystone to far West Texas and one of the most gorgeous places in the state. The park’s great expanse and stunning beauty—from desertscapes to river canyons and mountain hideaways—can not be summed up in a few words or even a few days exploring it.

Before heading to Big Bend, be sure to fill up your gas tank in Alpine, Marathon, or Terlingua (depending on where you’re driving in from). It’s also a good idea to bring waaaay more water than you think you’ll need (maybe avoid the hot summer months) and download maps to your phone, as cell service can be dicey. 

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Camping sites are available at Chisos Basin Campground in the higher (read: cooler) elevations of the Chisos Mountains and the Rio Grande Village Campground (best for big rigs and winter camping) overlooking the Mexican border.

The iconic center point of the park, the Chisos Mountains is the only mountain range completely contained within the borders of a national park. The dramatic drive up to the mountain basin is worth the trip alone just to watch the temperature drop at least 15 degrees from the desert below. From the mountain basin, you can hike to the top of Emory Peak, Big Bend’s most recognizable feature or down the Window Trail to where the entire basin empties out into the desert.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to Santa Elena Canyon where you can dip your toes in international waters, wave to Mexico, and hike into the 1,500-foot vertical chasm cut by the river over the eons. The Hot Springs Canyon Trail on the eastern side of the park also offers great views of the river. You can also kayak to your heart’s content.

Drive or hike in the Chihuahuan Desert. This arid, harsh desert makes up about 80 percent of the park but it’s not without its own rugged beauty. Bluebonnets and wildflowers add a burst of color in the springtime. The Chimneys Trail off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive has neat stone arches left by ancient lava flows.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend’s ultra-remote location, free and clear of any light pollution, makes it one of the best places in the country to stargaze. In fact, it’s the darkest national park in the lower 48. The park occasionally hosts star parties or moonlit walks led by rangers.

Your only option for eating and for drinks in the park is The Chisos Mountain Lodge restaurant and patio has an early morning breakfast buffet and stays open until 9 pm for dinner. There are three locations to buy basic supplies within the park but if you’re planning to stay longer than an afternoon pack in supplies from the grocery store in Alpine or other nearby towns.

Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America