FAMILY VACATION: BIG BEND & FAR WEST TEXAS
TOP TWELVE TRAVEL TIPSHEET
Big Bend, Marfa, Fort Davis, Alpine & Balmorhea
By Meredith Parenti
Editor’s Note: Top Twelve Travel Tipsheet is a ParentsPost.com series on favorite FAMILY-FRIENDLY places and activities outside Houston. Meredith Parenti is a Houston SuperMom with two sons and a daughter. She’s an attorney. She lived in the Big Bend region for several years and has taken countless family vacations in Far West Texas.
#1 BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK
1 Headquarters Drive, 432-477-2251
Big Bend is one of the most spectacular national parks in the country, with breathtaking mountain views emerging from rugged high desert scrub, including purple cactus, flowering red ocotillo, and rare bird sightings. Family friendly day hikes, hard-core backcountry treks, and canoeing and rafting are available, as are camping and RV sites along the Rio Grande and in the Chisos Mountains. The Chisos Mountain Lodge (including its popular and hard-to-get stone cabins) is also available for those who prefer sleeping in beds.
#2 DAVIS MOUNTAINS STATE PARK
Fort Davis, 432-426-3337
While overshadowed by the larger national park, the Davis Mountains State Park also has scenic mountain views, hiking, and camping, with accommodations available in the historic Indian Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and recently remodeled. This is a great home base from which to explore the rest of the Fort Davis and Balmorhea area, discussed below.
#3 MCDONALD OBSERVATORY
3640 Dark Sky Drive, 432-426-3640
Located just outside of Fort Davis in the Davis Mountains, the McDonald Observatory is the observatory for the University of Texas at Austin. The Observatory attracts astronomers from around the world given the perfect viewing conditions and intensely dark skies—some of the darkest in North America. The Observatory offers Star Parties in the evenings and daytime solar viewings for visitors. This is a great way to introduce your family to astronomy by observing everything from planets to super novae through both large and small telescopes. Even very young children will enjoy the visit, but be sure to bring a jacket even in summer because it gets cold on the mountaintop!
#4 FORT DAVIS NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Fort Davis, 432-426-3224
While in Fort Davis, you should pay a visit to the national historic site, one of the major military outposts from which the U.S. army fought the Indian Wars. Re-enactors in period costumes frequently are found re-living battles and wandering among the former homes of military officers and the rank and file. The Fort has a special tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers, who played an active role at the Fort. In addition to the history, there is a great hike that starts from behind the officers’ homes that will lead you up to beautiful views overlooking the entire Davis Mountains area.
The twenty-minute drive from Fort Davis to Balmorhea is one of the most spectacular drives in the area and is worth a trip for the drive alone. It reminds me of the moors and mountains of Scotland, but with cacti. If it’s warm outside, take a dip in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea, which is great fun for children to swim in a pool alongside tiny fish. The water is consistently 72-76 degrees, so it is most comfortable during the summer months when it’s blazing hot, although some hard-core swimmers enjoy it year-round. Scuba diving is also available in a diving well in the pool.
Marfa is the new Mecca for hipsters. Marfa has attracted a following in the arts community ever since minimalist artist Donald Judd moved there in the 70s and created his famous large-scale installations there. Now Marfa is home to many former New Yorkers and other transplants who have revitalized this formerly sleepy town, opening trendy restaurants, book stores, art galleries, and coffee shops. The Marfa Ballroom also hosts some excellent bands from across the globe who want an excuse to see what the Marfa scene is all about.
#7 MARFA RESTAURANTS
THE PIZZA FOUNDATION – Corner of Route 67 & Route 90, 432-729-3377
MAIYA’S – 103 North Highland Street, 432-729-4410
#8 MUSEUM OF THE BIG BEND, SUL ROSS STATE UNIVERSITY, ALPINE
400 N. Harrison Street, 432-837-8730
Alpine is a great place to live (I did for four years). The Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross State University gives you a quick primer on the history of the Big Bend with modern, interactive exhibits. My favorite is the huge Quetzalcoatlus dinosaur hanging from the ceiling. After a long car ride, let your kids loose to run through the museum answering the questions on the scavenger hunt questionnaire, and then collect their prize in the gift shop.
#9 HANCOCK HILL, ALPINE
After your visit to the Museum of the Big Bend, ask for directions to the hike up Hancock Hill just behind the university (near the Physical Plant). Climb through a barbed-wire fence to ascend an unmarked short trail that leads to great views over Alpine and the surrounding mountains. Once you have summited, if you continue on the hike along the ridge, you will find the mysterious desk on Hancock Hill, which presumably some former professor at Sul Ross had his students drag up the trail so he could enjoy the views while grading papers.
#10 CHINATI HOT SPRINGS
South of Marfa, toward the national park, Chinati Hot Springs is a fun place to enjoy the beauty of the Chihuahuan desert in a very rustic and remote setting. You can camp or stay the night in one of their cabins and enjoy the natural hot spring-fed pools. There is a community kitchen for food preparation, or you can cook out with a campfire or grill. Disclaimer: you should be prepared for the possibility of unexpected nudist sightings!
#11 BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK
Sauceda Headquarters, 1900 Sauceda Ranch Road, Presidio, 432-358-4444
Big Bend Ranch State Park is located northwest of the national park, and is one of my favorite places to camp when I want to truly get away from it all. There will be no cell phone or email coverage. Period. There are great hikes, horseback riding, mountain bike trails, and petroglyphs. You may not see anyone else during your entire visit, but there are cattle and donkeys that still roam this former ranch. In addition to camping (with campfires allowed, conditions permitting, unlike the national park), there are rooms available in an old hacienda that belonged to the family that ran the ranch. Note that you have to travel about 40 minutes on a rocky gravel road to get there, so drive a vehicle that can go off-road, or a rental car.
#12 DESERT SPORTS, TERLINGUA
22937 FM 170, 432-371-2727
Desert Sports is a good place for canoe rentals. The shop offers rafting and mountain biking equipment. Knowledgeable guides can provide helpful information for any active adventure.