Where arid, desert scrub and meandering tumbleweeds give way to vibrant, red rock mountains bellow that quintessential big Texas sky, you’ll find one of the largest national parks in the US. Named for the picturesque, bend of the Rio Grande that separates Texas from Mexico, Big Bend National Park is home to the largest protected swath of the Chihuahuan Desert. The stunning vista of dramatic topography is surrounded by a handful of wholly unique, small towns that are well worth a visit in their own right – Marfa, Marathon and Terlingua – and is the locale for Destination Regency’s guaranteed-to-delight RV trip guide.
The first stop on the journey…Marfa, Texas, otherwise known as the gateway to Big Bend. Marfa is, well, it’s truly like no other place on earth. Although the population rings in just under 2,000 people, each resident has near enough personality and creative energy to eclipse the art scene of New York City. In 1971, minimalist artist, Donald Judd, left NYC and lit out for Marfa, Texas where he was spent the rest of his life nurturing a then non-existent art scene – and the rest is history, folks. In recent years, the culinary arts have caught up with Marfa’s reputation as an art oasis in the desert. With a focus on locally sourced produce and serious creativity from named chefs, Marfa’s food scene has definitely come into its own.
Once a mere watering stop on the railroad line, Marfa truly picked up steam in 1971 when New York, minimalist artist, Donald Judd, lit out for the desert. Today, Marfa is home to a serious art and culinary scene, but it’s still maintained its inimitable small-town status. For the works that put Marfa on the map, Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation as well as the Judd Foundation will easily captivate for an entire day, but Marfa still has plenty of inspiration on offer. If galleries are truly your thing, check out the comprehensive Marfa Gallery Guide as you plan your trip. Ballroom Marfa is also too cool to go without a nod; always a grab bag of inspiration the artist’s retreat is housed in a former dance hall and offers art from various mediums from local to global artists alike.
It’s rare to think of shopping when visiting a town of less than 2,000, but Marfa truly does boast some wonderful artisans of just about everything. Some of our favorites are:
Communitie (handmade hats, woven textiles, wood block printed scarves and more)
Marfa Book Company (bookstore and publisher of art, film, music and performance books)
Marfa Brand Soap (handmade soaps and all the accoutrements to elevate bath time to sheer nirvana)
Mirth (unique home décor from around the world and Marfa as well)
Raba Marfa (this vintage treasure trove features handpicked items with an inimitable Marfan twist)
The Choss Shop (for all your hiking and camping gear needs)
Wrong Store (a little bit of everything that you never knew you needed)
Food and Libations:
Marfa has become something of a microcosm in the locavore food movement. Many of the restaurants about town utilize produce out of their own onsite garden. Outside these gardens, chefs look to local farmers and ranchers for their ingredients. And although there’s cuisine from around the globe to be found, it’s styled with West Texas flare utilizing local, seasonal ingredients. In short, it’s a foodie town with character and a lack of pretension. Here are a handful of our favorites:
Cochineal, sourced from their own garden and from the local bounty, this upscale joint offers culinary explosions you will not find anywhere else…Texas Antelope Carapaccio Tonnato and Castiron Roast Pheasant? Yes, please!
Food Shark is Marfa-inspired Mediterranean fare served out of a vintage food truck that’s become something of an institution. For a fan favorite, try their Marfalafel – falafels wrapped in handmade tortillas.
Al Campo Wine Garden enchants on its rustic outdoor patio where a well-curated wine list pairs beautifully with South American-inspired eats.
Marpho is a West Texas/Vietnamese mashup that over delivers. For a sandwich that will change your life, try their local beef brisket Banh Mi tucked between in-house baked rolls!
Frama whips up solid coffee and ice cream within the walls of a working laundromat – only in Marfa.
Lost Horse Saloon, “the most tenured watering hole in Marfa,” is the perfect spot when you’re craving a cold beer after a day in the hot desert sun.
Last, but definitely not least…Jett’s Grill is housed in the historic Hotel Paisano where they offer inspired late lunch and dinner. Standouts include Texas Poutine, a West Texas twist on the Quebecois classic complete with Green Chile Fries, as well as their Pistachio Fried Steak with Jalapeno Gravy. Just thinking of these two menu items makes me want to take the trip all over again. Jett’s Grill isn’t the only draw to the Hotel Paisano. The beautifully renovated old dame remains the beating heart of Marfa. If the walls of this place could talk…it once served as the hub and hotel for the Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean (hence the name Jett) during the filming of the Texas-sized classic, Giant.
Long before Marfa became adored for its quirky, authentic, cultural-hub-in-the-desert charm, it was known for the Marfa Lights. Although much speculation has been made as to the cause of the whimsical, ever-changing lights in the nighttime sky, it’s a phenomenon that will enchant even those familiar with the aurora borealis from up north. This August 31 – September 2 will mark the 32ndyear of the annual Marfa Lights Festival and will kick off at the Presidio County Courthouse, if you’re interested. The area does festivals up in style. Another to watch out for is the Viva Big Bend music festival, which rocks out July 25-28.
While in Marfa, hook up and stay a while at Tumble in Marfa RV Park where rates range from $27 – 32 a day and provide 50/30/20 amps as well as water and waste.
Just an hour down the road is the charming, West Texas town of Marathon. The biggest draw in Marathon is probably the Spanish Mission-styled Gage Hotel. The stunning and authentically renovated beauty is also home to a surprisingly lush 26-acre garden and a renowned restaurant. I’d love it on these merits alone, but it’s also personally dear to my heart because one of my best friends is actually the great-granddaughter to the original owner and pioneer rancher, Alfred Gage, who passed away soon after the Gage Hotel opened its doors. Her son, is aptly named, Alfie. If you’re looking to park the RV and spend a night in a luxe room, this is the place to do it! The hotel’s 12 Gage Restaurant features seasonal and local produce prepared in a Texas style with a down-home yet gourmet twist. The veggies are even grown in the Gage Garden. The cowboy chic dining room gives way to an outdoor dining patio complete with fireplaces, fountains and a view that won’t quit.
Other eateries to check out are:
Marathon Coffee Shop serves excellent coffee as well as a lauded Mexican breakfast menu.
Johnny B’s Soda Shop is also a source of Mexican-infused manna for breakfast or a deliciously creative burger and shake for lunch.
Marathon, although smaller and under-hyped when compared to Marfa, also has a legitimate art scene including the gallery of celebrated photographer James H. Evans. If you’re looking to stock up on some healthy grub for your trip into Big Bend, the French Company Grocer and Deli is quite a treat. Featuring locally sourced produce with ample organic options, this little gem is high on my list.
If you’re looking to hookup for a night or two, the Marathon Motel RV Park is definitely an unusual treat and is just a quick walk into town and dinner at the Gage Hotel. Once a popular motel court, this little treasure was nearly condemned until it was saved and renovated a few decades back. Something of a labor of love, the owner has developed the lush courtyard and often hosts stargazing parties with his telescope for guests. The RV park has 19 full hookups for water, 30/50 amp electric and sewer as well as restrooms/showers and picnic tables between the gravel sites. I recommend requesting the outer ring/higher amp sites for better views of the mountains and more privacy.
BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK:
From Marathon, the entrance to Big Bend is a mere 42 minutes away, but the park is quite vast and can take a bit of planning. Chisos Mountain Lodge, another 45 minutes away, is a great resource for food, supplies, information and can also boast the only lodging aside from RV and campsites within the park. About ten minutes away, Panther Junction serves as a full-service gas station and is home to the most comprehensive visitors’ center, complete with hiking maps, exhibits, info on ranger stations, a bookstore and bucket list brochures for your time at Big Bend. From there, we recommend Rio Grande Village RV Park, which is the onl site equipped with full hook-ups for electricity, water and sewage in the park. Rio Grande Village offers bathrooms, laundry facilities and a small store for supplies. Another resource for more remote RV campsites can be found on the National Park Services website.
Big Bend offers countless hikes to take your breath away, horseback riding, river trips, stargazing and endless birdwatching. For a comprehensive guide to this vast desert paradise, the National Park Services website for Big Bend is invaluable. Some of our favorite hikes are: Chisos Basin Loop Trail (at 1.8 miles, this moderate is ideal for anyone wanting to glimpse wildlife and experience the beautiful flora and fauna of big bend), the Santa Elena Canyon Trail (this 1.7-mile hike is moderate in intensity, but may be the most visually stunning trek of all), Hot Springs Historic Trail (an easy, 1-mile hike, this trail takes you through a homestead, ruins of a resort, pictographs and ends at the ever-popular hot springs) and the South Rim (at 12+ miles, this strenuous jaunt is a bucket list trek for avid and adventurous hikers). Another fun spot to check out is the new Fossil Discovery Exhibit that features dinosaur fossils found in Big Bend; better yet, it’s free with your admission to the park and is well worth your time.
Just about 15 minutes outside the western side of Big Bend is the vivacious, increasingly hip border town of Terlingua. The near ghost town was founded in the 1800’s when mercury was first discovered in the area. The mercury market thrived through World War I, as it was then used for explosives, then the Depression and lack of demand led the Chisos Mining Company to close in the 1940’s. But today, Terlingua is experiencing quite an interesting comeback. Although the local population boasts a mere 58 people, the Starlight Theater, a former movie palace turned local restaurant known for its chili, will often host Parisian socialites and Hollywood film crews rubbing shoulders with the locals. It’s just that cool.
For dining, the Starlight Theater, as I’ve mentioned, is a must, but La Posada Milagro’s Espresso y Poco Mas is an equally worthy contender. Serving coffee from the local Big Bend Roasters along with French pastries, fabulous roast chicken and whatever the season has on offer, this little spot is just darling and boasts service as good as the food. On the way out of town are also a row of food trucks that are incredibly popular. We hit up the BBQ truck and were not disappointed – and we’re Texans. The local general store is another cool spot in town. Locally crafted wares like Cactus Mary’s now-famous soap is just one of the things you probably can’t leave city limits without.
Another wholly unique Terlinguan treat is “The Porch.” Just ask for it. Right around beer-thirty, people start to gather for an impromptu jam session. People play music, drink beer and get to know one another. It’s not planned; it’s simply Terlingua.
If you plan to stay a night in Terlingua, BJ RV Park offers 12 large pull-through sites as well as 17 back-in sites with 50/20 amp, water and sewage as well as showers, a community kitchen and a pavilion with a firepit, smoker/grill and picnic tables.
We hope you enjoy your stay in West Texas and be sure to let us know about your favorite spots along the trail. We’ll see you again here at Destination Regency. Happy Travels!