From telescopes to spring-fed scuba pools, West Texas offers visitors more than the casual visit to Marfa and Big Bend.
By Nicholas Barancyk, Photos courtesy of The Gage Hotel
It takes a moment to adjust. Crumbled bluffs, scrub-covered pastures and great rifts cover the earth like leftover excavations in a sandbox. It’s a blasted land, a land of John Wayne and Cormac McCarthy, of tumbleweeds and night as black as space. In far West Texas, life turns like the stars overhead: slow, hypnotic and persevering.
Marathon, Texas, acts as the proxy gateway to the far West. It’s strategically located an hour’s drive north of Big Bend’s headquarters, making the town a natural hub in the raw beauty this area has to offer. A sleepy hamlet on Route 90, Marathon has surprisingly refined amenities for the weekend warrior. From craft cocktails, botanical gardens and even a soon-to-open microbrewery, Marathon is on its way to becoming an artisanal oasis.
Behind almost all these establishments is the historic Gage Hotel. A beautifully preserved piece of history, the hotel has been a touchstone for the town since the late 1920s. The Gage has a wealth of room options available, from cozy casitas to an exquisitely restored five-bedroom manor for group retreats. All rooms feature authentic antiques meticulously restored to invoke the rich history of the West.
Out and About
After a good night’s rest from the drive in, pack a sweater (You’ll need it later.) and start your day at the V6 Coffee Bar with a specialty latte and a healthy treat from the breakfast menu. The quinoa burrito is especially tasty. As you make your way west to Fort Davis, Texas, keep an eye out for the Chihuahuan Desert Botanical Garden. The greenhouse holds more than 100 species of cacti, and the trails behind the center building are some of the nicest outside of Big Bend. Trek to the top by the geology exhibit for a brief lesson about mountain formation and sweeping views of the surrounding area.
When you roll into town, grab a burger at the kitschy Fort Davis Drug Store & Hotel, which features handmade shakes and malts. Now that you’re refueled, check out some handmade wares from BeaTea.K, or treat your inner cowgirl at the Limpia Creek Hat Co. Be sure to check store hours in advance, as many businesses in town hold nontraditional operation times.
Infinity and Beyond
There’s only one thing to do when night falls in Fort Davis. The McDonald Observatory telescopes poke their heads from Mount Locke like buds on a rocky cactus. Before heading up, catch an early dinner at the Blue Mountain Bistro for Spanish- and French-inspired cuisine. The road up is a sidewinder cutting through two canyon walls for 20 minutes. Be cautious of the deer and javelinas that tend to lope across the road at night.
It’s time for the main event. Now is a great time to put that sweater on. Each Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, the observatory hosts its star parties. Sit back and be astounded as hundreds of stars appear by the second. While stargazing, a professional astronomer points you through a tour of the constellations, outlines the subtle glow of the Milky Way and even highlights the stellar plane on which all our solar system’s planets rotate. After the tour, you are invited for special showings through some of the observatory’s telescopes. The visible celestial bodies are dependent on the time of year, which means you get a new show every time.
Spend the next few days traveling to destinations farther out. Grab a sandwich to go from Fort Davis’ organic grocer, Stone Village Market, and head north to Balmorhea State Park. The park is home to an enormous 15-million-gallon, spring-fed swimming pool that is 25 feet deep in some spots. If you’re lucky, you may see some scuba divers who are known to frequent the oasis.
If the weather is less bucolic, check out the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine, Texas, peruse the curated galleries of Marfa, Texas, or take the day off. The couches in the living room beckon for a fireside novel, and that seaweed body wrap at the spa is only a block away. But if you’re feeling antsy, hit the road for one of the scenic loops. So much of the beauty of this area lies in the phenomenal drives that crisscross the desert.
Did we mention Big Bend, the 800,000-acre national park just an hour south? The amount of hiking, biking and camping accessible in this place is grounds for a whole other article. For now, it’s enough to say the park is a must-visit for any nature enthusiast.
It’s time to pack up and head home. Leaving town, there may be a few tumbleweeds or javelinas trailing along. It’s these final images that tend to stick, acting like a coat of arms for far West Texas. Long after leaving, it’s hard to forget the crystal night and agave blooms slowly rocking in the wind.