Big Spring, Texas, blends its small-town roots with modern charm.
Story and photos by Hannah J. Phillips
Few small towns blend the varied roots of our state heritage quite so seamlessly—and surprisingly—as Big Spring, Texas. Out on the plains, the cultural remnants of Native American, Spanish, pioneer, railroad and oil histories converge at the crossroads of Highway 87 and Interstate 20. The town takes its name from a natural water source that served as a Comanche meeting place, a respite on Cabeza de Vaca’s expedition in 1535 and a campsite for the area’s first settlers. With the renovation of the historic Hotel Settles, the modern traveler still answers the call of the West. A trip to Big Spring is an invitation to step back in time, slow down and take in the view.
Leaving Austin, nothing kick-starts vacation mode faster than the 85 mph speed limit on the Highway 183 toll road, but Burnet and Llano, Texas, ease travelers into a slower weekend pace. After Brady, Texas, Hill Country roads shift to endless stretches of flat farmland on the Panhandle Plains. As red canyon rims surface outside San Angelo, Texas, the first hints of West Texas arise. Sudden summer squalls slide across the highway, evoking Comanche creation legends of an earth-formed people “with the strength of mighty storms.” Sometimes, the sinking sun creates golden sheets of rain on the rim of these dark thunderheads, as if to veil the clash of ancient spirits in clouds and lightning. The mystic scene whets the appetite for Big Spring, where Comanche lore lingers, despite the rising tide of Texas industry.
A product of the oil boom, Hotel Settles towers above the horizon downtown. Built after the Settles family discovered oil on their ranch, the 15-story hotel was the tallest building between El Paso and Forth Worth, Texas, when it opened in 1930. With wood-paneled walls, marble floors and a grand ballroom, the Settles drew visitors from throughout the country in the 1940s and ’50s, even boasting a visit from Elvis Presley for his 1955 gig at the Municipal Auditorium. The hotel fell into disrepair after the oil crash of the 1980s, but an extensive renovation from Big Spring native G. Brint Ryan restored the boutique property to its former glory in 2012.
Check in with the friendly staff and unpack before enjoying a drink at Pharmacy Bar & Parlor, named for the hotel’s original drugstore. A jalapeño margarita is both a jolt and a relaxing treat after a long drive. For dinner, snag a bite from the Settles Grill or sample the same menu from the comfort of a guest room while watching the famous West Texas sunset fade from pink to purple above the Texas and Pacific Railway tracks. If feeling adventurous, grab a nightcap at The Train Car or watch the stars come out while soaking in the hotel’s outdoor pool.
In the morning, it’s time to trace the history of the spring itself, located at Comanche Trail Park. Eight new bronze markers tell the story of the spring’s significance through the centuries, from its use as a watering hole and gathering place for indigenous tribes to visits from Spanish explorers, the arrival of the first ranchers in the area and the emergence of the railroad and oil industries in the 20th century. Standing on the edge of the pool while the stream trickles through two cracks of limestone, it’s remarkable to realize that such a small but vital water source changed the course of both state and national history.
Take in more of the outdoors at nearby Big Spring State Park, where the 2.5-mile Scenic Mountain trail provides panoramic vistas across the plains. At the ranger station, grab a self-guided-walking-tour pamphlet for a fun plant-and-wildlife scavenger hunt, and while hiking, keep an eye out for historic carvings etched in stone. The park’s pavilion and scenic drive were built in 1934 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Commissioned to employ young men looking to support their families during the Great Depression, the CCC is responsible for many of the structures in Texas state parks today.
Enjoy a picnic at the pavilion before digging into more history at the Hangar 25 Air Museum and nearby Big Spring Vietnam Memorial or head downtown to the Heritage Museum of Big Spring before relaxing back by the pool at Hotel Settles. Along with local artifacts and a gallery of Western works by artist H. Wallace Caylor, the Heritage Museum houses an impressive collection of longhorn horns; mementos from the first celebrity female bull rider, Patricia McCormick; and photos of prominent female homesteaders like Dora Roberts, who paved the way for local pioneers.
Regroup downtown with a stroll through the historic town center, browsing antiques and local boutiques like Famous Elle and The Wardrobe before dinner at Lumbre Bar and Grill. In the morning, snap a farewell selfie at the Big Spring mural and check out the architecture at the Municipal Auditorium before hitting the road. As the Settles slips from view, the highway unfolds across the plains back home and to our modern century.
Aside from Big Spring State Park, two other state parks are within an hour of Big Spring, Texas. To the south is San Angelo State Park. With 50 miles of multiuse trails, including one with fossilized dinosaur tracks from the Permian age (ask the park ranger for the access code), the park is also home to the Official Texas State Longhorn Herd. West of Big Spring, Monahans Sandhills State Park is an otherworldly mirage of nearly 4,000 acres of Sahara-like desert. Rent disks to ride the 50-foot dunes or just stare across the vast expanse of this geological wonder. Beyond the park, the sea of sand extends almost 200 miles north into New Mexico.