West Texas: Big Bend / Marfa

I’ve never heard much about West Texas. I’ve heard great many things about Yosemite, paintings of Yellowstone, vivid pictures of the slot canyons in Utah, symphony for the Grand Canyon, and a movie about the Pacific Crest Trail.

I’ve never really seen or know much about the Chihuahuan Desert, or about the Rio Grande valley other than the sad and often politicized news on television. But what I saw during a 4-day visit to Big Bend National Park and Marfa was a rich and colorful landscapes, unexpected sceneries, and lots of culture.

We initially planned for a 4-day camping trip at Big Bend National Park, but decided whimsically to cut the camping short and spend a night at Marfa instead. The drive from Austin to Big Bend was about 6-hours, and the drive itself was varied as we go through the hill country, buttes, and mesas.

Big Bend

Big Bend National Park is called that because of the big turn that the Rio Grande river takes through the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The river borders the park in the south for 118 miles, and also United States to Mexico. The park itself is vast with different types of landscapes and climates in the different sections.

The Chisos Mountain sits at the heart of the park like a giant citadel and has a milder cooler climate. The Rio Grande village is at the southern tip of the park sits closer to sea level and much warmer. We pitched our tent in at Rio Grande for our two nights in the park, and it’s about 20-30 minute drive to Chisos Basin.

We arrived around 3PM and after a stop at the general store in Chisos Basin and the visitor center, we took a quick 45 minute stroll of the Chisos Basin Loop. A preview of our hike the next day. Afterwards, we sat by the Window View to take in the sunset. “The Window” is the signature view of the park, a V-shaped opening in the mountains that peeks into the vast desert west of the range. If you wanted to, you can do a 5 mile roundtrip hike to the edge of the Window before it pour offs to the desert. But we opted to hang back and enjoy the view from afar… with a beer in hand.

The next morning we got up nice and early to start our 12-13 mile hike of the South Rim Loop. The trailhead starts at the Chisos Basin parking lot and goes up towards the mountains; per the park ranger’s advice, we chose to go up Pinnacles Trail and circle back thru Laguna Meadows. The trail climbs up about 2000 ft for the first 4-5 miles, while the rest of them was a quite relaxing flat or downhill. We ran into a lot of hiker/camper who chooses to spend a night or two at one of the campgrounds along the trail.

Much to our surprise, the mountain trail was quite lush with trees and plants. Even fall colors were on display around half-way through the loop. The recent heavy rains and cooling temperatures must’ve turned these trees red and orange.

After we reached the South Rim junction, we were greeted by a spectacular view. The cliff drops off sharply to the desert below and you get a clear unobstructed view of the southern plains towards the horizon. We stopped here for a while to have our lunch and enjoy the view. This view alone made the journey worth it.

We packed up and started our decent back to the basin briskly. The rest of the trail from here was pretty much downhill, and we wanted to get back before sundown. We reached the lodge just in time for dinner, which was a special Thanksgiving buffet: turkey with all the fixins. I guess we kinda deserve it…

After a rainy night at the campsite, we fixed breakfast and pack up our tent for an early drive to Santa Elena Canyon at the West quadrant of the park. From Rio Grande campground it’s about 35-40 mile drive that takes you past the Chisos mountain and onto Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. (Ross Maxwell was the first park superintendant who helped establish and develop much of the park).

It is really hard to not stop at almost every turnout on the drive to take pictures of the landscapes. You can see the Chisos Mountain and the Window again from the other side, and many other canyons, hills, and buttes.

Once you get further out west towards Santa Elena, you can start to see this massive wall that lines the Rio Grande river. It reminded me of “The Wall” from Game of Thrones… but if winter never came and just decided to give up on Westeros altogether. The Santa Elena Canyon trail is a short 1.8 mile roundtrip that takes you along the edge of the canyon that’s parted by the river; all the way until the trail ends at the steep canyon wall. The canyon really does act as sort of a wall, since across the river is Mexico, just feets from where we stood.

We drove back pass Ross Maxwell Drive and out of the park. Terlingua “ghost town” is only 10 minutes outside the west entrance, so we detoured there to take a looksie. What constituted the “ghost town” are the partially destroyed remains of old adobe houses and buildings that are now mixed in with residential houses, and other touristy shops. Nearby is also a preserved cemmetary that is perched on the hill, overlooking the town and mountains in the distance.

I guess this was once some kind of mining town that’s been long abandoned by time and interest. But a community still persists here. We wondered who are the people that still lives here; is it by choice or by heritage?

That question was partially answered when we ran into John Keeffe at the souvenir shop. John noticed my camera around my shoulder and asked me what kind it is… I guess that’s the one thing I liked about the retro-styled Fujis, they’re always a conversation starter. John is apparently a photographer too; and actually, he’s a top-20 finalist for Digital Photography Magazine’s Landscape Contest. (You can see his entry here). He’s hoping to win it.

John used to live in San Francisco as a manager for some bike shop in the city, before he gave it all up to live off-the-grid somewhere in the mountains out here. “Can’t get to it without a 4x4” he describes it.

The only source of power he has is a battery that he uses to power his lights and computer to connect to Facebook and post his work. He let me take his picture, just before he gave away the rattle snake skin on his hat to another traveler he met--he got a “fresher” skin that he just killed just outside his home.

We continued to drive towards Marfa, it was a couple more hours worth of drive through more scenic vistas of mesas and mountains. We hit heavy rain on the way and it pretty much rained through the next day.

There was one border patrol checkpoint that we had to go through, but we saw their cruisers on the road every now and then. And the two officers that we came across were hispanics; I wonder if it’s hard for them when they have to question and scrutinize immigrants--illegal or not--from Mexico.

Marfa is a small town that has garnered a lot of attention lately. I kept seeing articles about it on United or Southwest Airline magazines. Donald Judd, an artist  from the East Coast, had bought a few properties here a few decades ago to be used as his studios and galleries. Now, houses, bungalows, gas stations, or warehouses are all converted to art houses and galleries that shows predominantly post-modern and minimalist works. It’s becoming chic and cool now for art collectors, tourists, and hipsters to drive out here and spend the weekend touring these galleries. Pretty stark contrast to Terlingua.

We spent the night at Hotel Paisano, which was a very charming and quaint victorian hotel (dog-friendly, fyi). Had a meal at Cochineal, a chic little restaurant serving North Italian fare. Tried to go to Planet Marfa beer garden that we heard has a bar inside a teepee, but they were closed due to the rain.

The next day, we drive out to see the “Prada Store,” a permanent art exhibit of a “store” by the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere. I suppose it was intended to be an ironic statement of excessive materialism backdropped to the bare landscape… seriously, I don’t get post-modernism.

Untitled photo

Just when we thought we were done seeing things, on our way back to Austin the plains turned all white. It had gotten cold enough during the rain last night and the it iced over the shrubs and trees. The West Texas desert now look like a frozen tundra out of an Icelandic picture book.

In the past 4-days we went from a capital city to the desolate Chihuahuan Desert; saw foxes, roadrunners, a javelina, and artworks worth thousands; went from the Rio Grande low lands to the higher plains of Chisos Mountains; experienced temperatures from 70 degrees down to 34; sunny days, to rain, to iced out fields; stayed in a tent and a plush Victorian hotel where James Deen had filmed a movie; ate out of a can to a nice meal and craft cocktails. All this in West Texas, just across the river from Mexico.


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