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Skip Town to West Texas

Updated: Sep 5, 2018

By Shelby

As much as I love Austin, sometimes you’ve just got to skip town for a few days. And when you’re low on funds, that usually means two words: road trip! I’ve done most of the usual weekend trips within driving distance of Austin, so this time, I picked a destination a bit further afield and headed out to West Texas to explore Alpine, Marfa, Fort Davis and Big Bend National Park. I’ve lived in Texas all my life, but it always amazes me that you can drive seven hours west and still not cross the state line.

On the way out of the Hill Country, we stopped in Fredericksburg at Rather Sweet Bakery & Cafe, which completely lived up to its name. Dessert is a must there, and I recommend getting extra sweets for the road. About an hour past Fredericksburg, Hwy. 290 merges with I-10, on which we settled in for the next 300 miles. The scenery doesn’t change much, so the drive can be a bit monotonous, but at least the speed limit increases to 80 mph. We made it to Alpine, where I had booked two nights at the historic Holland Hotel (top right), by dinnertime. When we pulled into town, we both kept commenting on the smallness of it. Little did we know, that Marfa and Fort Davis are even smaller. This is Alpine (middle top).

For $90 a night including a continental breakfast, the Holland Hotel is a steal. Originally built in 1912, the entire hotel has recently been renovated, including all new linens and fixtures, and it is way more posh than the price tag suggests. We even liked the iPod dock alarm clock so much that we went out and bought one when we got home.

For an area that’s so remote, all of the food we ate in West Texas was surprisingly fresh. Our first night in Alpine, we chowed down on baked buffalo wings and homemade veggie burgers at The Gulf Station Cafe, housed in an old gas station just across the road from the hotel.

After dark, we decided to drive the 20 miles on Hwy. 90 to the special viewing area to check out the famous Marfa lights. I think I was expecting something more like the photos of the Northern Lights that I’ve seen, but instead, I saw just two red specs in the distance. My husband and I couldn’t agree on whether or not those were the “actual” Marfa lights or just something else, so when we got back to the hotel we looked it up online and found out that those were, in fact, lights. Which is kind of disappointing. Here is the photo we got of them (left middle).

Sadly, they didn’t look any more impressive in person. See that big red light on the right? That’s not a Marfa light. It’s a regular light. Those two specs to the left are the Marfa lights.

The next day we headed into the town of Marfa to check it out. We split a yummy organic chicken salad sandwich at Marfa Table on the town square, slipped in to see Andy Warhol’s The Last Supper series in the Ayn Foundation gallery, noshed on a cookie from the Food Shark trailer (apparently Austin isn’t the only Texas town on the trailer food bandwagon) and commented on the abundance of hipster tourists that made Marfa a sharp contrast to Alpine.

By the afternoon, we were ready for more exploring so we made the 20-mile drive to Fort Davis. Alpine, Marfa and Fort Davis form a triangle in this part of the state, and the drive between the three towns is beautiful during the day and pitch dark at night. We found ourselves with some time to kill in Fort Davis so we decided to check out the Fort Davis National Historic Site, a military outpost for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Here is the officers housing (middle).

There’s nothing like thinking back to 150 years ago to make you realize how easy we have it today. The desert always presents some inconveniences (there’s no Taco Cabana, for starters), but in the mid-1800s, it must have been hell. Which was brought to life by creepy mannequins in exhibits like the one above.

We walked around the barracks, did a little hiking and then headed back into town for some family-style comfort food and buttermilk pie (I swear this sounds like all we did on this trip was eat!) at the historic Hotel Limpia Dining Room.

After that, it was finally time for what I was most looking forward to about the trip—the star party at the McDonald Observatory! The McDonald Observatory is a University of Texas astronomy research facility home to some amazingly powerful telescopes that kind of look like EPCOT from the outside (bottom left).

Visitors are welcome during the day to tour the exhibits and even engage in some solar viewing, but on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, McDonald offers star parties, where you gather on the mountaintop and learn about the stars and constellations. The drive up to the observatory was gorgeous, but just remember that you are going up, and when you get up to the top of that mountain at night, it is going to be COLD. Like really, really cold. So dress appropriately. We are kind of silly and didn’t think about that, so we ended up shivering through the entire star party program, but it was still spine-tinglingly amazing.

When you’ve lived in a city all your life, it’s amazing to see just how bright the stars are, and the overwhelming sheer number of them, you can see in the middle of nowhere. It’s breathtaking. With this awesome super-powered laser pointer, the guide pointed out all the major stars and constellations overhead, not to mention planets Venus, Mercury, Mars and Saturn. As we learned their names, I was surprised how many stars and constellations have graciously lent their names to Harry Potter characters (Hello, Bellatrix, Sirius, Regulus and Draco!), and just in case that statement doesn’t prove just how big a nerd I am, I also couldn’t help wishing I’d catch a glimpse of a blue police box flying somewhere among the stars. Next we got to queue up to take a close-up look at Saturn, Orion’s belt and a nebula through high-powered telescopes. After that experience, I don’t think I’ll ever look at the night sky the same way.

The next morning, we left Alpine behind for the beauty of Big Bend National Park. Now, for the record, my husband and I aren’t nature people. We are very big fans of television and air-conditioning. So when we checked into our motel-style room at the Chisos Mountain Lodge and saw that there wasn’t a TV, my husband said that we could still make it back to Austin in time to catch a late showing at the Alamo Drafthouse. And I’m not 100% sure he was joking. But nonetheless, we decided to embrace nature and attempt our very first real hike in a national park. (Did I mention that we are city mice?) The mountain vistas, both from the porch outside our room and on the hike, were incredible. I could hardly believe I was in the same state that is also home to the flatness that is Dallas. Here are photos of the Chisos Lodge from above and looking directly at our room (bottom right two photos).

Honestly though, I probably didn’t get as much out of the hike as I should have because the ubiquitous “Beware Mountain Lions” signs everywhere had my eyes trained more for something moving in the brush than for the general loveliness of the terrain. Oh well. That evening, we watched the sunset between the mountains on the Window View Trail, and then after we pointed out all the constellations we’d learned the night before, we sat on the front porch outside our room drinking beer, cooking s’mores using the small camp stove and supplies we bought at the camp store and, because we are silly, on my laptop watching the DVD of The Lost Boys we’d borrowed from the front desk.

When I woke up the next morning, I sat on the front porch reading, munching on leftover graham crackers and admiring how pretty it all really was. Then we buckled in for the long eight-hour haul back to Austin and arrived home just in time to catch a show at the Alamo Drafthouse.

I’m sure I’ll probably be getting the itch to skip town again sometime soon. Any good ideas for weekend road trips, readers?

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