1. The Itch
Road trips are underrated in my opinion and traveling in general doesn’t necessarily have to be in far away, exotic places. Texas is the second largest state in the United States and has many (often overlooked) destinations that are within driving distance. After some deliberation with a few friends, we ended up picking Marfa for our annual road trip. There was certainly a buzz about this artsy town and one of the road trippers raved about her visit last year and couldn’t wait to go back. It was a weekend in late April, we packed up my car and headed west from Austin. Watch out hipsters, we’re coming for you.
2. The Journey
Austin to Marfa is approximately 430 miles and you can make it there in about 7 hours if you go non-stop. But wait, what’s the fun in that? The beauty of driving from Austin is passing through the charming little town of Fredericksburg (approximately 80 miles away) renowned for it’s German homages. We took a pit stop to enjoy some lunch at Wheeler’s, took a quick walk around the main drag and we were back on the road.
Much of the scenery after that were wide open spaces with bright blue skies and hills that littered the roadside. I was behind the wheel and thoroughly enjoyed turning on my cruise control and taking in the sights as they whizzed by. After 8 hours on the road and few stops for supplies (we totally didn’t buy boxed wine), we saw the “Welcome To Marfa” sign.
Confession time, our top choice for accommodations was a charming tent at El Cosmico (map it). Lots of other people had the same idea as we did causing it to be completely booked up the weekend that we went. Fortunately for us, the centrally located Thunder Bird (map it) wasn’t fully booked and we managed to snag a Queen + Day Bed room for $190/night for the 2 nights we were there.
Minimalism was the name of the game here with all the rooms facing the pool/courtyard. The wire chairs and off-white paint didn’t scream exuberance but you know what, it worked pretty well. We walked into our room and quite enjoyed the setup. The day bed was a comfortable mattress that was set atop a wooden siding and the queen bed was certainly one we couldn’t wait to lay our heads on. The bathroom was spacious with a stand up shower and luxe Malin + Goetz bath and hair products for us to use. The things we didn’t like was the heavy sliding bathroom door that was a little awkward to use and the lack of a heater with the nights hovering in the 40s and 50s. At $190 (before tax) a night, it is a little pricey but splitting it with a few friends does make it more economical.
The pool was also uncomplicated and provided plenty of chairs to catch some rays before you jump into a what felt like a sub zero pool. When I was checking out, I caught wind of a cocktail hour that happens at the pool on certain days of the week which would have been nice to partake in.
Would I stay here again? Yes, only if I can split it with a few people.
Did I just turn a noun into a verb? You bet I did.
Marfa Lights (map it)
A few miles after whizzing by the “Welcome to Marfa” sign was the Marfa Lights viewing platform. It is here where onlookers have sworn to have seen bizarre light formations that were ghosts or UFOs. In the dead of night, we made our way here. It was pitch black and a bitter wind bit at us the entire time we were there. We looked into the distance along with countless others and spent more time keeping warm than anything else. More time passed, more darkness and nothingness. I guess no aliens for us that night. Thank goodness this was free.
San Solomon Springs at Balmorhea State Park (map it)
The San Solomon Springs, 50 miles out of Marfa in the Balmorhea State Park, is an artesian spring boasting a depth of 25 feet attracting many swimmers and divers. We arrived early at 10am as they institute a “one in one out” rule when the springs reaches capacity. Entrance was priced at $7 per person and the afternoon never seemed overcrowded. During our supplies stop on the way to Marfa, we picked up snorkels specifically for the springs but I saw more divers through my googles than marine life unfortunately. The water was freezing and the best part of our visit was replenishing our vitamin D banks laying out in the sun. Finally, I didn’t see any places that sold food or other sundries nearby so make sure you come prepared for the day.
Davis Mountains State Park (map it)
On our way back to Marfa from the San Solomon Springs, our group was set on going on a hike. A quick google of the area brought us to Davis Mountains State Park and we were allowed to enter for free because of a community chilli cook off that particular day. Another confession time, we drove all the way up to a scenic viewpoint and this was more of a stroll than a hike. The view from up top was spectacular! Lots of rolling hills, the camp grounds below and several observatories filled everything around us. According to their website, entrance is $6 per person for the day.
McDonald Observatory (map it)
It was time to get our party on, more specifically star partying! The McDonald Observatory was established in 1933 and named after an endowment from Texas Banker William Johnson McDonald. If you ever find yourself here, you are technically on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin as the facility is part of the Department of Astronomy. The Star Party program costs $15 per person and consisted of an educational portion of star gazing best practices and a walk through of the stars and constellations of the night. Following that, party goers would hop from telescope to telescope to view planets, stars or star clusters. I can’t recommend this enough and I learned a lot about Jupiter, the Moon, Venus and even the fact that there is a galaxy far, far away called “Sombrero”!
Chinati Foundation (map it)
Marfa being an artsy town, we felt we had to see a gallery before we hit the road back to Austin. One of the more popular galleries is the Chinati foundation established by American artist Donald Judd who was well known for his exploration into minimalism. The compound was a massive 340 acre lot that housed huge buildings along with several, what looked like, housing units. Since we didn’t really have time for a full tour, we chose to do a self guided tour (FREE) of “Donald Judd’s untitled 15 works of concrete”. The title of the work is exactly what I saw and I had more meh feelings than anything else.
With our trip being so short, we really only had 3 good opportunities for a sit down meal. We spent two of those meals at Jett’s Grill at the iconic Hotel Pasaino (map it) and Buns N Roses (catchy, right?) (map it).
Jett’s offered great Americana fare in a casual, intimate atmosphere with everything from a simply delicious Seafood Pasta to absurdly large burger. If at all possible, try and get a table at the patio by the fountain (first come, first serve) for an even better experience.
We fiended for brunch and Yelp came through for us by suggesting Buns N Roses. This restaurant is just off the main drag of Marfa and was located in a compound that also housed several other businesses. Along with being an eatery they were also a florist, hence the name, and we enjoyed their old fashioned breakfast items such as waffles and omelettes.
6. For Next Time
If I do make it back to Marfa I’d like to do experience the following:
- Prada Marfa (map it): Yet another permanent art installation about 30 miles from Marfa. I had two people that asked me if I went and I guess I can’t miss it next time.
- Presidio County Courthouse (map it): I saw this beautiful building when I dined at Jett’s Grill and would love to see the exquisite architecture up close.
- Museum of Electronic Wonders & Latenight Grilled Cheese Parlour (map it): With a name like that, why wouldn’t you stop in?
7. Tips & Tricks
- The nights get really cold! On the two nights we stayed there, the temperature dropped to the 40-50 degree range. Don’t forget to bring warm clothes!
- When headed out to San Solomon Springs, stock up for supplies at Porters (map it) or Stripes (map it). Don’t forget the sun screen and blankets.
- Alcohol is not permitted at the San Solomon Springs, however, be discrete and you’ll be fine.
- San Solomon Springs gets busy in the summer time and enforces a “one in, one out” policy so make sure you get there early!
- Don’t forget to pull over for a fun photo op when on the highway.
- If you’re staying at the Thunder Bird, ask them about their extras. Things like a mini-fridge is extra and will need 24 hours notice.
- There is a cafe at McDonald Observatory if you need a snack or beverage but they are not against you bringing your own. Again, be discrete about this because they count on gift shop and cafe sales to fund the center.
8. TL, DR
Marfa is a unique, laid back place with not a whole lot to do in the town proper. Head out an hour towards Fort Davis and enjoy the San Solomon Springs and McDonald Observatory, dine at Jett’s Grill and you’ll have yourself a nice weekend.