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West Texas is about as desolate as any place in the United States can get. You can drive for hours and still not reach any sizeable city. But a West Texas road trip can also be an intriguing and unique experience. You’ll see the terrain turn from barren deserts to lovely mountains (yes, West Texas has mountains) and then back again. You’ll drive through the tiniest of towns and wonder what people who live there actually do. And while it may sound like there isn’t much worth driving hours for, there are actually a lot of interesting things to do on a West Texas road trip.
Tips for planning the perfect West Texas road trip
I grew up in West Texas and took for granted the uniqueness of this region. It truly is one of the best places in Texas to visit. West Texas is not only desolate, it’s BIG. So appreciate the wide openness and enjoy getting away from the busyness of life. You are truly venturing where the WiFi is weak (or non-existent) and where you will feel very off the grid.
Fill up your gas tank every chance you get
Because of the desolation of the region make sure you have enough gas in your car’s fuel tank. In this area of the world, I don’t like to let the meter get below a quarter of a tank. It may be awhile before you see another gas station.
Spend a night in one of the larger West Texas cities, like El Paso or Midland
Depending on where you are coming from and how you are getting to West Texas, the closest airports are in Midland-Odessa or El Paso. If flying into Midland-Odessa, it may be worth spending a day exploring, as there are several fun things to do in Midland, as well.
Expect moments with no phone service
Also, have plenty of music or audio books downloaded because your radio won’t work out here, unless you have satellite radio. In fact, there will be numerous long stretches of road where you will have no phone service, no radio, and no other cars in sight. Despite the lack of phone service or even radio, a West Texas road trip is undoubtedly one of the most memorable and fun Texas road trips.
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Things to do on a West Texas road trip
On any West Texas road trip there are a few things everyone must do and see. Here are our top 12 things to do in West Texas.
Hike in Big Bend National Park
Big Bend National Park may be one of the lesser visited national parks in the United States. Simply because of its remote location along the West Texas-Mexico border, you won’t find a ton of tourists in the park. But Big Bend is beautiful. It rivals many of the popular national parks in northern Arizona and southern Utah. Although it can often feel as hot as the surface of the sun in Big Bend, it is a wonderful place to hike, tune in with nature, and search for native wildlife. One of the more popular hikes takes you through Saint Elena Canyon cliffs that tower 1,500 feet above you. Plan to camp out at least one night if you want to do this stunning hike.
Cross the Mexican border in a row boat to visit a rural village
While you’re in Big Bend National Park why not cross the Rio Grande River and venture into Mexico for lunch? Doing so will require a short ride on row boat and a mile-long journey on a donkey to get to the rural village of Boquillas del Carmen. This is one of the most unique travel experiences we’ve ever had, and the Mexican food was definitely worth the trip! Don’t forget to bring your passport! Although the Boquillas Crossing isn’t your typical border crossing, it is still a legal one, and the same rules apply.
Visit a ghost town
Just outside of Big Bend National Park, you’ll find an abandoned mining town that went bust. Terlingua is now a ghost towns with decaying buildings, old mining shafts, and a cemetery that has a creepy, haunted feeling. There are still a few dozen residents who live in Terlingua. They basically cater to the tourists who stop through on their way to or from Big Bend. So you’ll find some restaurants, a trading post, and even a hotel. Just don’t expect to find any chains like McDonald’s or Holiday Inn in Terlingua.
Visit an old military post in Fort Davis
Fort Davis is an interesting look at military life in the Southwest back in the 1800s. This well-preserved military post serves as a reminder of the significant role the military troops served in the Anglo settlement of the western frontier. The military’s primary purpose at Fort Davis was to defend the region from Indians and Mexican soldiers wanting to seize the area. At Fort Davis, you can take a self-guided tour of the five restored buildings and explore the ruins of about 100 more.
Explore and experience the quirkiness of Marfa, Texas
Marfa, Texas has become somewhat of a hub for quirky artistry. Unlike many other small towns in America that remain virtually unknown, this tiny town has risen to fame over the past few years. Marfa has attracted celebrities like Beyonce and Matthew Mcconaughey who have come to see what this West Texas gem is all about. Known for its outdoor, minimalist art installations, visitors to Marfa should check out the Chinati Foundation, enjoy a meal at Food Shark, a converted school bus-turned-food truck, and then enjoy some live music and refreshing drinks in the beer garden at Planet Marfa.
Watch mystery ‘ghost lights’ dance across the horizon
About 10 miles outside the town of Marfa, Texas you’ll find a small observatory overlooking… well, nothing. Empty deserts surround the building. But at night, people will gather on the back observation deck of the building in hopes of catching a glimpse of an unexplained phenomenon – the Marfa lights. Ask anyone who grew up in West Texas about Marfa and they will tell you about the ‘Marfa lights’. After nightfall, strange glowing orbs appear off in the distance. The lights move around, even dance a little. To my knowledge and in all my research, I’ve yet to find a true scientific explanation for the lights. While there are plenty of speculations, everything from UFOs to natural gas clouds, no one really knows why these ghost lights appear.
Swim in the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool
The small town of Balmorhea, Texas is home to the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. The Balmorhea State Park is the perfect place to cool off on a hot West Texas day. The pool is home to various types of fish and has a constant flow of natural spring water feeding into it. In fact, more than 15 million gallons of water flow through the pool each day. The water is crystal clear and cold. Reaching depths of 25 feet, it’s also a popular place for scuba diving in West Texas. Be sure to pack your snorkel gear, and swim among the fish!
Climb the tallest peak in Texas
West Texas not only has mountains, it is home to the highest mountain in the state. The summit of Guadalupe Peak is 8,751 feet above sea level. It’s a challenging hike mainly because of the hot, arid desert climate, but a rewarding one. Located in Guadalupe National Park, if you plan to hike Guadalupe Peak, make sure you bring plenty of water. You will go through water much faster than you expect because of the extreme heat and dry climate.
If visiting both Big Bend and Guadalupe National Parks, you may want to buy a national park pass, as well, which will cover admission into both national parks.
Sleep in a teepee
If the idea of sleeping in a teepee, yurt, or a vintage trailer sounds like your kind of lodging, then you’ll love El Cosmico in Marfa. It’s glamping meets hippie commune. While you’ll have to share a communal bathroom with other teepee dwellers, the accommodations are far from basic. With Bohemian decor, electricity, and brick floors, you won’t feel like you’re roughing it in the desert here. Terlingua also has unique teepee accommodations.
Take a picture in the middle of nowhere
Far West Texas is the perfect place to unleash your inner “Instagram model” and take the cliche middle of the road photo. After driving for miles, and miles, and miles without seeing a single other car on the road, we decided to pull over for an impromptu photo shoot. Nothing defines West Texas more in my opinion than a sleepy road without any traffic for as far as the eye can see and huge blue skies above. I have been gone from West Texas for half my life, but this view always makes me feel ‘home’ again.
Do a little window shopping at the Prada store outside of Marfa
While you’re still in “Instagram model” mode, head 30 minutes west of Marfa to the town of Valentine. You won’t find much there except a tiny replica of a Prada store front. Yes, in the middle of the far West Texas desert, car after car pull over on the side of the road and strike their best pose. The store front is just another quirky art installation in this part of Texas, made famous by celebrities and fashion influencers set on capturing the perfect photo. So go ahead, #doitforthegram.
Watch a glorious West Texas sunset
Perhaps one of my favorite things to do on a West Texas road trip is actually one of the simplest. At sunset, stop and appreciate the the beauty. Sunsets in West Texas are truly special. It’s like God turns the West Texas sky into a brilliant canvas of orange, pink, purple, and blue. Photos never do it justice, but when the sun starts to set in West Texas, stop what you are doing and appreciate the moment.
Why you should take a West Texas road trip
Texas has so many micro-cultures. From the metropolitan vibes of Dallas and the cowboy culture of Fort Worth, to the hipster atmosphere of Austin and the Latin influence in San Antonio, Texas is as diverse as it is large. But to truly understand the entire state, you can’t skip the vast and often excluded area of West Texas. It has a unique culture in itself, one that truly has to be experienced to appreciate it.
Have you been a West Texas road trip? We’d love to hear about your experience. Leave your comments below.
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This West Texas road trip post was originally published in June 2018. It has been updated for accuracy and current information.