Big Bend to Marfa Roadtrip: The Ultimate West Texas Itinerary
June 6, 2020
Visiting Big Bend National Park and the town of Marfa should be on everyone’s Texas bucket list. This area of west Texas has beautiful nature, quirky art installations and an expansive desert to explore.
The Big Bend region has so much to offer, including floating on the Rio Grande River, hiking in the mountains and camping in the desert. While it is a long drive from Dallas and pretty much all major cities (El Paso is the closest), you will not regret this unique trip.
This article covers a four day itinerary that includes Big Bend and Marfa. If you have more time, consider adding Guadalupe Mountain National Park, White Sands National Park and more spots for an epic two week road trip.
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
Big Bend National Park is one of the most remote National Parks in the United States, which is part of what makes it so special. This means you’ll need to be prepared to do a lot of driving.
I did this road trip from Dallas, which is a 8 hour drive from Big Bend National Park. If you are flying, the closest major city to fly into is El Paso, which is a 4 and a half hour drive. San Antonio could be an option as well, with a 5 and a half hour drive. If you can find an affordable flight to the smaller Midland Airport, it is about a three hour drive to Big Bend National Park.
This region of Texas is blistering hot in the summertime, often reaching over 100 degrees on the desert floor. Despite the heat, my visit in June was definitely tolerable. If you visit during the summer, I just recommend trying to do most of your hiking in the morning. The spring or fall is the best time of year to visit, with milder and pleasant temperatures. Winters in Big Bend are mostly mild, but temperatures can reach below freezing at night.
The city of Marfa is an hour and a half drive from Big Bend National Park and I highly recommend combining the two in one trip. Marfa is both mysterious and magical, known for its minimalist modern art and unexplained lights that can be seen in the distance. It has art galleries, boutiques and a few trendy places to stay; including El Cosmico for a “glamping” experience with clothing-optional dutch tubs or Hotel Saint George for luxury rooms and a beautiful pool.
For a population of less than 2,000, Marfa has a whole lot to offer and is definitely worth spending at least one night in while in the region.
We got an early start to driving west from Dallas on the first day of the trip. After a little over 7 hours, we made it to the first stop on the trip - Target Marathon.
As of December 12, 2020, the Target Marathon has unfortunately been torn down.
The Target Marathon is essentially an empty shack adorned with the Target bullseye and logo. It is right off the road, next to train tracks and effectively in the middle of nowhere. No one knows the exact artist or reason behind this art display, but it is likely based on the Prada Marfa further west. (We will get to that later). There is a red shopping cart there that you can use as a prop for your photos.
Target Marathon is essentially in the middle of nowhere, so if you’re lucky you’ll be the only one there. We only saw one other person during our time.
Drive south into the town of Terlingua, which is another hour and a half drive from the Target.
Terlinqua is right outside of Big Bend National Park and has several hotels, restaurants and tour companies for tourists visiting the park. However, we were most intrigued by the Ghost Town area of the town.
The Terlingua ghost town is made up of ruins from former mining companies. There is a cemetery, ruins and mining tunnels intermixed with housing, restaurants and shops, making it a bit confusing to distinguish between what is a ghost town and what is a living town.
In the 1800s, cinnabar, a red-mercury sulfide, was found in the area and attracted four mining companies. However, at the beginning of WWII, one of the companies filed for bankruptcy and mining production began to cease, leaving the ghost town ruins you can see today. During the 1960s, people returned as Terlingua was put back on the map by holding the world’s first chili cook off in 1967. The latest estimate of the population of Terlingua is 82.
I thought there would be a bit more of the “Ghost Town” to explore, but it all sort of melds together with businesses and homes. My favorite part was exploring the old Terlingua Cemetery.
We stayed at Tin Valley Retro Rentals for our first night of the trip and I cannot recommend this place highly enough. Tin Valley Retro Rentals is a property with several Airbnb listings ranging from airstreams and buses to campgrounds. We stayed inside of the world’s only Spinning Cuddle Bug, which is basically like a campground but instead of sleeping in a tent, you sleep in a converted Volkswagen Beetle. That spins. It sleeps two people and includes a mattress pad to sleep on.
The property includes a port-a-potty and an outdoor shower, but you also have access to an indoor shower and pool at a hotel that is 4 miles away. We absolutely loved staying here and were really impressed with the attention to detail from the hosts. The property also is home to cats, a burro, chicks and pigs. While here, make dinner under the stars and admire the stunning mountain, desert and spectacular night sky views.
Sleeping in a spinning cuddle bug and seeing the most expansive night skies of my life was an experience I’ll never forget.
Wake up as early as you can to make your way to Big Bend National Park. It’s important to note that in the summer, the heat can be very intense and the park rangers recommend that you are off of the trails by 10am. While we certainly weren’t off the trail that early, we made sure to do the longest hike first to beat some of the heat.
For a medium difficulty day hike, I recommend starting in the mountains, at either the Lost Mine Trail (4.2 miles) or the Window Trail (5.2 miles). We did the Lost Pine Trail and it had stunning mountain views intermixed with beautiful desert plants. Be sure to get there early not only because of the heat but because parking is limited at the Lost Mine trail.
I honestly thought the Lost Mine Trail was a perfect hike - the trail was well marked, it had a lot of elevation but wasn’t too bad, and it rewarded you at the top with incredible views. I couldn’t stop taking photos as the entire hike had incredible landscapes to behold.
After hiking the mountains in the morning, buy lunch or eat your packed lunch at the nearby Chisos Basin visitor center or Chisos Mountain Lodge.
In the afternoon, drive to either the Boquillas Canyon trail or the Hot Springs Historic Area. The Hot Springs Historic Area has hot springs that you can soak in, and nearby you can also cross the border into Mexico and visit the town of Boquillas del Carmen.
Unfortunately, both of these things were closed when we were there (Covid-19), so we did the Boquillas Canyon Trail (1.4 miles) and stopped at the Boquillas Canyon Overlook for a great view of Mexico. The Boquillas Canyon trail was a nice, easy hike but because it was such a long drive, I would recommend Santa Elena Canyon instead if you are short on time.
On the Boquillas Canyon Trail and any of the trails near the river, there are items for sale (that you pay for by honor system) by Mexican families. The park service asks you not to buy them, but I felt like it was a good way to support families across the border.
The Santa Elena Canyon is an epic canyon that lines both the Mexico and United States sides of the Rio Grande River. Take the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive to get there for many beautiful viewpoints along the way. Santa Elena Canyon (1.7 miles round trip) is one of the most popular hikes in the park, but it is important to note that you have to cross a river to get inside of the canyon.
The river was slippery and past knee deep, so we opted to skip it so we could go back to Terlingua and check into the bubble. However, if you have time, definitely do this hike because it leads you into a stunning canyon that towers up to 1,500 feet on both sides of the Rio Grande River.
For the second night of the trip, we stayed inside of a clear bubble at Basecamp Terlingua. This was incredibly special and unique. After seeing this on instagram, we booked it 11 months in advance in order to get a Saturday.
This area of the country is already known for incredible night sky views since it is so far away from any major city, so sleeping in an air conditioned clear dome with the ability to gaze upon the stars is the perfect way to experience it.
Basecamp Terlingua has three bubbles and is in the process of building more. They also have other lodging options, including lotus tents. For the sake of honestly, I will say that we did not feel like the bubble was quite as luxurious as advertised. While it was still really cool to sleep inside, a few things like the wobbly toilet and rocky road weren't exactly what we expected from the price tag.
We had high expectations after waiting so long, and just felt like Tin Valley Retro Rentals had a much higher attention to detail and care put into it. These are just my honest thoughts if you are considering coming here, but I still recommend it for the novelty and experience.
If you have more time in Terlingua and Big Bend, I highly recommend doing a float trip on the Rio Grande river. There are a few companies that run the rafting trips (check out Big Bend River Tours) and options range from multi-day trips, full days and half days. Depending on the trip, you can float through some beautiful canyons and enjoy the cool water while basking in the hot sun.
Anyone can float/swim/boat in the river as long as they file a permit with the parks office
On your way from Terlingua to Marfa, I highly recommend visiting Big Bend Ranch State Park. This park was not part of our original plan but it was highly recommended by our host at Tin Valley Retro Rentals and we were not disappointed. It has an incredible scenic drive next to the Rio Grande River with several viewpoints to pull off the road. Also, this incredible park was practically empty. I think it gets overshadowed by the National Park but it was definitely worth going to if you have time.
The Closed Canyon Trail is a must-do in the state park; it is a 1.4 mile round trip hike that goes into a slot canyon. We had the canyon practically to ourselves, which made it extra special. The canyon gets more narrow as you go deeper, eventually leading to large drops that you have to scale to get past. You are supposed to turn around once it becomes impassable.
Another quick hike is the Hoodoo Trail, which has a cool balanced rock and takes you right up to the Rio Grande River. Find a picnic spot for lunch and enjoy the peaceful views of Mexico.
The State Park felt so much more remote than the National Park, so be sure to plan ahead and pack your own food and water. Also be prepared for bathrooms to not be readily available.
After the state park, continue west until you arrive in Presidio, where you’ll go north on US-67 towards Marfa.
In Marfa, we stayed at El Cosmico, another trendy feeling destination with several unique options to sleep in, including tents and trailers of varying sizes.
We booked a large trailer and had a great experience. It had a large amount of space, a comfy bed and included a nice kitchen space with dishes, a chemex, robes to wear and basically everything you need. The only thing that wasn’t ideal was the outdoor shower, where I had a hard time getting hot water, but they are upfront about the shower while booking. The property also has a bar area and dutch tubs that are clothing optional, which looked fun but were closed because of Covid.
Prada Marfa is an artistic installation of a Prada store in the middle of nowhere. It was built in 2005 by artists Elmgreen and Dragset from an adobe-like material, meant to gradually melt into its surroundings. The store is lightly stocked with Prada shoes and purses. Visitor’s locks adorne the fence surrounding the building like a bridge.
I had seen photos of this installation for years so it was exciting to see in person. It is about a 40 minute drive west of Marfa and you definitely can’t leave the area without seeing this unique destination.
This is what Marfa is most known for but there were still very few people there. There was plenty of time to get whatever photos we wanted and marvel at this installation in the middle of the desert.
The Marfa Lights are mysterious lights that shift and move off in the distance, and some travel to Marfa just to catch a glimpse of these unique lights. There is a dedicated viewing area for seeing the lights where people hang out for hours, eat snacks and enjoy the stars and the lights. It was a nice experience and we definitely saw the lights.
To us, they seemed to pretty clearly be coming from headlights on US-67, likely warped by the heat or something. This is worth checking out if you’re in the area, especially during a pandemic when bars are closed.
While I don’t think these lights were caused by aliens, it was fun to relax in the night air, gaze at the stars and enjoy a twizzler and a beer.
If you have more time in Marfa, I highly recommend checking out the Chianti Foundation, a modern art museum founded by Donald Judd with an expansive outdoor area. Also check out The Wrong Store, an art gallery and shop that made the Architectural Digest list of the most beautiful independent stores in America. Finally, a unique place to eat is at Food Shark, a Mediterranean food truck that has seating inside of an old rustic school bus.
For breakfast in Marfa, Marfa Burrito is a great choice! They serve gigantic breakfast burritos and everything is homemade. The menu is simple with options like egg & chorizo, bean & cheese or egg & cheese. This hole-in-the-wall local restaurant is a gem right across the street from El Cosmico.
For smoothies, coffee and tea, visit Frama Coffee. They have a large menu with items like hot cocoa, detox juice, dirty chai and more. Frama is connected to a laundromat and has a colorful 'Greetings from Marfa' mural outside, making it a quirky and fun stop.
If you are making the drive from Dallas, I definitely recommend the Monahans Sandhills State Park for a quick stop on the way home. The Sandhills are two hours from Marfa and five and a half hours from Dallas. The park is small but incredibly surprising for being in the middle of Texas and nowhere near a large body of water.
You can spend hours climbing the different sandhills made of perfectly white sand, or rent a sled to slide down the hills. It is a great place to eat a packed lunch, explore and take some fun photos.
The Monahans Sandhills State Park is one of those parks that isn’t worth driving out of your way too, but is an amazing stop if you’re just driving by. We probably only spent about an hour here but still really enjoyed exploring the sand.
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