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Adventure / January 11, 2018

Road Trip: Southwest Texas

Written by: Renee Howard

The open roads of Southwest Texas are home to the last vestiges of America’s wild west. It’s a poetic place where people are friendly and self sufficient. The history is rich with triumph and struggles along the border. It’s a place everyone should visit at least once.

My husband and I just finished a seven-day road trip through that wild country, starting in Austin and ending in El Paso. These five spots were our favorites.


Bandera: The Cowboy Capital

Two hours from Austin, Bandera (pop. 873) has a distinctly tacky small town charm. Locals are proud of their cattle ranching heritage, and most are quick to boast that their county has produced more rodeo champions than any other in Texas. It’s worth sitting down to chat with some local old-timers to hear the town’s history.

What to do: Bandera plays host to two of the most grueling ultra marathons in Texas: the Bandera 100K Trail Run and the Cactus Rose 100 Mile Endurance Run. Both races use trails in the nearby Hill County State Natural Area, which also offers plenty for day hikers and less-than-ultra trail runners.

Where to eat and drink: For the mandatory local Tex-Mex, eat at the Old Spanish Trail (OTS) then head over to Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar Bar for a memorable honky-tonk experience.

Where to stay: Primitive camping is available in the natural area for $10-15 (depending on the site). But I personally recommend using AirBnB to lodge with locals. After all, it’s the people of Bandera that make it worth a visit.


Big Bend National Park

Bordering Mexico on the Rio Grande, Big Bend National Park is a five-and-a-half hour drive hour from Bandera through desolate country. It is one of the most remote, beautiful and least-visited national parks in the Lower 48.

We stopped in Big Bend for just two days, but the park contains weeks worth of outdoor adventures.

For hikers: Families and weekend warriors will enjoy Window Trail: a 5.6-mile jaunt from the Chisos Basin campground. The trail descends to a slickrock wash, which drops suddenly off a smooth cliff to a canyon below.

More adventurous hikers will love the Dodson and Juniper Mountain Trails (19.9 and 12.4 miles, respectively). These involve several elevation gains and drops, and give hikers a good look at the park’s once-volcanic geology.

For boaters: Several tour operators lead raft trips down the Rio Grande. Our favorites are Big Bend River Tours and the Far Flung Outdoor Center.

Permits are also available for private trips through the park’s Mariscal, Boquillas, and Lower Canyons (check out the permitting rules here). 

For leisure: Just up the road from the Rio Grande Village on the East side is the best kept secret of Big Bend: hot springs. Located two miles down a dirt road, the springs were once developed commercially but have since been partially reclaimed by nature. Their 104-degree pools are still there, though, and I highly recommend a soak after a long day’s hike. 

The park also offers ample primitive camping options. We chose the scenic Chisos Basin. Tent sites there are available for $14/night.


Marfa: The hipster oasis

About two hours north of Big Bend on Highway 67 is Marfa: a town of fewer than 2,000 that’s known as a commune for minimalist artists.

At first glance, Marfa seems like an almost impossibly sleepy little town. But walk around a bit, and you’ll find it’s home to some offbeat dive bars, tongue-in-cheek taco joints, and a smattering of fine art galleries.

What to do: Marfa is probably best known for the Marfa lights: glowing orbs that appear seemingly from nowhere in the desert outside of town. They’re best seen just after sunset from the official Marfa Lights Viewing Area, which is located about nine miles east of Marfa on Highway 90.

Armchair theorists have come up with all manner of explanations for the Marfa lights. Some see them as UFO activity, and others as a spiritual phenomenon. But most people now agree that they’re caused by the refraction of car headlights.

Where to eat: Absolutely do not miss Marfa’s Buns N’ Roses, a breakfast spot that offers some of the best road trip fare in Texas. Get the donuts.

Where to stay: The hippest spot for travelers is El Cosmico, a “nomadic hotel and campground” that offers lodging in teepees, safari tents, and refurbished trailers. It’s a great place to comingle with other travelers in a world that resembles Texas counter-culture circa 1972.

Lodging there ranges from $20-85 a night, depending on the accommodations.


Pinto Canyon Road

This legendary stretch of rough road winds along the Rio Grande between Marfa and Ruidosa. About 60 miles long, it’s about a 2.5-hour trip.

The road is rough, rocky, and steep. You’ll need a high-clearance vehicle to drive it, and should be prepared to make repairs on your own (there is no cell reception in most of the canyon).

What to do: The drive is an activity in itself. It deserves to be treated like a wilderness adventure—be sure to pack food, water, and an automobile emergency kit.

What to eat: What you pack. Don’t expect to find any road grub in Pinto Canyon.

Where to stay: Book a cabin at Chianti Hot Springs, which is charming and comfortable but extremely remote. You’ll likely want to pack your own food for a stay there, as the nearby general store has limited provisions. The lodge has a full community kitchen, but no restaurant.


Hueco Tanks: A bouldering mecca

About 30 miles east of El Paso, Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site is home to some of the best “bouldering” (unroped climbing on small rock formations) in the U.S.

The 860-acre park is also a worthy destination for non-climbers, as it boasts gorgeous rock formations and more than 3,000 Native American pictographs.

For climbers: Climbing is only allowed in the park’s North Mountain area, and only 70 people are allowed to enter that portion of the park at one time. Reservations are available through the park, but you’ll still want to be at the gate first thing in the morning.

Most routes are listed on Mountain Project, but it’s a good idea to bring along the preferred guidebook all the same. Don’t miss Nobody Here Gets Out Alive, which is widely considered the best V2 in the world.

For pictograph viewing: To see the park’s many pictographs and to learn about its natural history, we highly recommend a guided ranger tour. Those tours cost $2 per person (in addition to the park’s entry fee), and should be booked in advance. Check out the park’s activity page for details.


Where to stay: There are 20 campsites within the park, but we strongly recommend a stay at the nearby Hueco Rock Ranch. The lodging there is a bit rustic, but it’s the best place to plug in to the area’s funky climbing culture. Reservations are strongly recommended; rates depend on accommodations, and are far lower for American Alpine Club and Access Fund members.

Do you have your own path for a Southwest Texas road trip? Email [email protected] to let us know. 


about the author

Renee Howard

Renee is a photographer and writer based out of South-central Alaska. Her interest in bridging gaps between all manner of outdoor sports, philosophy, folk culture and backwoods artistry is a significant motivation for her work.

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