Over the week of Thanksgiving, our Social Media Manager, Jenny, and her family took a road trip to West Texas and Big Bend National Park. Read all about her adventure below and take note of all the great suggestions about a family vacation in this beautiful part of Texas.
I’ve lived in Texas since 1996 and have explored much of the state but had never made it to Big Bend National Park and the surrounding area. I had heard about how great Big Bend, Ft. Davis, Marfa, and Marathon was, so when we got a National Park pass in 2015, we booked a trip out west.
We started our adventure by visiting Balmorhea State Park, famous for its spring-fed swimming pool. The pool is open year round and the water temperatures stay between 72 and 76 degrees which sounds lovely on a hot desert day, but the pool was pretty dead when we went in November. You can also snorkel and scuba dive among the fish, and they even have a diving board. Campsites are available as well as a retro motel-style lodge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
From Balmorhea we drove down to Marfa, where we stayed two nights at El Cosmico, a 21 acre nomadic hotel and campground. The property houses a variety of trailers, tepees, yurts and camp sites developed by Liz Lambert of Hotel San Jose, Hotel Saint Cecilia and Jo’s Coffee fame in Austin. We had great weather and loved running around there as well as lounging in the hammocks on the property. We stayed in a large trailer (the Imperial Mansion) that was comfortable, had a shower and a kitchen and slept four comfortably. If you go the yurt or tepee direction, they do have an outdoor kitchen facility and showers, and bathrooms on property. You can even reserve a heated tub for a soak under the stars. Our tepee neighbors had a pretty cozy setup with a fire at night and we were a little jealous. I did talk to friends who spent a rainy (and leaky) Spring Break at El Cosmico and did not have the same wonderful experience we did, but staying in the trailer made our highlight reel.
Marfa itself is a small town known for its art, the most famous probably the Chinati. We explored the outside installations but didn’t have the patience to do the full collection tour they were offering that day that takes 4 – 4.5 hours. Restaurant options are limited and check the schedule (we were there mid-holiday week). Check out Jett’s Grill at the Hotel Paisano for more upscale dining (and for hotel rooms if glamping isn’t your thing). Squeeze was a small breakfast place near the courthouse (which is worth seeing) with a Swiss twist to their menu, or grab an espresso at FRAMA.
From Marfa you can drive up 45 minutes to visit Ft. Davis, which sits at the base of the Davis Mountains. The Fort Davis National Historic Site was a key defensive post in west Texas and housed troops from 1854 until 1891. We enjoyed the museum as well as preserved barracks, officer housing and the hospital which really brings to life what it must have been like in that era. In town, the Ft. Davis Drug Store and Old Texas Inn has an old-fashioned soda pull ice cream parlor and a menu that would fit the bill for most kids.
If you have time to spend in Ft. Davis, Davis Mountains State Park is a gem that offers hiking and biking trails in an extensive mountain range. The Indian Lodge offers unique lodging built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. We have friends who love and stay at the Stone Village Motor Court, a classic hotel that offers adorable retro stone motel rooms and backs right up to the Davis Mountains.
West Texas is known for its dark skies and is home to the McDonald Observatory, a world-class location to observe the stars and planets through their telescopes. The Star Party there was unforgettable and will thrill your budding astronomers. You see the sky’s beauty as you don’t usually get to living in a light-polluted city. The Star Party is about two hours, the first half is a seated tour of the constellations and then you get to go look at various celestial objects and planets through telescopes. It’s a very popular program and while the capacity of the tour is high, they recommend making a reservation to be sure you get your spot. Be sure to dress for the weather. It’s a higher elevation and can get pretty cold once the sun goes down.
We decided to go fancy on Thanksgiving and spent it at Lajitas Golf Resort which offered beautiful scenery right on the Rio Grande between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. The hotel itself has a Wild West feel, and has a lot to offer including a golf course, movie theatre (which showed kids movies on weekend nights) a nice pool, a bar and a restaurant. You don’t hear as much about Big Bend Ranch, but we drove through here and the canyons and vistas are really beautiful. One of our favorite experiences of the trip was a family trail ride through the Chihuahuan Desert. It felt like an authentic west Texas experience and was such a fun way to experience the landscape.
From Lajitas, it’s about an hour drive into Big Bend National Park, one of two National Parks in Texas. It is one of the largest, most remote and the least visited national parks with an average of 300,000 visitors a year. Big Bend is a unique and dramatic desert beauty surrounded by mountains, full of cactus and home to canyons carved out by the Rio Grande.
It is a desert and you should plan your visit accordingly. Summer is dry and hot with little shade. Temperatures can soar, with the June average high of 103.4. This is one of the reasons we chose to go in November, which has an average high of 77.7 and a low of 44.2. March is also a good time to visit with an average of 82.9 and low of 56.2, making Big Bend a popular Spring Break destination for Texans.
Big Bend is a budding geologists’ paradise, with limestone, faults, volcanoes and fossils including a world-record pterosaur and a 50’ crocodile on display. But don’t let desert and great geology make you believe that Big Bend is lacking in flora and fauna. The park is the habitat for 1200 species of plants, 450 bids, 56 reptiles and 75 mammals.
Big Bend is best known and visited for its hiking and backpacking. We spent one day in the park and had to choose one hike that worked for our multi-generational crew, including two nine year olds. The Window Hike was listed by the National Park Service as moderately difficult and 5.6 miles out and back.
If you are heading out with enthusiastic kids that might fade at any point, you should know that you start out mostly downhill and the route back is more uphill. This hike offers great panoramic views of desert and rock formations and ends with a dramatic “window” view. We wouldn’t let the kids get too close because the ground near the window is slickrock and a very steep drop-off. I really loved this hike for the views and up close and personal encounter with some really interested geology. During Thanksgiving week it was well-traveled but did not feel crowded, and the temperature was perfect. Other hikes that are of moderate difficulty and duration worth checking out are the Lost Mine Trail, the Chisos Basin Loop Trail, and the Santa Elena Canyon Trail.
Even if you aren’t quite ready for a half day of hiking, you can enjoy Big Bend from the car. There are over 100 miles of paved roads that give provide gorgeous vistas and allow you to appreciate the geology. If you catch the park at the right time you can see wildflower and cactus blooms. While we were there the ocotillo cactus was blooming yellow. Note that some roads are unpaved and can be difficult to access depending on conditions.
Down one gravel road drive is a hot springs where you can soak adjacent to the Rio Grande. You hike .25 miles down to the springs, passing the remains of a bathhouse and a store and some interesting petroglyphs.
We also checked out the Sam Nail Ranch which sits on an oasis (creekbed) and has the remains of an abode house built in the early 1900s. The remnants of planted fig trees plus the water source makes for some interesting bird watching.
Big Bend offers river adventures as well. You can float the Rio Grande through local outfitters who provide a variety of services including shuttles, rentals and guided trips down the Rio Grande. It would be an excellent way to experience the Big Bend canyons.
If you want to stay overnight, the Chisos Mountain Lodge is operated by an independent group but is inside Big Bend National Park. They have hotel rooms, motel rooms and the Roosevelt stone cottages. None of the rooms have a television or phone, but they do have WiFi, a store and a restaurant on premises. There are 72 rooms and they are very popular at peak travel times such as Spring Break and Thanksgiving. There are only 5 Roosevelt stone cottages, which are small houses that hold up to 6 people each and some allow pets as well. They look adorable, and have great views of the Chisos.
Reservations can be made online 16 months in advance. Campgrounds are available at the Chisos Basin and the Rio Grande Village. Reservations are recommended between November 15 – April 15 and can be made up to 180 days in advance. Reservations are not taken the rest of the year because the sites rarely fill up. If you can’t get into the park, Big Bend Resort and Adventures, just 3 miles outside the park, is an option.
We departed the park and headed to spend our last night in west Texas at the historic Gage Hotel in Marathon. As we were headed out of the park, a cold front was coming in and landing in a charming Gage lobby with a cozy fire was perfection. The hotel was originally a house built for pioneer Texas rancher Alfred Gage. It seemed fitting that our last stop was the famous White Buffalo Bar where we toasted the finale to a memorable and fun-filled west Texas road trip.
Do you have any tips to share about traveling to West Texas? Please tell us in the comments below