Our West Texas Adventure
Way before we ever reached the border into Texas, we started hearing all sorts of comments about what we would find. The reputation that Texas has gained outside of its borders is really quite extraordinary, and we had no idea what to expect. A bunch of yahoos with shotguns? Pick-up trucks running cyclists off the road? Cranky ranchers eager to kick you off their land? Nope. Just gorgeous wide-open country, amazing vistas, wonderful roads with wide shoulders, and some of the nicest and most accommodating people! Turns out, our foray into West Texas has provided some of the best cycling so far, and fantastic connections with other folks. If you have a chance to come out this way, we highly recommend it. In fact, we think you should consider making it your next vacation destination!
We crossed into Texas on Highway 180-62, headed south from Carlsbad, New Mexico (and the Caverns). Just a few miles across the border is Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Tall mountains, fantastic hiking, beautiful views, friendly rangers… it’s an amazing spot. And probably one of the few national parks left that charges only $8 per night to camp. The tent area of the Pine Springs campground (near the visitor center) is one of the most beautifully landscaped campgrounds we’ve seen… each tent spot is set apart from the others, with lots of vegetation around you.
From the Guadalupe Mountains, we continued on Highway 180-62, then turned south onto Highway 54 (part of the Texas Mountain Trail). This road, from the park to Van Horn, is incredible. There is truly nothing out here except for a handful of ranches and some amazing mountains that give you something to look at while you ride. A wonderfully wide road, Highway 54 also has very few cars, which means that it’s quiet, and you can ride two-abreast (if the wind isn’t blowing too hard).
Highway 54 ends in Van Horn, literally right in front of the Hotel El Capitan. Van Horn is a small town and made for a wonderful spot to rest up for a bit. The Hotel El Capitan just recently re-opened after being refurbished to its former glory, and is a diamond in this rough area. Bicycles are welcome (and their riders!), and there’s a wonderful sitting room with a fireplace that you are entreated to enjoy. Wander just a few blocks to Papa’s Pantry for delicious home-cooking!
From Van Horn, we hopped on Highway 90 and headed east to Marfa. It’s 73 miles between the two towns, making it quite a long stretch. But, if you can do it, we suggest pushing through, because there’s not much in between. Just the small community of Valentine, which has not a single working store, but which is home to a brand-new library and the Marfa Prada art installation.
In Marfa, you’ll find art and ranching, in a delightfully-unexpected mix. Consider staying at El Cosmico, which offers beautifully-refurnished trailers, or The Paisano, a historic hotel built by the same architect as the El Capitan. Both represent different corners of the Marfa population. Chow down at Pizza Foundation, shop at the Get Go, pick up some new reading material at The Marfa Book Company, and wave to the good folks at Marfa Public Radio. And, if that’s not enough, there’s a whole lot of art, the Food Shark, and the Marfa Lights.
From Marfa, we continued on Highway 90 to Alpine, just a short jaunt down the road. Alpine is the big city in these parts and home to Sul Ross University. There is a wonderful little historic district with a fantastic book store. And Amtrak stops in Alpine (although, we hear that it’s not a luggage stop, so don’t plan on putting your bike on or getting it off here). The folks in Alpine, we were told, want to live here, which makes it a friendly and welcoming community.
Alpine is also a great jumping-off spot for a trip down to Big Bend. There are three main roads into the Big Bend area… Highway 67 out of Marfa, Highway 118 out of Alpine, and Highway 385 out of Marathon. We took Highway 118 south and Highway 385 north. Big Bend is 70-ish miles away from these three communities, and there are some hills in the way, and the potential for a lot of wind. So, if you plan a bike trip through here, consider finding a spot to stop for the night along the way. On Highway 118, approximately 54 miles south of Alpine, is Cowhead Ranch. Stop in and say hi to Chris and enjoy the wonderfully quirky mini Western town he has built.
Highway 118 will eventually dump you into the small town of Study Butte. Turn right where the road forks (Highway 170) and head into Terlingua and Terlingua Ghost Town. If you come anywhere near this part of Texas, you absolutely must make a detour down to Terlingua Ghost Town! Dozens of small, deteriorating brick homes, left over from the days of mining, dot the landscape. Pitch your tent at Las Ruinas, grab dinner at the Starlight, watch the sunset from The Porch with a cold beer, and marvel at how far away you are from just about anything.
There is so much to explore in these parts that you could easily stay for weeks, so we suggest having a lot of time to putter around, or having some sort of rough plan. From Terlingua Ghost Town, we decided to head east into Big Bend National Park. There is a $10 entry fee for cyclists (or buy an annual pass for only $80!), and there are numerous camping spots throughout the park. We opted to head up to Chisos Basin, an utterly breath-taking location in the belly of a ring of mountains. You will hurt if you climb this road on a bicycle, but it will be absolutely worth it when you get to the top and have the chance to experience this amazing spot. Camping is $14 per night, and there is drinking water and a sky full of stars. (Head up the hill to the lodge to dine in the restaurant, explore the visitor center, pick up some supplies at the small store, or just snag a room in the hotel.)
Leaving Chisos Basin is a thoroughly crazy experience, as you can easily speed out of control. As you work your way out of the mountains, amazing vistas open up before you and you will be stunned beyond words that you actually climbed up this road! We hopped back on the main road and headed east to Panther Junction, another visitor center. From here, we turned north on Highway 385 and began our exit from the park. You will actually ride for almost 28 miles before leaving the park boundary, so your eyes will have plenty of amazingly vast and open land to feast upon. Just outside the edge of the park, we turned right on Highway 2627. Just six miles down (and up and over lots of rolling hills), you reach Stillwell Ranch and RV park. Camping here is just $5 per person and includes a hot shower! And make sure to visit the Hattie Stillwell Museum, on the property.
Leaving Stillwell, double back along Highway 2627 to get back to Highway 385, and continue north to Marathon. This road is extremely quiet, with many fewer cars than Highway 118, and you will pass nothing but a few ranches and a Border Patrol stop. Due to the wind we encountered, we felt we were hardly able to enjoy the scenery, but the few glances we did take revealed amazing hills and mountains and sweeping grassland vistas.
We decided to take a few days to relax in Marathon and enjoy this small town. And, apparently, tour the lodging and dining options. Our first night, we opted to stay at the Marathon Motel, a small-yet-friendly property at the edge of town, that also offers an RV park and tent camping. We discovered the French Co Grocery, a small market with homemade sandwiches and gourmet offerings, and the Oasis Cafe, a small Tex-Mex restaurant.
Our second night, we stayed at the historic (and beautifully refurbished) Gage Hotel. The Gage is a wonderful bit of luxury, friendly to cyclists, and is an absolute must-see! The restaurant at the Gage (Cafe Cenizo) draws visitors from far and wide. We opted for the lesser-expensive option of the White Buffalo Bar (also part of the Gage), which has its own delectable menu.
Our last night in town (tonight), we’re planning to hop across the tracks to La Loma del Chivo hostel, which supposedly offers free lodging to cross-country cyclists!
As we prepare to head out of West Texas toward Hill Country, we’ve been thinking back about how beautiful and wonderful this area has been. It’s a harsh terrain, where water is scarce and you have to plan extremely well because of lack of services. We have battled a lot of wind that whips its way across these open plains. Mostly, we have been stunned by the vistas we have seen and people we have met. Cycling through West Texas feels epic, as if we’ve stumbled upon a part of the US that few people experience (and even fewer know exists!). We have loved out stay in West Texas and hope that other folks will be inspired to head out here for their own adventure (just be sure to carry a lot of water!).
Here is an annotated Google map of our route and recommendations of places to stay!
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