Trip Guide: Alpine

Train your sights on this flourishing frontier town, just down the road from Marfa.

July 2016By Comments

A view of the roughly six-thousand-person town from Hancock Hill.
Photograph by Wynn Myers

While visiting Alpine for the first time, a friend recently proclaimed that the West Texas town was her new Marfa. At first, I was a touch indignant. Alpine, I harrumphed, is decidedly not Marfa, that overly ballyhooed hub 25 miles down the road where an international see-and-be-seen crowd comes to prostrate themselves before minimalist art and fight Hunger Games–style for dinner reservations. And then I cooled (and silently apologized to Marfa, a place I’d never pass up a chance to visit) and said what I meant to say: that Alpine, like its smaller but more famous sister, is a tight-knit community of cowboys and academics and artists set amid one of the most stirring landscapes in the state—just without all the hoopla and incessant press.

Nestled in the foothills of the Davis Mountains, Alpine sprouted from a humble cattlemen’s tent encampment in the 1880s into a proper cow town straddling the railroad tracks. Then came the founding of what is now Sul Ross State University, in 1920, and the establishment of nearby Big Bend National Park, in the early forties. Amtrak’s Sunset Limited continues to roll into the heart of town, and you’re still likely to meet a mix of ranchers, Ph.D.’s, geologists, poets, and painters at watering holes like Harry’s Tinaja and the Saddle Club. My favorite sites are all institutions built by local dreamers for the sake of the permanent citizenry, like o6 Ranch owner Herbert Kokernot Jr.’s eponymous baseball field, built in 1947, where fly balls soar seemingly higher than the peaks on the horizon, and Houston expat Jean Hardy Pittman’s Front Street Books, a Luddite’s refuge (a sign on the door asks that you keep your cell phone holstered). But Alpine’s frontier romance doesn’t mean it’s resolutely old-fashioned. Out-of-towners herd around food trucks and take selfies in front of the colorful murals downtown. And as I sipped a matcha latte, I understood what my friend had really been saying about Alpine: it’s an undervalued revelation in the desert—and long may it remain.

TM-7-16-TOUTS-The-Wanderer-02-seedo-Alpine
A mural (left) and a wagon (right) on display at the Museum of the Big Bend.

Photographs by Wynn Myers

SEE + DO

Hancock Hill // Take a twenty-minute hike to get to the top of Hancock Hill, where you’ll find “the Desk,” a Sul Ross landmark since 1981. As you take in the panoramic view of town, you can leave your mark in the notebook left in one of the desk’s drawers.

Kokernot Field // If you’re lucky, your visit will coincide with a home game featuring the Alpine Cowboys (Pecos League), the Sul Ross State Lobos (college), or the Alpine Bucks (high school), but even if there’s no action, it’s still worth driving out to see this 1947 gem that Sports Illustrated dubbed “the best little ballpark in Texas (or anywhere else).”

Museum of the Big Bend // A visit to the museum, built on the Sul Ross campus in 1936, won’t burn up your whole day but will leave you abuzz with factoids about everything from mercury mining to buffalo soldiers. Be sure to head downstairs to see selections from the Yana and Marty Davis historic map collection.

Railroad Blues // Yes, this self-proclaimed “world-famous beer and wine tourist trap” lives up to its name and then some. Though there are more than 130 brews available, as well as a famous house-made sangria, it’s the touring acts, like Kevin Fowler, the Derailers, and Joe King Carrasco, who keep the dance floor (and the fire-warmed patio) filled with locals and out-of-towners alike.

A local enjoying a cup of coffee at Plaine (left), raising a glass of craft beer from Big Bend Brewing Company (top right), and the exterior of Reata (bottom right).
A local enjoying a cup of coffee at Plaine (left), raising a glass of craft beer from Big Bend Brewing Company (top right), and the exterior of Reata (bottom right).

Photographs by Wynn Myers

EAT + DRINK

Breakfast

Cedar Coffee & Supply // Now in bigger digs, this newcomer to the local coffee scene impresses with its selection (coffee milkshakes, bottled coldbrew) and dedication to the craft (the house coffee is brewed on a Curtis Batch Brewer).

Plaine // Like its sister cafe, Frama, over in Marfa, this coffee and juice shop is also connected to a laundromat, which means it’s also a de facto community gathering spot.

Lunch

Cow Dog // Parked outside of Plaine, this food truck serves up 100 percent-beef hot dogs grilled to perfection, like the Hangover, which comes topped with bacon, chili sauce, and Fritos, and the El Pastor, gussied up with grilled pineapple, red onion, cilantro pesto, and lime mayo.

El Patio // Wash down your brisket burritos or platter of chile rellenos with a cold aqua fresca while eyeing the words “sopaipilla cheesecake” scrawled on the chalkboard.

Dinner

The Century Bar & Grill // A white-tablecloth experience without big-city pretense is on the menu at this fine-dining establishment located in the historic Holland Hotel. Enjoy your slow-braised duck gratiné or your roasted rack of lamb out on the courtyard or cozy up in the bar with a glass of Cowboy Champagne (i.e., bubbles and whiskey).

Reata // Named for the Giant homestead, this local institution, open since 1995, serves kicky Southwestern fare—chicken-fried steak, tenderloin tamales, calf fries—that any ranch hand or oil baron would work overtime for.

Drinks + Treats

Big Bend Brewing Co. // A sated stomach’s a good idea before your visit to the most remote brewery in the country, lest too many samplings of Terlingua Gold and Big Bend Hefeweizen get the best of you. The pours are generous during the hour-long tour, which will also net you a souvenir pint glass and a bumper sticker.

Harry’s Tinaja // Open daily starting at noon, this laid-back beer garden welcomes everybody “at least once.”

Murphy Street Raspa Co. // Beat the heat with a cool raspa, a snow cone’s more finely shaved cousin, which comes in a rainbow of flavors and can be punched up with chamoy, a tangy pickled-fruit syrup. The storefront, one of the most Instagrammable in town, is also one of the oldest.

The Saddle Club // The neon sign out front will lead you into this Western-themed watering hole, which boasts a full bar and a tapas menu and is adjacent to the historic Granada Theatre.

A hat at Kiowa Gallery (top left), some of the flora for sale at Brown Dog Gardens (bottom left), and a selection of topographic maps at Front Street Books (right).
A hat at Kiowa Gallery (top left), some of the flora for sale at Brown Dog Gardens (bottom left), and a selection of topographic maps at Front Street Books (right).

Photographs by Wynn Myers

SHOP

Big Bend Saddlery // Even if your lifestyle doesn’t necessitate a hand-made saddle or even a custom holster made out of grade-A skirting leather, you’ll want to stop in to appreciate the artistry on view and perhaps buy yourself a monogrammed tri-fold wallet, a Moore Maker knife, or some embossed coasters.

Brown Dog Gardens // If you wander into this flora-filled nursery and gift shop, you’ll likely leave with something alive (like a $35 Mexican lime tree) or locally made (like lavender hand lotion).

The Cheshire Cat // Get your flea-market fix as you peruse the old (antique furniture, sombreros) and new (art, jewelry) at this collectors’ paradise.

Front Street Books // Evolution, animal husbandry, and frontier women all get their own section at this indie bookshop, which stocks new and used selections. Be sure to browse the drawers filled with regional topographic maps too.

Kiowa Gallery // Take home something arty and/or hand-crafted by local and regional artists—perhaps a portrait of a burro or a wood cutout of Roy Orbison—at this gallery/custom frame shop.

Ocotillo Enterprises (205 N. 5th, 432-837-5353) // Rock hounds, used-book collectors, and beaded-jewelry enthusiasts will need to make only one stop at this three-in-one shop.

RingTail Records // Stacks of vintage vinyl and CDs abound at this wonderfully old-school stalwart.

The front entrance (left) and lobby (right) of the historic Holland Hotel.
The front entrance (left) and lobby (right) of the historic Holland Hotel.

Photographs by Wynn Myers

STAY

Holland Hotel // Built across the railroad tracks, the Holland opened in 1928 then reopened in 1985, and has been Alpine’s social nexus ever since. Its grand lobby and 25 warm-hued rooms (including a penthouse in a converted elevator shaft) exude Old West charm.

BEFORE YOU GO

Read . . . all about the prettiest little baseball stadium in the country and the wildly generous rancher who built it in D.J. Stout’s “King of Diamonds.”

Bookmark . . . VisitAlpineTX.com for the latest news and happenings around town, including information on annual events like the Texas Cowboy Poetry Gathering (February), the Alpine Gem & Mineral Show (April), the Viva Big Bend Music Festival (July), the Big Bend Ranch Rodeo (August), and the Artwalk Art & Music Festival (November).

Follow . . . @VisitAlpineTX on Instagram

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  • Lee Nichols

    Nice article, but you missed Guzzi Up, the pizza/pasta place across from the Holland Hotel. It’s tasty.

    • Amy

      So tasty we went twice while we were in town.

  • David Keller

    Alpine is indeed a special place. But one shouldn’t gloss over the fact it’s being slowly blighted by mindless development and about to be trenched through by the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. With short sighted and small minded leadership and neighbors like Kelcy Warren (fat cat billionaire who owns Lajitas and is building the pipeline) I have grave concerns for our future. Having lived here for over 15 years and studied and written about its history, these recent developments are alarming.

  • Amy

    And the desk was not up there as of Father’s Day…

  • Mary Bell Lockhart

    Nice article, but why did you top it with a really bad photo showing only the very eastern fringe as representative of Alpine? Wynn Meyers took so many other neat photos, surely there was one among those taken of the city from Hancock Hill facing west. Google Images has several better representations of Alpine.