On the Road Again—Big Bend
Alpine to Study Butte to Terlingua to Lajitas to Presidio to Marfa to Alpine.
There are some three dozen mountain ranges west of the Pecos River, and on this drive you’ll pass through or near half of them. You’ll also cruise along one of the most picturesque stretches of the Rio Grande and through the wavy grasslands of former ranching empires. The drive is not only one of the prettiest in the state but also one of the oddest, with terrain that goes from serene to severe, sometimes within moments. You’ll see gorgeous vistas, strange shapes, and odd people living in the middle of it all, and you’ll wonder what was going on out here, both 40 million years ago and just last week.
Begin in the appropriately named Alpine, which sits at an altitude of 4,500 feet in the foothills of the Davis Mountains. Have a breakfast taco and a latte at La Tapatia (202 W. Holland Avenue), in the center of town, then drive to Texas Highway 118 and head south. The first few miles are scrubby, rolling hills, covered with yellow grass and the occasional cactus. About five miles out of town, you start a steep climb, and just after crossing Mile High Road, you’ll begin to see, peeking up over the hills, dark, looming forms that disappear when you round a bend. Do not be alarmed. The one on your right soon reveals itself as majestic Cathedral Mountain, 6,800 feet high. More immense figures approach, such as Elephant Mountain (6,206 feet), on your left, an amazing four miles long.
Much of the next hour is made up of short climbs over gradual rises in the road and then long declines toward the infinite horizon past more and more of these monstrous mountains. Most of them were birthed between 22 million and 47 million years ago, when molten magma, deep in the earth, began pushing toward the surface. Some of it blew sky high, spewing lava and ash hundreds of feet thick over tens of thousands of square miles. Much of it never made it above the surface, seeping between layers of rock, expanding and melding with dirt, limestone, and mud and creating all kinds of immense mountainous formations, which, millions of years later, were uncovered by erosion and then burnished by time to look like giant cathedrals and elephants.
The closer you get to the badlands of Study Butte, the weirder the rocks get. The entrance to Study Butte is guarded by two jagged cliffs: the 400-foot-high reddish-brown columns of Willow Mountain to the left and, just beyond that on the right, the 850-foot-high face of Bee Mountain. Then it’s downhill into civilization.
That is, if you consider Study Butte and Terlingua civilized. Turn right on Farm-to-Market Road 170, passing through the campers, yucca cactus, abandoned mercury mines, and washed-out riverbeds of this desert area. Four miles on, turn right at the sign for the Terlingua Ghost Town, where 2,000 people once walked the dusty streets. Now some 275 artists and other assorted desert rats and escapees from modern life live in trailers or the crumbling adobes of the long-gone miners. In truth, the individualistic and craggy locals mirror the terrain. The Terlingua Trading Company, at the end of the road, is a good place to meet some of them, as well as to buy local artifacts and beer and soft drinks. On any given weekend, you’ll find plenty of visitors at this gathering place, drinking beer, clanging horseshoes, inspecting the old cemetery, and just staring at the peculiar terrain. The jagged eastern horizon, with the mighty Chisos and Sierra Del Carmen mountains, looks like something out of a Flintstones cartoon; closer in are layered canyons, cracked limestone, old riverbeds, rugged outcroppings—it’s as if the earth couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be here. Desert? Mountains? Hills? Yes. Enjoy the confusion of Terlingua.
Go back and continue west on FM 170, which becomes a dirt road for the next few miles as you cut through the limestone hills, mesmerized again by the vistas—at least until you drive past the faux Western-town facade of the $65 million Lajitas resort. You are now in Big Bend Ranch State Park. All of a sudden, you’re skirting the mighty Rio Grande on the River Road, which runs alongside an old smuggling and mining trail. One hundred feet away is Mexico. These next fifteen miles are some of the most scenic in the state, with sharp curves and steep rises and drops through the Bofecillos Mountains.
Just past the rest stop with three tall tepees, the road begins a long climb. When you get to the top, pull over for a grand view: the high, red, rough cliffs of the Sierra Madre on the other side, the Rio Grande snaking for miles and miles, the Chisos Mountains 75 miles to the east. Listen. All you’ll hear is the wind and the occasional other car. As you drive the next few miles, watch the canyon walls on either side of the river get closer, almost coming together at the gorgeous Closed Canyon. At some points along the road, you could easily convert one of the American rocks at your feet into a Mexican one. (Don’t.)
Soon the mountains begin to recede into the distance and the terrain begins to flatten out into rolling hills dotted with cactus and ocotillo. You pass through Redford, the little town where, in 1997, eighteen-year-old high school student Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was accidentally shot and killed by U.S. Marines as he tended his goats. Eight miles on, as you approach Presidio, a sign says “Welcome to the Real Frontier,” which could refer to both the town’s formidable history (people have been living and farming around here for 3,500 years, and the modern city was originally a fort established in 1683) and its recent dramas as the fastest-growing community in Texas. The city is working hard to keep up with the growth, building a new medical clinic and community center, but the crumbling buildings and dirt roads aren’t much to look at.
On the north end of town, turn right onto U.S. 67. The road starts out flat, and after the tumult and sensory overload of Terlingua and the River Road, it’s comforting to drive through mild terrain for a while. In the distance you can see the mountains again—the dark, massive Chinatis to your left and the Cienagas to the right. Eighteen miles down the road, you’ll come to the Shafter Ghost Town. In the late nineteenth century, Shafter sat over a booming silver mine; in its heyday, four thousand people lived here. Now it’s an eerie place, many of its homes obviously shuttered years ago, yet there are a few cars parked in driveways too.
You start to climb again, past Elephant Rock, grazing camels, and, seven miles from Shafter, the exclusive Cibolo Creek guest ranch; the land used to be owned by Milton Faver, the first cattle baron in these parts. The farther north you go, the higher you climb onto the Marfa Plateau, where grasses roll and cattle chew. Just south of Marfa, on the left, you’ll see a pasture full of large concrete boxes. They were put there by the artist Donald Judd, who established his Chinati Foundation on the site of the old Fort D. A. Russell, now a permanent exhibition of Minimalist art. The two large artillery sheds are filled with one hundred of Judd’s aluminum sculptures, no two alike—kind of like the natural sculptures outside.
Less than a mile farther on, take a right onto 67/90 for the final leg of the drive, heading east to Alpine. The road hugs the rolling plains, but there are plenty of lone mountains too. Nine miles outside of town is the Marfa Lights Viewing Center, where, at night, you can watch the playful orbs glow and dance along the horizon over some of the territory you’ve been driving through.
After five miles, you cut through the Paisano Pass (5,074 feet high) and find yourself directly over an area that was once an active volcano. It didn’t blow its top out of one giant hole but instead spewed lava from many openings in the ground, leaving behind sights such as the stately Paisano Peak on your right. The hills get increasingly gnarly, and soon you’ll see on the left a 750-foot-high crag with a huge maw of a cave. It looks like a weird rock nightmare; indeed, geologists call these eroded lava forms hoodoos. This hoodoo is the unofficial welcome back to Alpine.
After such a long journey, you will be happy to know that the latest addition to civilization here is the Edelweiss Restaurant and Micro-Brewery, which opens this month, right across the street from La Tapatia. Go have a beer. You deserve it.