If you’ve ever road-tripped to West Texas, then you’ll know that getting there is half the fun. There’s nothing quite like driving for hours on lonesome highways, watching hills rise into mountains and trees transform into spider-like ocotillos that crawl toward the expansive sky. Beyond the dramatic clouds, vast sense of space, and spectacular desert sunsets, there is one more constant I always noticed but could never comprehend: The grills planted right on the side of the road.
There are highways all over the area where you can spot them. From Marfa to Alpine, from Valentine to Van Horn, you’ll find grills of the exact same dimensions. The 75-mile Davis Mountains Scenic Loop (also the state’s highest public highway, at 6,700 feet) holds the most grills in the region, each in a prettier location than the last. One spot borders the Rio Grande, with teepees protecting travelers from winds that might blow off the river; another is a quick pull-off on US-385 on the way to Big Bend, and while it has a gorgeous view of Emory Peak, you’d miss the stop if you didn’t know it was there. You’d almost have to go out of your way to prepare a meal on one of these grills, or, better yet, plan a trip around using them.
So on a recent drive out west, I decided to do just that. I packed the car with our cooler, filled with a bag of pork ribs marinating in mesquite sauce, and headed out of Austin, kicking up dust.
In the 1920s and 1930s, when Texas began building its vast interstate system, highway travel was glamorous. It may be hard to imagine today as drivers speed past an endless profusion of tacky billboards, motels, strip malls, and chain restaurants, but starting in that era and well into the 1960s, the very act of driving was a vacation. As the automobile became increasingly popular and affordable, the open road became a destination rather than just a means to an end.
The Texas Legislature saw this as a way to bring more tourism dollars into the state. Texas was not only vast but also filled with historic sites worth traveling to. Roads needed to be built, and state parks needed to be created. In 1927, state senator Thomas Love, from Dallas, led the legislative effort to fund a paved highway through the Davis Mountains using local labor. He visited West Texas frequently and wanted to make its natural beauty more accessible. It was the perfect area for a state park, and the designation would make it easier for the state to acquire funding for a roadway so tourists could explore the mountains, along with all of the necessary infrastructure for travelers. This road would be a gateway to wilderness. It would allow Texans and tourists alike to escape cities and enthrall themselves in the great vast desert. All from the comfort of their vehicles, of course.
One of the major problems highway developers faced was accommodating travelers who would journey such long distances. Without restrooms or places to pull over safely, a drive from Austin to West Texas back then was a lot less comfortable. As part of highway beautification efforts to encourage motorists, the Texas Highway Department, now called Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), began constructing rest areas across the state starting in the 1920s and stretching into the 1950s. During the Great Depression, an influx of workers funded by the Works Progress Administration made many of these projects possible. The idea was that rest stops might “focus the motorist’s attention and at the same time diminish the stupefying sense of monotony,” while also providing a spot for “the weary traveler to recharge,” according to a TxDOT report.
In 1935, two years after construction began, the state had more than five hundred roadside parks or turnouts along its highways, with a goal of eventually growing that number to more than a thousand. Jac L. Gubbels, a Netherlands-born architect who planned many of the parks, believed that “travelers [were] reluctant to leave their cars and carry food and cooking equipment.” So Gubbels designed these parks to be easy to pull into, allowing drivers to essentially grill from the comfort of their cars. According to a TxDOT map, the state now has about 76 rest stops, plus twelve larger travel information centers. There are also 426 picnic areas, which lack bathrooms. An unofficial map from the camping website Boondocker’s Bible breaks these down by type, with yellow markers indicating where roadside grills might be located.
While Texas rest areas have morphed in design over the years, picnic areas haven’t changed much. With no bathrooms and few amenities, they could be placed far out of town and only require a check every month or so. It made sense, then, to put picnic areas in the mountains of West Texas. It was supposed to be a mostly one-and-done deal.
There was one development. S. J. Treadaway, a highway engineer in the Texas Highway Department’s District 8, designed a new style of fireplace that was constructed of “salvaged metal signs, [and] is embedded in concrete but will revolve so that advantage may be made of any wind blowing,” according to an article published in the Abilene Reporter-News on August 26, 1950. All of the grills, previously stone fire pits, were replaced with this new model.
If you’re wondering whether tourists ever really brought meat and charcoal to these far-flung grills while on a long road trip, you’re right in suspecting they were few and far between. That wasn’t the grills’ only purpose, though. They’re also a resource for local residents. According to a TxDOT report from 2015, District 5 (now Lubbock District) staff also noted that “many such parks are located about two miles from small towns. These towns are so small they cannot afford such parks, so it gives them a recreation area, thus serving tourists and local people alike.”
David Herndon, a fifty-year-old resident of Midlothian, says he frequented the area on road trips but never used any of the grills. Even still, he’s seen local families grilling and holding birthday parties at some throughout the years.
Of course, it depends on who you ask. In the four and a half years she worked on-site, Kelly Gibson, a reservation specialist manager at the McDonald Observatory, says she “definitely never saw the grill used while [she] was there.” She says she “figured the grills were something like relics from a highway improvement plan, or perhaps installed for those traveling on the Scenic Loop.” Gibson, who grew up in the region, recalls stopping at the picnic areas on family drives. “Growing up, Mom would make sandwiches. She didn’t like eating in the car because of motion sickness, but it was nice to get out of the car and stretch our legs after a few hours of driving,” Gibson says.
The sites these days are still managed by TxDOT on a district level. If a district decides it’s no longer worth the maintenance, they can donate the sites to the public. None of the sites in the Davis Scenic Loop have been donated, according to a TxDOT spokesperson, as maintenance is relatively straightforward.
While the state still funds highway beautification efforts to a lesser extent, amenities like rest stops aren’t the legislative priority they once were. The general attitude seems similar to February 1942, when a Texas senator was quoted in the Dallas Morning News. Lobbying for highway improvement to end, he said, “I have always thought spending too much on highway flowers and beautification was bordering on the extravagant, and now I think it ought to be definitely stopped for the duration and even beyond.” Not long after, as relief funds subsided, construction on new roadside developments halted, and TxDOT began to focus on maintaining the parks it had already built.
After hours without food, we made it to our destination, the roadside grill out by McDonald Observatory. Since I’d thought it would be rarely used, I was surprised to see bits of fossilized crust baked onto the grates of this grill. I had a scraper with me, brought along per Herndon’s suggestion, but I decided not to use it—after all, if I wanted a perfectly clean grill, I wouldn’t have driven eight hundred miles into the sprawling desert.
We set up shop, cracked a few Topo Chicos, and made our stake on the piece of land surrounding the grill. After taking in the mountains behind us, we began to notice the sun was dropping, so we got to cooking. My partner pulled the Ziploc full of pork ribs out of the cooler, and I jimmied with the can of Ranch Style beans we’d brought along, placing it over the grill grates.
We sat on the edge of the trunk and watched as the charcoal turned from pitch black to bright red. Soon after, we began to smell the sweetness of meat wafting through the desert sagebrush, encircling the nearby lechuguilla. A Ford F-150 rolled up beside the grill, and the driver asked if they could join us. We saw kids waving from the back seat. Of course, we said. We all sat around the picnic table, watching the clouds fade, and not long after, the first stars sprouted from the black sky. The open road never felt so inviting.
Where to Grill by the Road in West Texas
Teepee Rest Stop
River Road, near Lajitas
At this iconic spot, giant teepees tower over picnic tables, shielding visitors from the harsh winds blowing off the river.
TX-118, near Dark Sky Road
Before a star party, this picturesque overlook features a roadside grill, allowing you to grill safely at the highest elevation in the state.
Los Caballos Picnic Area
US-385, south from Marathon
This grill boasts a view of Big Bend National Park’s Emory Peak. Stock up at the French Co. Grocer in Marathon and take in the views.
Presidio County Picnic Area
US-90, near Marfa Army Air Field
If you come to Marfa and no restaurants are open (Marfa time, y’all), head here for a bare-bones picnic spot with wide-open spaces. Sidenote: Beyond that metal fence is an abandoned airfield.