In Donald Judd’s last interview before his death, in 1994, the artist explained that he’d first come to Marfa two decades earlier because he “just wanted a place in the Southwest for the summertime.” Whether he intended it or not, this far West Texas town has since become the most buzzed-about destination in the state—thanks no doubt to the dynamic large-scale installations by Judd and artists such as Dan Flavin. But don’t let the hype turn you off. Buried underneath the hoopla is precisely what Judd set out to find: a sun-bleached hamlet in the middle of a desert wilderness that’s punctuated by exquisite mountains, enormous skies, and the coolest summer nights in the state. It’s a great place, in other words, to clear your head and get away from it all—without having to get away from it all.
Where to Stay
The pool at the Hotel Paisano
Photograph by James Evans
The Hotel Paisano is neither as chic as the über-modern Thunderbird Hotel nor as fun as the tricked-out trailers at El Cosmico, but this thirties-era landmark is steeped in old-Hollywood glamour: Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean stayed here (in rooms 211, 212, and 223, respectively) while filming Giant, in the fifties. A head-to-toe makeover in 2001 restored the whitewashed stucco building’s elegant charm, and the courtyard patio—with its blue-and-white-striped awnings, red geranium-filled window boxes, and burbling fountain—remains a bustling gathering place for guests and locals alike. Several of the well-priced suites have full-sized kitchens and private terraces, making them ideal for week-long stays.
What To Do
Anchoring the northern end of Marfa’s main drag, on Highland Avenue, is the Presidio County Courthouse, a five-story pink stucco beauty built in 1886. During weekday business hours, slip inside and take the ornately carved wooden stairway to the third floor, where you’ll find a narrow set of stairs that leads to a small room filled with photographs of Marfa in the twenties; sneak up one more flight to the tiny cupola and do a slow 360 for a stunning view of the city. (Don’t worry, it only feels like trespassing.) After you descend, head across the street to Squeeze Marfa, a tiny tree-shaded cafe, to refuel with an açai smoothie or a Creamsicle soda.
So a priest, a city councilman, and an Aggie walk into a funeral home and decide to turn it into a bar. It’s no joke: The hundred-year-old white adobe building that now houses Padre’s, a hip little watering hole, was a mortuary in a previous life. The current owners have saved a few pews and set up vintage pinball machines, jukeboxes, and shuffleboard tables. Locals and artsy nomads mingle in the crimson glow emanating from the small stage, which is bedecked with red velvet curtains. The bar food is no punch line either: Both the Mexican spaghetti (an occasional special) and the Frito pie (served inside a torn bag of chips) would make a fine last meal.
If Balmorhea State Park were located elsewhere (i.e., not in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert), its famous spring-fed pool would still be beautiful. It just wouldn’t be so darn startling. The luminous blue waters that flow into the L-shaped oasis from the San Solomon Springs are best experienced while submerged, whether you plumb the depths in your scuba gear, don a mask and snorkel, or simply hold your breath and keep your eyes open. (If you need fins or goggles, stop in the Toyahvale Desert Oasis, an outfitter next to the park.)
As I followed the famed River Road (FM 170), which snakes along the Rio Grande from Presidio to Study Butte, I gaped in awe at the splendor of the Trans-Pecos wilderness—and realized I didn’t know beans about the exotic flora and fauna I was zooming by. Luckily, an impromptu rest stop at the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, about a mile east of Lajitas, provided a crash course. Inside the bookstore, I thumbed through titles like Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers, while a friendly park ranger flipped through the photos on my digital camera to help me identify the horned beasts that had helped me test my brakes (a herd of aoudad). You’ll spend most of your time moseying through the two-acre desert garden, learning to identify ocotillos, desert marigolds, and cenizos.
The McDonald Observatory
Photograph by Sarah Wilson
An alarming number of city folk have no idea what the night sky is supposed to look like. To remedy this, the astronomers at the McDonald Observatory, a University of Texas at Austin research hub nestled high atop two peaks outside Fort Davis, host “star parties” every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night. That sparkling domed ceiling you’re gazing up at is no planetarium projection. With nary a cell phone screen polluting the view, you and your kiddos can see so many cosmic bodies that even the Big Dipper is hard to pick out. Fortunately, a guide makes sense of the jumble by pointing out each constellation with a laser pointer that’s strong enough to blind an orbiting astronaut.
Historic Kokernot Field, in nearby Alpine, is a sanctuary for baseball purists who think sushi vendors and climbing walls have no place at a ballpark. Built in 1947 by local cattle rancher Herbert L. Kokernot Jr. for his Alpine Cowboys, the field is surrounded by a high fence of native stone, and each of the 1,200 seats in the grandstand—painted a sea-foam green—affords a spectacular view. After a 51-year absence, semipro ball returned to Kokernot last season with the arrival of the Big Bend Cowboys. You have five more chances to catch a game before the last home stand, on August 8.
Where to Eat
Marfa doesn’t seem to wake up till noon, so breakfast can be hard to come by. But you can sit down to cheesy huevos rancheros at Carmen’s Cafe. At lunch, choose between the tortilla-enveloped Marfalafel and the beef-and-pork banh mi sandwich at Food Shark, a repurposed 1974 delivery truck parked four days a week next to the railroad tracks. The Pizza Foundation offers an agonizing selection of toppings for what will be the most exceptional thin-crust pie you’ve ever tasted. Have a predinner aperitif at Marfa Guest Quarters, a B&B with a backyard wine bar, then walk next door to Cochineal, which serves up “global home cooking” that includes chicken-fried pork loin, gnocchi, and a faultless chocolate soufflé.
What To Bring Back
Even if you don’t slap one on your car, the “I â– Judd” bumper stickers found at the Marfa Book Company are too clever not to buy.
Balmorhea State Park
Four miles southwest of Balmorhea, on Texas Hwy. 17;
Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center
One mile east of Lajitas, on FM 170;
317 E. San Antonio,
107 W. San Antonio,
On S. Highland Ave., under the pavilion next to the railroad tracks;
207 N. Highland Ave.,
hotelpaisano.com. Rates start at $99 a night.
Off Texas Hwy. 118 on E. Hendryx Dr./Loop Rd., in Alpine;
Marfa Book Company
105 S. Highland Ave.,
Marfa Guest Quarters
109 W. San Antonio,
Sixteen miles northwest of Fort Davis, on Texas Hwy. 118;
209 W. El Paso,
100 E. San Antonio,
Presidio County Courthouse
N. Highland Ave. at Lincoln,
215 N. Highland Ave., 800-655-0327,
Toyahvale Desert Oasis
Next to Balmorhea State Park,