Last year as spring break approached, my husband and I found ourselves with no plans a few weeks out. It was too late to try and piece together a beach trip or Disney vacay. Neither of us had ever traveled to Big Bend, and it was something we had talked about doing for a while. So we decided to take a last-minute road trip out west to see our great state’s only National Park and check out the neighboring towns of Marathon and Marfa. In hindsight, our kids were too young to enjoy the park (WAY too young!), but it ended up being the adventure of a lifetime! We are already planning a return trip when the kids are older.
Prior to this trip, I had never been that far west in Texas. Other than a single trip to Abilene and a one night’s stay in Lubbock, my Texas life had mostly been confined to East, Central, and Gulf Coast Texas, with several jaunts in the Hill Country. West Texas is a whole other world! It is what the Yanks think of when they envision the last frontier of Texas. It is dry, it is dusty, and it is VAST. Cowboy boots are more a necessity than a fashion statement. It’s the stuff Hollywood Western dreams are made of.
Since our trip was last minute, and I’m not too big on camping, we opted to stay outside of the park when visiting Big Bend. Marathon is only a 45-minute drive from the north entrance of the park. This sleepy town doesn’t have too much to offer, but as the gateway to Big Bend, it boasts one of the loveliest hotels in the state. Gage Hotel is a beautiful oasis in the center of this brown and desolate expanse. With its lush and colorful landscaping, the Gage makes you feel as though you have stepped into a Technicolor dream. Home to the famous White Buffalo Bar, the Gage is a must do even if you plan to lay your head elsewhere. I had a fabulous jalapeño margarita, and the bar snacks are nothing to scoff at. We also ate at the main restaurant, which was a meal to remember, but we found the bar area much more accommodating to children and opted to dine there the following night. They were obsessed with the white buffalo trophy hanging on the wall, and a cozy fireside table was the perfect setting for our family dinner.
The Gage is definitely the place to be if you are visiting Marathon, but you might want to ease on down the road if you are a fraidy cat. According to local folklore, there are at least three resident ghosts keeping company at the hotel, and Room 10 is allegedly their favorite haunt (pun intended!). I believe these sightings most likely came after too much time bellying up at the White Buffalo Bar!
The morning after our arrival, we picked up picnic supplies at The French Company Grocer and took off for Big Bend. After first stopping at the welcome center to get a packet for my son to earn his Junior Park Ranger badge, we were off to explore this beautiful park. Although we enjoyed most of the views from our car, we did get out to hike the very short and very manageable Fossil Discovery Trail. We were surprised to see so many bluebonnets already blossoming in mid-March, almost a full month before we spotted any blooms around Houston.
My children were two and four at the time, so you can imagine our options were quite limited. It was very fun, however, just to see the sights and point out all of the different landscapes and desert wildlife. We enjoyed lunch right on the Rio Grande River with Mexico a literal stone’s throw away, albeit across the rushing water. The kids threw rocks into the river, and we just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. The gorgeous river canyons, desert landscape, and colorful mountains are jaw dropping and not be missed!
We debated a second day at Big Bend, but mindful of our limitations, we decided to cut our losses and leave early for Marfa. The park and Marathon were great, but we were ready to see the art and culture of the most buzzed-about small town…perhaps ever! Get the scoop on Marfa in Going Out West, Part 2 — coming to the blog soon! In the meantime, if you plan to visit Marathon or Big Bend, here are some of my recs:
There is no question, Gage Hotel is where you want to rest your bones. Even if there were many other options, which there aren’t, the Gage is just an amazing, fabulous hotel. The majority of the rooms open up to a center courtyard with impeccable landscaping. If you find yourself with nothing better to do, you can always just sit in one of the many rocking chairs lining the doors to the rooms and take in the gorgeous view.
Again, the Gage Hotel is the place to be! You can dine at the chic and delicious 12 Gage Restaurant, which boasts an extensive wine list, including their own private label, and serves inspired seasonal dishes that would rival any of Houston’s own hot spots. As with most Texan restaurants, the menu is definitely beef heavy, but with steaks this good, you won’t find many people complaining! (Not to worry if red meat is not your thing – they offer several seafood, poultry, and vegetarian options as well.)
For a more casual option, The White Buffalo Bar at the Gage is top notch. A sampling of their Spring 2015 menu includes brisket tacos, Mexican shrimp and crab cocktail, and their famous White Buffalo Burger. You can sip a ranch water or prickly pear margarita while you chat with the locals, who seemed to make this their second home during our stay. The atmosphere was lively, but we never felt it was too much of a “bar scene” for our kids during the early evening hours. There were other children dining, and the ground venison sliders were perfect for the kids to share.
For breakfast, lunch, or just a fun treat, Johnny B’s Old Fashioned Soda Fountain is within walking distance from the Gage. This is a no-frills, greasy spoon kind of place serving hamburgers, fries, and old school stacked enchiladas, as well as homemade shakes, malts, and floats.
Marathon Coffee Shop also serves up a pretty legit morning meal, offering delicious breakfast tacos and enchiladas, as well as homestyle biscuits and gravy. If you’re lucky, you will time your meal to coincide with that of the local banjo player who enjoys picking and strumming for the patrons sitting on the porch!
The French Company Grocer is the local general store, and you can find simple groceries, produce, beer and wine, camping supplies, and even a few great souvenirs on its shelves. I scored a handsome Big Bend coffee table book to take home with us! (This is one of my favorite travel tips: Do not waste your money on cheap and cheesy tchotchkes or knick-knacks when you vacation. Instead, try to find something unique that you will actually wear or use in your home. Coffee table books are my favorite souvenirs. I always hate myself briefly when I’m lugging them around and paying extra baggage fees for their heft, but it is all worth it when I get home and have a beautiful memento to display.)
There are several local galleries and shops on the main drag in Marathon, and you can get the full experience in a few hours’ time. When you’re finished exploring on foot, I suggest taking a short drive along Post Road. This scenic route is about five miles long and ends at Post Park, which lies next to a pretty little pond formed by the Pena Colorado River. The path to the park is known for its abundant wildlife – wild turkeys, javelinas, deer, and the occasional fox can be found along Post Road. My children had a great time “hunting” for animals and, once again, throwing rocks into the river!
Although we were quite limited in our activities with two preschoolers, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Marathon and our journey to Big Bend National Park. The park itself is enormous, and I would love to spend several days exploring and hiking the trails next time. The Chisos Mountain views are drop-dead gorgeous, and the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert is unlike anything I’ve seen. I can’t wait to get a closer look! A fun fact about the Chisos: it is the only U.S. mountain range contained entirely in a national park!
There are a gazillion website and travel blogs that provide far more information about the various trails and routes in Big Bend than I am qualified to speak on. There are, however, a few must see places I have on my list for next time: 1) Big Bend Ranch State Park is adjacent to the National Park, and I think it would be worth it to check out some of the terrain in this less-explored wilderness. If you’ve seen Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood, the final “seize the moment” scene was filmed in Big Bend Ranch State Park. 2) The ghost town of Terlingua is fascinating to me. I have read so much about it, and I would love to explore this little gem, including the Starlight Theatre and La Kiva (temporarily closed for renovations). 3) In nearby Alpine, the Big Bend Brewing Company is a must if traveling without the babes. They are brewing some fabulous beer, and I think a tour and tasting would be a blast! 4) The Mexican town of Boquillas also borders the park, and cross-border access was reopened in 2013. You can rent burros to ride, and from what I understand, Boquillas is completely safe. I say cross at your own risk…you probably won’t see me there!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my adventures in the wild, wild west! Up next…Marfa!