Prada Marfa may look best in your rearview mirror. Photo by Thomas Hawk/Flickr.
Part of the allure of Marfa, Texas, is that it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Without its remote, unlikely setting, the Instagram-famous Prada Marfa art installation would be considerably less interesting. But although this arid region—known as the Trans-Pecos—is indeed vast and vastly empty, there are actually things to explore beyond Marfa’s art oasis of galleries and hotel pools. If you’ve already traveled all the way to this secluded cultural outpost in far West Texas, why not go a bit further? Strike out into the desert and you’ll be surprised by what you find.
Start by driving north on state Highway 17 and before long you’ll be in the frontier town of Fort Davis. Now a National Historic Site, the fort was established in 1854 as a military post to guard the San Antonio–El Paso road against attacks by Comanches and Apaches. If you look, you can find a few lingering vestiges of those Wild West days, like the Davis Mountain Broom Shop, where owner and broom maker Jim Goodwin employs 19th-century techniques to fashion handmade sweepers out of broomcorn. Down the street, the Fort Davis Drug Store is only slightly more modern, having opened in 1913; it still serves floats, malts, and milk shakes from a charmingly old-fashioned soda fountain.
If you continue along Highway 17 from Fort Davis for a half an hour, you’ll reach Balmorhea State Park, which contains an unlikely sight: the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. Right in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, millions of gallons of cool, fresh springwater flow through the 1.75 acre pool each day. At some points it reaches a depth of 25 feet, which is deep enough for the intrepid to scuba dive among the resident fish and turtles.
Alternatively, if you take a left out of Fort Davis and onto state Highway 118, you’ll hit the start of the Davis Mountain Scenic Loop. If you have the time, it’s worth turning up the radio and driving the whole 75-mile circuit, which circles back to Fort Davis along highway 166, through the rolling, mountainous landscape. But if the open sky beckons more than the open road, head straight along Highway 118 for 20 minutes and you’ll reach the McDonald Observatory, a research facility operated by the University of Texas. During the day you can tour the giant scientific telescopes and watch live feeds of solar flares in real time. In the evenings, take advantage of one of the darkest night skies in the continental United States at the observatory’s popular stargazing events.
Follow Highway 118 south for two hours, however, and you’ll reach Terlingua Ghost Town, a worthwhile stop for anyone who has an appreciation for the unusual but found the “mysterious” Marfa lights a little underwhelming. The turn-of-the-century mining settlement went from boom to bust in the span of 50 years, but recently, the abandoned buildings have been coming back to life—literally. The old Starlight Theatre is now a restaurant, saloon, and hotel. And the original Chisos Mine Company Store has become the Terlingua Trading Company. The gift shop’s front porch is the default gathering place for locals (and usually a sleeping dog or two); like the rest of the town, there isn’t a lot to do but it’s a great place to just be. Plus, it gives you a sense of what would happen if Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers decided to collaborate on a spaghetti western.
Once you’re in Terlingua, it would be a shame not to visit the Big Bend National and State Parks that surround the reincarnated ghost town. From here you can cross into Mexico for a taco, float down the Rio Grande, and hike or cycle through the solitary mountains and silent canyons. Or you could just go for a drive and keep drinking in the unique West Texas surroundings: open space and wide skies, cacti that look exactly like you used to draw them as a child, tumbleweeds and road runners (which are so much smaller than Warner Brothers led us to believe, but you will nevertheless recognize them as they dash across the asphalt). Prada Marfa needs the desert to make it extraordinary. The desert needs no such help.