Trip Report: My Texas-sized road trip to Austin, Big Bend National Park & Marfa

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I spent most of last week partying in Austin, hiking in Big Bend National Park, and driving. Lots of driving. I drove over 1,000 miles last week. But let me tell you: West Texas is insanely gorgeous. I had no idea. I kept thinking, “This is Texas?!” as I hiked and drove around the Big Bend area, very much in the middle of nowhere.

I was also able to squeeze in the River Road drive between Lajitas and Presidio (on my way to Marfa), 67 miles of pure twisty mountainous highway considered to be the most scenic drive in Texas and one of the most beautiful in the country.

All the hiking and driving made me feel, at times, that I was perhaps the last person on Earth. It’s such beautiful nature out there. And at night, you can see thousands and millions of stars and glimpses of the Milky Way, which make you feel like you’re on the fringes of the galaxy – which you actually are. Absolutely cosmic.

Big Bend trip report

At the terminus of Lost Mine trail, on the mountains… in Texas!

I wasn’t expecting so many mountains. Or to experience such biodiversity in Big Bend. For example, did you know there are bears in Texas? I sure didn’t. But sure enough, the park is populated with thriving black bears, along with mountain lions, deer, rattlesnakes, and lots of other critters that move between scorched desert to canyon to near-jungle, from cactus flowers to alpines.

Here’s more from the trip.

Big Bend trip report

Austin

I took a week off work to do this trip. Clocked out Friday afternoon, then woke up early Saturday and boogied down to Austin.

I reserved two nights at the Hyatt Place Austin-North Central with Hyatt points for Halloween and the night after. This was purely just for fun. I hadn’t seen my Austin friends in an age and spent two full days brunching, going to the park, and hanging out with them.

I’ve been mostly cooped all for most of the year so I was beyond ready for some socializing. The time flew by, as it does. And then I hopped in my car and drove west – all the way west and a little south, almost to Mexico.

Texas is big

Terlingua

And after driving all day, I found the little cabin I’d rented off Airbnb. For the stay, I paid with my Chase Freedom Flex via PayPal because that’s a 5X bonus category this quarter – so I was able to earn 5X Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Sweet deal!

My adorable Airbnb cabin outside the entrance to Big Bend

The cabin was located about 5 miles outside the West entrance to Big Bend, which was so convenient. And it was only ~10 minutes to the little town of Terlingua, Texas, where there’s a ghost town, a few cute restaurants, and… not much else. 🌵

Terlingua is adorable

Exploring the ruins of the ghost town in Terlingua

Once I got settled, I got my backpack ready for a couple of days of hiking in Big Bend. The weather was gorgeous throughout my stay. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky – which was a good and bad thing.

Unpacking in the cabin

Big Bend Part 1

The mornings were chilly, but the afternoons were hot. Maybe high 70s/low 80s – nothing too hot by Texas standards. But most areas of the park are vast and open, completely unshaded and exposed to the sun. So it feels really hot really fast. For that reason, I woke up before dawn and was on my way into the park by the sun’s first rays.

Driving into the park for the first time was absolutely magical. I was the only one on the road and listened to Tori Amos’ Americana-tinged Scarlet’s Walk album, which was perfect for a drive as beautiful as this one was.

Big Bend trip report

This is the drive into Big Bend – can you believe?

When I got there, signs advised being off the trails by 10am. So I did my first hike, the Lost Mine Trail, as quickly as I could while also keeping in mind that early morning is a favorite time of bears and mountain lions. 🙀

Extreme heat hazard – and bears

It was also at this moment, when I entered the park and stepped foot onto the trail, that nature started to heal me. “Healing” is an open-ended word and process. By this I mean, I could feel myself reorienting and breathing deeply again. I hadn’t been on a proper hiking trail since Glacier National Park a couple of years ago, which is criminal.

Big Bend trip report

The woods

I also felt extremely alone on the trail. A long time passed before I saw anyone else. And in that time, I made sure to feel the earth under my feet and the rocks with my hands and look at all the shades of green passing through my eyes. It was so wonderful. And so, so beautiful.

Big Bend trip report

Amazing mountain vista

After a while, I made my way up the mountain, which opened to wide, panoramic vistas. Unreal how beautiful it was.

Big Bend Part 2

By the time I made my way back down the mountain, it was indeed pretty hot. I did a shorter hike to Boquillas Canyon, which is only 1.4 miles round-trip out and back. But by the time I was done, I was starting to overheat, so I made my way to the visitor center and loaded up on water, then made my way back to the cabin.

Boquillas Canyon and the hot hot hot sun

At night, I laid down on the picnic table and looked at all the stars.

Sunset in Terlingua

The next day, I got up and drove into the park again.

Big Bend trip report

Kinda lunar, eh?

And did two more hikes. First was the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff trail, which was short and completely beautiful. I was all alone for this one the entire time.

Big Bend trip report

Red cactus ❤️

Big Bend trip report

Mountain face

And then hiked to Santa Elena canyon, which involved some scrambling up a mountain to get around the Rio Grande, which was unusually high this time of year – waist deep it was.

Big Bend trip report

At Santa Elena canyon

Big Bend trip report

I love the layers upon layers of rock erosion

Afterward, I spent more time in Terlingua and made sure to grab a drink at the Starlight Theatre (a must if you ever go there!).

Originally, I was going to drive home after this. But I loved the area so much, I decided to extend the trip and spend a night in Marfa.

River Road to Marfa

I absolutely had to see the River Road after being blown away by the natural beauty in the area. There were many long stretches where I didn’t see another car and again, felt like I was the last living person.

View of the River Road

SH170 runs into Highway 67, and I took that directly into Marfa. I took my time on the River Road, as it’s very twisty and narrow.

 

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Of course, if you’re in the area, you gotta stop by Prada Marfa, which is A) actually a sculpture and B) not in Marfa, but in Valentine, Texas, about 35 miles west of Marfa. And yes, I also did it for the ‘Gram.

After the long drive, I went into town and found a cute cafe with local beers, then made my way to a lodge I found on Hotels.com. I thought about trying to see the Marfa Lights, but was pretty well tired by all the driving and hiking by this point, so I let that one go.

Big Bend trip report

The best navigator

Throughout this trip my sweet dog, Fenwick, was right next to me. He was so so good in the car and loved seeing all the new places. My boy is 10 years old by now. 😭

We then drove the home stretch from Marfa back to Dallas, which took a little over 7 hours. When I got back, I went to the store for groceries and passed out.

The next day when I woke up, I felt more energized and ready to get going – an energy I still have now, almost a week later. Being in nature is always so good for me. I can’t believe it’s been so long since I immersed myself in forests and mountains. #notetoself

Big Bend trip report bottom line

This trip was definitely a reminder to get into nature more often. Big Bend was amazing. And now that I have my parks pass (which is only $80), I can’t wait to see more of our national parks.

Over and over, I was blown away by the natural beauty of West Texas. I had no idea all that was out there – no one ever talks about it! So I must say: if you ever get the chance to explore Big Bend, it’s unreal how beautiful it is. And how vast. Give yourself at least a few days and perhaps a couple more to explore the rest of the area. (This is true for all national parks, I reckon).

My big takeaway was how good it felt to be in my car and driving. I have missed traveling so much in 2020. This trip got me out of the house and broke my homeostasis in a powerful way. I think I was getting too stir-crazy up at home, really. 😅

So that’s my trip report! Have you visited the Big Bend area? Or taken any road trips? What does travel or having an “escape” look like to you this year?

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

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Comments

  1. I stopped by the Marfa Lights when I was in the area a few years ago. I was…. pretty underwhelmed. I mean I’d stop by if I was “in the neighborhood” but I wouldn’t go out of my way

    • You know how at the end of a trip, you hit a wall and can’t pack in any more new experiences? It was like that. I’ve heard it can be either really cool or really underwhelming, but yeah… maybe next time if I find myself in the area again, like you said. Appreciate you reading and commenting!

  2. Wow, looks so much more western than you’d expect. We drove I-10 to El Paso and on to CA and it’s some great driving scenery. You really need to get to Zion and Bryce, but especially Zion. It’s incredible. We got our pass a few months before Covid so it’s mostly gone to waste, but we did get to see some great sights. Oh, also Carlsbad Caverns and the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert are great too.

    • Yes yes YES! I have been to all of those places, and really really love Zion. Utah is incredibly gorgeous! I would also add in the NORTH rim of the Grand Canyon – much different than the more touristy south rim. Maybe I just need to move out west lol. I’m dying to go back to Zion and Bryce. I guess I didn’t realize West Texas had a bit of that western magic. Really blew me away with how beautiful it is out that way.

      • For sure. We had meant to visit Big Bend but never had time. No state income tax in Nevada 😉 We’ve also lived in Denver and there’s another wealth of natural beauty if you can afford it. We couldn’t, but we’d love to move back if possible.

        • I wouldn’t even try to live in Colorado at this point. But Las Vegas is still cheap and certainly an option. Before Covid, I might’ve done it, but now I think I’d rather be closer to my family in Tennessee (also no state income tax). Amazing what a pandemic can do to your world outlook after a solid eight or nine months (and counting). I love the Smokies and areas around, but there’s just something so rugged and austere about the landscapes out west. Maybe in another lifetime – ya never know!

          • TN has no state income tax, but they do tax dividend and interest income if that matters to you. The tax will be completely gone in 2021 as it lowers by 1% each year.

            We’ve lived in NC too 😉 Loved it there before moving to CO. I think we liked living there, but the natural beauty of CO is tough to beat. And we spent a good amount of time in WNC mountains too. Such a relaxing retreat.

          • I could skip CO and settle for NM. And yeah, not worried about TN’s dividend tax as it will be gone soon, so nothing to think about there. Heck, maybe I should just be a nomad for a little while and take a page out of your book. 🙂

          • Oh we could totally live in NM too. Had a few weeks in the state and loved it. No humidity, western landscape, super relaxing. And the food… New Mexican is a food all its own and worth living on.

            I can recommend the nomad lifestyle if you can make an income work. We couldn’t which is why it’s basically done. Kinda wish we bought a small RV to see more of the country and not stress so much.

            America the beautiful, such a fitting name 🙂

  3. We’re doing Florida and a little bit of Georgia road trips. We miss traveling so, so much! A bit different this time since we have to tow a baby everywhere we go so sometimes grandma steps in to take care of him. Haven’t been to this part of Texas, but that state is just so darned huge its like a country in itself.

    Can’t wait for things to normalize, we’re already planning a few trips next year in the hopes that there will be a vaccine by then!

    On another note — I’ve been reading much more books than usual since the pandemic – averaging a book a week. I guess that’s how I compensated from not traveling – picked up reading as a hobby a lot more than travel.

    • You know, books are absolutely a journey in their own way. I’ve been ready a lot more too. It’s amazing where you can go within your mind. But I feel ya – there’s nothing like getting out in the world and seeing brand new things. I can’t wait for my first big international trip post-Covid where things are open and relatively normal again. It seems like that will be so far away. But these road trips are tiding even over, even though I’d prefer to cruise in the sky instead of drive long distances lol.

      I also miss in-person gatherings and meeting people at events and conferences. Hang in there – we will get through this, one way or another! <3

  4. Enjoyed your trip report quite a bit. A couple years ago, I spent several days exploring the National Parks in West Texas and New Mexico and Big Bend was a definite highlight. I second your recommendation for folks to visit. They will be pleasantly surprised.

      • What month did you go? I didn’t see a date in your blog. We are taking our family trip there in two weeks and want to pack clothes appropriate for the weather. We live in Houston so we are totally use to the heat, but if it’s gonna be cold, we need to prepare for that.

        • Hi Jennifer! I was there this month – the first week of November. It was hot and clear during the day and chilly in the evenings. I brought short sleeves and plenty of sunscreen for hiking and a jacket for the evening, though I really didn’t need it. When you wake up, it’s still cold but it warms up fast and if you’re moving around, it actually feels really great. That said, I tend to run hot, so be sure to adjust to your levels of cold tolerance.

          It’s so beautiful there – I hope you love it! I ran into many folks from Houston on the trails. Have so much fun!

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