The Big Bend region made it onto our bucket list for its State and National Parks. It was only upon arriving in the area that we discovered its delightfully eclectic little towns, which were just as enjoyable and absolutely worth a visit. In this post, we share our experiences and recommendations for our 3 favourite towns and highlight 2 other towns worth an honourable mention. This is Part 2 of a 3-part series about Vanlife in Big Bend country so if you haven’t already read Part 1 – The Parks, check it out here first.
Some of the towns we visited were planned stops, others we stumbled upon en route. Each of them had its charms, but we can’t deny that we had favourites. The list below is in order of preference.
#1 – Alpine
Low key, funky, and far out, Alpine (population ~ 6,000) is the hub of the Big Bend region and an absolute gem. We loved it because it’s big enough to spend all day exploring but small enough that it’s easy to navigate. The town was tourist-friendly but its character hasn’t yet been shaped by tourism… that’s a difficult balance to achieve. We both immediately felt like ‘this place has everything – we could happily live here’.
Our first stop was the cute tourist information office in the centre of town. They were very helpful and sent us off with excellent ideas for exploring, way too many brochures, and a free sticker (yay!).
The highlights for us were…
- Following the Alpine Historic Walking Tour – a great way to learn about town’s history while also admiring the streetscapes and exploring its galleries, shops and restaurants.
- Eating lunch at Tri-La-Bite Food Truck – we ate one of the best burgers we’ve ever had – a Bacon Cheeseburger topped with spicy Chili Rellenos – amongst dinosaurs and other very eclectic décor.
- Drinking lattes at the top-rated Cedar Coffee Supply – like we really needed more calories after lunch – but we can never say no to a good coffee tasting opportunity.
- Chatting with friendly locals – who were very interested in Walter, curious about where we were from and eager to provide local stories and advice for as long as we were willing to stop and listen. We’ve found that meeting local people is one of the best ways to really start understanding a place.
- Hiking on the Hancock Trail System – we climbed the trails above the Sul Ross University Campus to discover excellent views of the town and some very photogenic wildlife.
#2 – Marfa
Marfa – how do I even describe it? With a population of ~ 1,800, Marfa is a tiny town with a big personality. It’s part arts hub, part ranching community, part vortex…? People from all walks of life, including Hollywood celebrities, come to visit this strange, culturally-unique place. The films Giant and There Will Be Blood were filmed here. Anthony Bourdain and Matthew McConaughey have eaten at Marfa Burritos, Lance Armstrong bought a house in town, and Beyonce popped in for a day to visit the Prada installation. This town also attracts bohemians coming to mediate and tourists of all types hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious Marfa lights.
Like everyone else, we got sucked into the vortex and stayed an extra day to soak in the atmosphere. The highlights for us were…
- Camping at El Cosmico – we spent 2 nights at this boutique hotel/campground for bohemians. Here you can rent teepees, yurts, old funky trailers and army tents. We camped in our own van in the parking lot but had access to all the amenities. The outdoor showers were glorious and hot but with large gaps in the enclosures, not quite private enough for modest Marc’s liking. It was a perfect place to meet other like-minded travellers – shout out to Sonny, Kelly and Maddox, we wish we could bring you with us in the van! At $43/night ($21.50/person) we found it to be a bit overpriced for parking lot camping, but there was no denying the contagious vibe.
- Sightseeing downtown – it’s a tiny downtown but the courthouse, Hotel Paisano and adobe buildings cannot be missed.
- Consuming delicious things – Marfa has a disproportionate number excellent restaurants and cafés. We loved the pizza at Para Llevar, the burritos at Marfa Burritos, the coffee at the Sentinel and the homemade ice cream at Frama (which conveniently had a laundromat next door).
- Chatting with friendly locals – like in Alpine, the locals here were super kind and eager to chat. We had conversations about everything from the soaring local real estate prices to illegal border crossing activity and dog training techniques. We learned more about the town in a few short conversations than we would have in an hour of internet research.
- Watching the mysterious Marfa Lights – we visited the site of the mysterious lights that appear in the hills outside of Marfa. Some say the lights are reflections from far off headlights, caused by temperature changes. Others say they are from UFOs. We saw lights… we’re not sure if they were “the” lights, but it was a fantastic place for stargazing and to park overnight for free.
#3 – Marathon
We stopped at the Marathon Hotel and RV Park for the hot showers and $15 dry camping. We were seriously in need of a shower after many days of boondocking. If we had not planned to stop here, we may have completely missed this quaint little village, with its population of just over 300 (seriously, don’t blink or you’ll miss it). Even if you don’t need a shower, it’s worth popping into this town with its historic buildings and stargazing. For us, the highlights were…
- Staying at the Marathon Hotel and RV Park – we parked in the dry-camping area, which had lots of space to spread out and a beautiful view of the mountains. The hot shower was one of the best and cleanest we’ve ever experienced in a campground – we’d go back just for that. The people working in the front office were super helpful and gave us advice about the Big Bend National Park and stargazing that helped shape our time in the area.
- Visiting the tiny mainstreet – we spent a couple of hours exploring the mainstreet. We really enjoyed strolling past the Gage Hotel and peaking into the little adobe shops and galleries.
- Discovering the French Grocer – The V6 Coffee Shop was closed when we arrived,but thankfully the French Grocer came to the rescue. This little grocery store has good lattes, groceries and a burger night – talk about full service! We drank our lattes in their seating area, accompanied by their very friendly and curious daschund, who appeared to want to both befriend Walter and ride him like a horse.
Terlingua is a former ghost town – an old mining town that closed in 1942. It has more recently been revived and although it has a steady population of just over 100 people, there are plenty of tourist amenities including shops at the old Trading Company store, accommodations, restaurants, and old ghost town relics. It’s a very convenient stop between the National and State Parks. We ate tacos at Taqueria El Milagro and they were so good, that we’d have sworn we were in Mexico.
The historic town of Lajitas, located just outside the State Park, was purchased by a wealthy entrepreneur in 1977 and has since been developed as a western-themed resort and RV park. We didn’t spend time in the resort, but we did spend hours hiking the Lajitas Community Trail system, which was absolutely worth the visit. More about that in Part 3 of this series – dog-friendly hikes – stay tuned.