Built in 1927, Route 90 was the first roadway to stretch nearly the full width of Texas. Stretching 607 miles between Van Horn and Orange, the traffic on Route 90 decreased significantly when I-10 opened up, covering much of the same route in a fraction of the time. Route 90 separates from I-10 in Van Horn, traveling farther south near the Rio Grande and Mexican border. They re-connect in San Antonio and continue together to Orange at the state line with Louisiana.
If you just want to cross Texas, then I-10 is by far the faster and more direct route. But for travelers interested in some off-the-radar towns and sweeping views of the Rio Grande, Route 90 is a scenic alternative to the busy interstate.
Route 90 originates in Van Horn, Texas, about 120 miles southeast of El Paso where it splits off from I-10 and continues south. After a lot of open road with few landmarks—besides a jarring and ostentatious Prada store on the side of the highway—the first stop for most travelers is Marfa at mile 73. Tourism in Marfa is based on two things, history and mystery. Like most West Texas towns, Marfa dates back to the 19th century when it was founded as a frontier post for the expanding railroad.
But it's perhaps best known for the "Mysterious Marfa Lights," which have been viewed (and unexplained) since 1883. Marfa's history has been inextricably linked to the lights, making it a popular destination for UFO chasers and those interested in the supernatural. Those who've seen the lights describe them as colorful orbs about the size of basketballs that dance in the sky—but others question whether they even really exist. You can try you luck by stopping at the Marfa Lights viewing center right off of Route 90, about nine miles past the town center. There's no guarantee you'll see them, but time your drive through Marfa to be at night if you want a chance to witness this special phenomenon yourself.
After driving 25 miles past Marfa, you'll reach Alpine. It doesn't feel like a major city, but Alpine is a big fish in a small pond, billing itself as the "Hub of the Big Bend" since it's the biggest city in the expansive Big Bend area of South Texas. It's also a college town and home to Sul Ross University, so the charming downtown maintains its bygone ambiance with a trendy vibe to cater to local students.
Alpine also houses the Museum of the Big Bend, which focuses on Native American history, the mining era, frontier exploration, and the railroad. Additionally, Alpine's location between the Davis Mountains and the Chihuahuan Desert affords visitors spectacular views and plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities.
Long a favorite travel spot during winter for Texans, the Big Bend town of Marathon offers a mild climate, plenty of outdoor recreational activities, and close proximity to Mexico, the McDonald Observatory, Big Bend National Park, and much more. Originally a railroad town, Marathon was founded in 1882. In a quirky twist of West Texas history, Marathon was originally the county seat of Buchel County. However, Buchel County disestablished in 1897 because of the meager population and Marathon became part of Brewster County.
Marathon is mostly known as the gateway to Big Bend National Park, so turn off Route 90 to head south on U.S. 385 if you plan to visit this Texas gem. It's a significant detour—about two hours each way from Highway 90—but if you have the time to spare, it's well worth the extra mileage.
After Marathon, drivers can put it on cruise control for nearly 200 miles and enjoy the river views until the next big town (relatively speaking) which is Del Rio. Just before entering Del Rio, you'll cross over the Amistad Reservoir and the surrounding Amistad National Recreation Area. After a long time seated in the car, it's the perfect place to pull over and stretch your legs. You can go for a hike, swim in the lake, enjoy a picnic, or even go fishing if you have the equipment.
The town of Del Rio is also home to a number of top-notch museums, such as the Whitehead Memorial Museum for American History and the Laughlin Heritage Museum for military history. The Val Verde Winery is the oldest winery in Texas and is one of the best places to try Texan wines.
After passing through Del Rio, Route 90 winds through South Texas stops such as Bracketville, Uvalde, Sabinal, Hondo, and Castroville before entering the Texas tourism mecca of San Antonio. In San Antonio, Route 90 begins its off-again, on-again intermingling with I-10. Several times between San Antonio and the Louisiana border, the two highways run concurrently ("multiplexing," as the highway department likes to say). Regardless, visitors will have little difficulty finding plenty to see and do in the Alamo City. The San Antonio Riverwalk, the Alamo, SeaWorld, Fiesta Texas, the San Antonio Zoo, and Hemisphere Park are all in the city, as well as numerous museums, restaurants, shops, and other attractions.
About an hour after leaving San Antonio, Route 90 weaves through a series of small towns with a distinctive German-Czech ambiance. The neighboring towns of Flatonia, Schulenburg, and Weimar were originally settled by immigrants from modern-day Germany and the Czech Republic, and have maintained their cultural roots while also blending them with their Texan surroundings. You don't need to visit each one of them but choose at least one to try a local bakery, cultural dishes, and some Central European beers. If you happen to be visiting during one of their annual festivals (ranging from early August to later October, depending on the city), you couldn't ask for a better time to visit.
Following the quaint Czech community stretch of Route 90, the highway plunges into Texas' largest city, Houston, home to some of Texas’ most popular attractions. The Johnson Space Center was at the center of the space race during the 1960s and is still active in space exploration. Of course, the San Jacinto Monument marks the very spot where Texas won its independence from Mexico and is a must-see for history buffs. Adjacent to the San Jacinto Monument is the Battleship Texas, which fought to maintain America’s freedom during World War II.
The Hermann Zoo is the second most visited zoo in the country and has long been a favorite stop for Houston area residents and visitors alike. For a truly memorable experience, the Animal Encounters packages let guests get up close and personal with different species, such as cheetahs, sloths, elephants, and sea lions. Houston also boasts an impressive array of museums, including the Buffalo Soldier Museum, the Holocaust Museum, Museum of Natural Science, Museum of Fine Arts, and many, many more.
Route 90 covers a number of tiny villages and towns after Houston until arriving at the next bigger stop, Beaumont, an oil boom town that still produces oil today. A unique blend of Texan and Cajun influences, Beaumont is a big city in a small-town package, with a number of quirky museums such as the Fire Museum of Texas, the Texas Energy Museum, and the Art Museum of Southeast Texas.
Beaumont also has a renowned live music scene and offers visitors a number of outdoor recreational activities as well, especially the nearby Cattail Marsh Wetlands (you might even spot a wild alligator). Crockett Street is the main boulevard and entertainment district, featuring restored buildings from the early 20th century and a wide collection of places to enjoy a drink, have a meal, or just walk around and enjoy the city.
The final stop before Route 90 leaves Texas and enters Louisiana is the city of Orange. Located on the border of Texas and Louisiana, Orange is a unique blend of Texan and Cajun cultures. Nearby Sabine Lake is a scenic place to relax and play around in the water—although it is especially popular with recreational fishermen. Orange itself is home to a number of great restaurants and small attractions, such as the 19th-century W.H. Stark House, a Victorian gem and a Texas Historic Landmark. From Orange, you can finish your Route 90 road trip or continue on through the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and all the way to the Atlantic Coast of Florida where it ends in Jacksonville.