West Texas is primarily known for its remote and rugged landscape, complete with the Big Bend in the Rio Grande River. El Paso is the region's biggest city (and a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts), but a number of small and unique towns dot the area, too. These locales—together with the awe-inspiring beauty of nature—offer outdoor lovers a surprising array of things to see and do. Hop on a mountain bike and take a spin in the Franklin Mountains, gaze at the stars on top of a peak in the Davis Range, or tour a modern art museum with 350 acres of outdoor exhibits. Visiting this underrated region of our country will not disappoint.
Big Bend National Park is the biggest and best-known attraction in West Texas. Designated as an International Biosphere Reserve, Big Bend offers a variety of outdoor recreational activities in a primitive setting. The park encompasses 801,000 acres—including 118 miles of the Rio Grande River—leaving no shortage of area for hikers to explore. Trailside visitors are treated to an amazing array of flora and fauna, with more than 450 bird species, 75 mammal species, and 67 amphibian and reptile species. And it's usually crowd-free, too, as many cross-country travelers pass it by opting for other national parks in the West instead.
Hueco Tanks State Park is located just a short drive outside El Paso. This 900-acre Texas state park is the site of the last Indian battle in El Paso County. And, in earlier times, visitors came to sip rainwater pooled in natural rock basins, or huecos (“whey-coes”). Numerous cave paintings can be found throughout the park that also offers a wide variety of activities, including hiking, birdwatching, and pictograph tours. But it's best known for its rock climbing and bouldering opportunities, which are among the best in the nation. Every year, professional climbers gather here to participate in Hueco Tanks Rock Rodeo bouldering competition, which happens sometime in February.
Believe it or not, West Texas is home to some of the best golf courses in the state. In fact, El Paso's Painted Dunes Desert Golf Course offers 27 of the most scenic holes in the American Southwest and has been consistently named one of the top courses in Texas by Golf Digest. A number of other courses with amazing backdrops dot the West Texas landscape, too, from Midland to Odessa. Play for cheap at a home-town spot like Butterfield Trail Golf Club or enjoy a luxurious stay at Lajitas Resort Golf Course.
Marfa is one of the most unique small towns in Texas (or anywhere else for that matter). On the surface, it looks a lot like Texas' older towns, with a number of historic attractions that date back to the mid-1800s. But, what Marfa is really defined by is the appearance of mysterious lights on the horizon, known as Marfa Lights or the Marfa Ghost Lights. These lights, associated with paranormal activity, have been seen almost nightly since they were first spotted in 1883. But even now—over 100 years later—no one is able to explain this phenomenon. Head to the Marfa Lights viewing area just outside of town to see the sight for yourself. Or, attend the annual Marfa Lights Festival, complete with a parade and food and craft vendors.
Experience Frontier History in Fort Stockton
Much of West Texas' character and charm comes from the small towns sprinkled across the region. And Fort Stockton, just across the river from Mexico, is one of them. Immerse yourself in history in this town where two cultures collide by visiting the historic Old Pecos County Jail (make sure to book a tour ahead of time). Or, stroll through the old fort cemetery and take a selfie with Paisano Pete—a 22-foot-long roadrunner statue on Main Street—while getting a feel for the real Wild West.
Located on the Texas and Mexico border, and not far outside of El Paso, sits Guadalupe National Park. This home to the fourth highest peak in Texas and an extensive Permian fossil reef is a must-see for aspiring archeologists and geography buffs. Choose from over 86 miles of trails to hike and explore three different ecosystems. But be prepared for seclusion if you visit. There is no gasoline available in the park, cell phone reception is marginal, and the weather can change on a dime.
Tour the Chinati Foundation Museum
The Chinati Foundation contemporary art museum aims to preserve and present large-scale art installations that reflect the surrounding landscape. It's located on 340 acres of land on the former site of Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, Texas. Among works from a plethora of different artists, this museum hosts 15 of Donald Judd's outdoor concrete works and 100 of his mill aluminum projects in two converted artillery sheds. Dan Flavin’s installation of colored fluorescent light lives in six former barracks buildings. And 25 of John Chamberlain’s sculptures reside in a renovated wool warehouse in downtown Marfa. If you enjoy outdoor art made from a variety of mediums, this place is your spot.
With 27,000 acres and over 100 miles of trails, Franklin Mountains State Park, just outside of El Paso, is waiting to be explored. A variety of ranger programs offer guided hikes and bike rides through rugged desert terrain. Pitch your tent and stay for a while on one of 14 walk-to campsites in the Tom Mays Unit (make sure you pre-book). Or, reserve a group site for a mountain bike gathering. Campsites do not have electricity or water, so bring enough supplies for your cooking and drinking needs.
View the Night Sky in the McDonald Observatory
The famous McDonald Observatory, operated by the University of Texas at Austin, leads the charge on astronomical research, teaching, public education, and outreach. The facilities are located on top of Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes in the Davis Mountains and house a sampling of some of the largest telescopes in the world. Attend a public star party on a Tuesday, Friday, or Saturday evening or book an exclusive viewing program on one of the site's research telescopes. Astrologists are on-hand to discuss a variety of interplanetary topics like black holes, the solar system, and other galaxies.