Oh, Marfa! That hip, mystical town in far West Texas that everyone’s raving about. What makes it so special? Is it really worth the visit? What’s there to do in that part of the state?
We headed to Texas on a road trip to find out.
First things first: To drive or to fly to West Texas?
Smack dab in the middle of the Texan desert, nearly 20 miles from the next town and almost 200 miles from the nearest major airport, those wanting to visit Marfa, Texas, must embark on an epic quest.
Most people hightailing it to Marfa fly into Midland-Odesa or El Paso, which provide the shortest routes to town (just under three hours). Since we knew we’d be renting a car and were looking for a legit road trip, we actually flew into Dallas. You’d be surprised by all the places you’ll discover along the way.
Along the road from Dallas to Marfa
About three hours from DFW International Airport, along I-20, you’ll find your first must-stop: Sweetwater, Texas, home of one of the country’s largest wind farms. Some of these turbines are twice as high as the Statue of Liberty, with their blades spanning as wide as the wingspan of a jumbo jet. They really aren’t joking when they say everything is bigger in Texas. Take exit 230 to get a closer look.
About 30 miles from Odessa, beside I-20, you’ll find Monahans Sandhills State Park, a 3,840-acre section of rolling dunes that stretches 200 miles across Texas and into New Mexico. As soon as you enter the park, you’re taken aback by its natural wonder. Daily entrance fees run $4 for adults, and camping will cost you $15 per site. “Sand surfing” is a popular activity here, so make sure to pack your slide. You can also admire the shinoak trees, the roots of which can reach nearly 70 feet below the ground, working as an anchor. The winds shift these sandy dunes regularly — sometimes up to 60 feet — which means what you see one day might not be there the next.
When you’re ready to cool down from the Texas heat, head over to the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Monahans, Texas. The Civilian Conservation Corps built this state park in the 1930s, where more than 15 million gallons of water flow through the pool each day, gushing from the San Solomon Springs. The pool gets up to 25 feet deep, covers 1.3 acres and holds 3.5 million gallons of water. The temperature stays between 72–76 degrees year-round, which makes it perfect for swimming, snorkeling, even scuba diving. Just in case you’re planning a trip soon, the pool is closed May 6–13, 2018, for its annual cleaning.
Where to stay once you get to Marfa
After a long, eight-hour road trip, we were looking to wind down at a serene, upscale, private retreat like House on the Hill. This exquisite turn-of-the-century adobe home offers some great amenities you’ll love during your time as a temporary Marfa resident. And nothing beats the sunset vistas from this lush compound.
The historic Hotel Paisano — which once hosted Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Rock Hudson while they were filming the classic 1956 film Giant — is a great place to stay if you’re looking for some West Texas character. Its gorgeous courtyard with a fountain and its pool on the side of the building are its best features.
El Cosmico is an excellent option for those who aren’t afraid of camping. Guests choose whether they want to stay in a teepee, safari tent, yurt or a restored vintage trailer (or in your own tent if you packed your own and just need a patch of dirt), situated along an 18-acre stretch of desert. Guests give up modern luxuries (toilets and showers are shared), but the charmed, bohemian experience is most definitely worth it. And you’ll have trouble deciding what to shoot for your Insta feed.
Where and what to eat in Marfa
There are plenty of places with great food in Marfa, but every spot has odd hours of operation. You might want to hit The Get Go (the local grocery store) just in case you arrive to town when things are closed.
For a healthy breakfast, Squeeze Marfa has vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. The atmosphere is vibrant, complete with orange accents all around. Coffee and avocado enthusiasts should check out Do Your Thing, if for no other reason than the Jerusalem Toast — with tahini drizzle, chili flakes, sesame seeds and dried herbs. Marfa Burritos, made by Ramona in what used to be her house, are Matthew McConaughey’s favorites, also a must-have.
One of Marfa’s food sensations is Food Shark, a retro food truck. Its signature sandwich is a super crunchy herb-packed falafel with romaine lettuce, salty kalamata olives, feta, yogurt and a bit of harissa heat. Pizza Foundation is an old garage-turned-restaurant that sits below the House on the Hill. Hand-tossed thin-crust pizzas are the specialty here.
Stellina is a great choice for dinner at a reasonable price point. Ingredients are locally sourced, and moreover the ever-changing menu provides lots of tasty options. Sit at the community rectangle bar, order a glass of wine (great selection here) and get to know some of the eccentric characters that call Marfa home.
For a quick bite and drinks, go to The Capri. Hands-down it has the best cocktails in town, and don’t leave without trying the small-batch mezcal. Before you hit the sack, though, grab a beer at Lost Horse Saloon. This dive bar is the locals’ favorite. With live music and an outdoor patio, it’s a truly authentic West Texas experience.
What to do in Marfa
The art scene in Marfa wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Donald Judd, an artist who moved from New York to the West Texas town in 1977. So one of the first things you should do is visit The Chinati Foundation. Opened to the public in 1986, this independent, nonprofit, publicly funded institution was initially conceived to exhibit Judd’s work. Today the collection includes his monumental outdoor concrete works and his aluminum work, housed in two converted artillery sheds. Other works by Judd’s contemporaries are also showcased.
Millennials’ Instagram dreams all come true at Prada, Marfa (for many the one thing they’re familiar with before visiting). Vast desert skies surround this stand-alone installation, which is often mistaken as an actual store. Berlin-based artists Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset built it in 2005 with the help of the Marfa art collective and Ballroom Marfa. Miuccia Prada herself donated the purses and shoes on display inside. You’ll find it about 26 miles northwest of the city. There’s nothing quite as dramatic or gorgeous as a West Texas sunset, so aim to visit then.
The road from Prada back to Marfa will lead you right to the old Stardust Motel. Austin artist and signmaker Evan Voyles, of The Neon Jungle, recently refurbished this old neon sign. Its iconic glowing light is the second most photographed thing after Prada Marfa, so definitely include it on your sightseeing list.
Where to Shop in Marfa
You can’t leave Marfa empty-handed, where the gift shops are as eclectic as the town itself. Get your cowboy on with beautiful handcrafted boots from Cobra Rock. Complete your look with a customized brass bandana ring from Mano Mercantile.
Once a church, Wrong Marfa now displays artsy wares from local, regional and global artists, including the works of one of its owners, Camp Bosworth. His wife, Buck Johnston, runs the gallery. Just look for the orange neon horseshoe out front.
Good to Know
A windy morning with temperatures in the 30s and 40s will typically transition to a beautiful, sunny afternoon in the 60s. (That’s West Texas weather for you.) So be prepared for layering. Pack some jeans, tees, comfortable shoes, a light jacket (denim is classic) and, of course, your cowboy hat. Other Marfa essentials include sunscreen, sunglasses and cash, as there are only three ATMs in all of Marfa (and none from major banks).