Highlights: Marfa, Star party at McDonald Observatory, the Gage Hotel in Marathon, Big Bend, and wild horses on the Texas – Utah border

Telluride, Colorado is just as spectacular in the summer as it is in the winter. Even if you are not escaping the Texas heat the red rock cliffs, year-round snow-capped peaks and mesas covered in wildflowers and grazing elk set the perfect backdrop for an artsy and active summer adventure. Rather than fly in and out like we used to do from New York this year we opted for a road trip from Austin. My goals were to see as much of the spectacular Southwest along the way (picking up inspiration for HACIENDA, of course) and to give my kids, Jack and Coco, some type of appreciation of what lies between our two homes, including the vast and spectacular open spaces we so crave in our everyday city lives.

A straight shot from HACIENDA Austin in downtown Austin, TX to Telluride is 1,000 miles, taking one through either Lubbock or Amarillo in Texas to Albuquerque in NM, up to Durango in Colorado and on into Telluride’s Mountain Village. That drive might sound insane to an East Coaster but given the scale of the West it’s actually pretty reasonable considering driving assists in the acclimation process to the alpine environment if spread out over a couple of days. Mountain Village lies at ~9,000 feet elevation and that can hit you – adults worse than children – but a stopover in the ~7,000 mountains of New Mexico is a nice buffer.

I, of course, rarely take the easy route (ever) and so I mapped out a bit more intricate path, spread over a few more days and covering even more territory: heading from Austin to Marfa, then down to Big Bend National Park, then to Santa Fe, NM, out to the Navajo reservation in the Four Corners area and finally onto Telluride, CO. Really any one of these segments would make for an awesome summer trip and only an extremist like me would probably do them all…with five year old twins in tow…so I will separate the travelogue into more manageable bite size pieces that could each individually work over a long weekend.

My one flash of brilliance that made this trip a fun family adventure instead of one of those tortuous, “never again” road trips was to splurge on a one-way car rental of a large SUV with a third row of seats. This allowed the kids to spread out when they wanted and also allowed us all to enjoy the journey all the more because we knew we were going to fly home at the end. It can be expensive or even impossible to find a one-way rental that covers a huge span of territory but combining two rentals (Austin – Santa Fe and Santa Fe – Telluride) solved the riddle.

West Texas Road Trip

For anyone looking to discover some spectacularly wide, open spaces, simply head West. Six hours due west of Austin leads to some of the most starkly beautiful land and star-filled skies left on this planet, still with true Texas hospitality and adventure to be found. As with all HACIENDA journeys my goal is to seek fresh inspiration for the modern ranch lifestyle, embracing nature, simplicity and luxury. This trip offered the bonus of a healthy dose of family bonding like only a road trip can!

Marfa

Operating in the design world in Austin, I had heard quite a bit about Marfa and so that was my initial focal point for our West Texas road trip. We drove ~450 miles from Austin straight to Marfa (through Fredericksburg and Fort Stockton), arriving in the late afternoon. Fresh into our adventure we stared in awe as the hill country faded into vast, desert plains. It is not hard to see the hipster appeal of modern art set against the stark landscape and I did indulge in some wanderlust about HACIENDA Marfa…what could be more modern ranch than Donald Judd’s minimalist concrete cubes set against the stark open plains?

Add in buzz-worthy restaurants (some of which are food trucks) and it did feel to me like a mix of Austin and Brooklyn transplanted to the West TX desert. My friend, Danielle, owner of puremarfa.com, recommended Cochineal for dinner (sophisticated cuisine in an intimately casual setting, started by NY transplants). Some of the other options called out in the NY Times blog “Wanderlust: Marfa” had an air of “too cool for school” for my taste and would not have been remarkable other than their mere existence in such a remote place. An exception was a charming bakery and café called Buns ‘N Roses, where the owner, Debbie, graciously joined us at our table to chat about our visit. As it turns out Debbie is also a member of the faculty at UT Austin, albeit stationed at the McDonald Observatory by Fort Davis. We chatted about the “star party” and decided to give it a try. When Debbie heard we were headed out to Big Bend she admonished us to be prepared with supplies and insisted on sending us off with a care package of brownies because “you never know what will be available down there.” It did make me wonder what we were heading into when a woman from Marfa seemed worried about us going that far off the grid…but that actually convinced me to cut short our time in Marfa to dedicate more time to Big Bend. After all, the kids were not really digging Marfa and we all wanted some good West Texas adventure.

The next time I go to Marfa it will have to be a girl’s trip or a solo design inspiration trip (and on a weekend as the town closes down Mon-Wed, at least in the summer). In the meantime, the best visual design blog I have read about Marfa is by my designer friend, Kim Lewis.

McDonald Observatory Star Party

Since I tend to straddle the line between ambitious and delusional I decided to tackle #11 on the Texas Monthly Bucket List by kicking off our adventure with a Star Party at McDonald Observatory after a long drive and full day in Marfa. The challenge of doing this with young children is in the summer the sun sets very late in the Western corner of the central time zone and so the program does not even get started until 9:45PM because it takes about 40 minutes after the sun has set for human eyes to adjust to the total darkness of the remote location so that the full multitude of stars become visible. Yes, the song is true about those stars deep in the heart of Texas (and the higher altitude also made it chilly at night, even in June but we stayed cozy wrapped in HACIENDA throws /cabana towels). We did not get much further into the prepared remarks than locating the Big Dipper when Jack started getting restless sitting still. I would have loved to listen to more but recognizing it was late we ducked out of the program to view the telescopes before losing the kids. Wow, am I glad we did that! Not only did we all get to see Saturn and Jupiter, but we did so without waiting in lines that quickly piled up at the end of the remarks (while we were already on our way to the car). Had we waited there is no way the kids could have lasted until their turns came up for a peek and we would not have been treated to the mini astrology lessons we received at each telescope by virtue of being the only ones viewing at the time. Truly, it was an awesome experience and really ginned us up for our West Texas adventure.

Marathon

There are other campsite options in and around the Fort Davis area but I was looking for something with a little more style so we opted for the Gage Hotel in Marathon, where we booked a double bedroom in the Captain Shepard Housefor the night. The drive to Marathon from Fort Davis felt long in the dark of night and we did not even think to mind what looked like a shared bathroom at the end of the upstairs hallway as we carried the sleeping kids from the car and promptly zonked out ourselves. In the morning I learned I was the only one of the four of us to hear the train pass through town (the train tracks run right next to main street, Marathon) what seemed like hourly through the night. All the driving had caught up to Ken so the kids and I crept out of our room to explore the Captain’s House while he slept.   We discovered we were the only ones in the house so we were free to take in the wild taxidermy and charming porches looking out to the charming town at our leisure (and co-opt the shower in the hall bathroom without concern for privacy).

I found the simplicity of Marathon to be quite charming with just the right amount of sophistication and no hint of pretension.   The town is the closest gateway to Big Bend National Park (~40 miles South on I-385), making it a perfectly viable home base for those who want to make day trips into the park and come home to a fine meal at the 12 Gage restaurant.   We arrived too late at night to try it but the menu in the lobby looked fantastic. I love that the only grocery store in town, at least that I saw, was a French grocery store stocked with my kind of picnic supplies: wine, cheese, pastries, fruit, and ice cream. As we were settling our bill the ladies at the front desk kept marveling at Coco’sMelissa Odabash tunic with pom pom trim she was wearing as a dress with her leopard print cowgirl boots. The girl can carry a look even with her “I’m not ready to be awake yet face” and yes, we carry Melissa Odabash for women and girls at HACIENDA.

Unfortunately the Gage does not offer breakfast but the very friendly hotel staff pointed us to a little diner just up the road for some perfectly spicy migas and breakfast tacos. We sat at a sidewalk table and what was so cool to see was the small stretch of main street was bustling with locals and tourists alike stopping for their morning coffee. Obviously the proximity to Big Bend helps sustain the area but it was nice to see the balance between historic character (anchored by the Gage) without a trace of that sad “seen better days” look of some rural Western towns. This stretch of “Main Street” was actually a commercial stretch of Highway 90, and across the road was nothing but the railroad tracks and the frontier. It was strikingly beautiful and beckoned exploration so after breakfast we piled into the car and set out for Big Bend.

Big Bend

The timely feature in Texas Monthly on Big Bend helped convince our friends, Jill and Michael Ford, not to let us “out Texan” them by checking this treasure off our bucket list and so they agreed to brave the drive in their truck with their nine year old twin boys, Grant and Garrett, to explore the park with us. This trip was basically going to serve as all of our initiation to the true Texas frontier so Jill and I decided to make Latijas Golf and Spa Resort our home base for our Big Bend adventure because Jill and I will probably always choose glamping over real camping. For less than $400 per night we could launch as many day hikes or rafting trips as we wanted and still come back to an improbably modern apartment in a property full of amenities set on spectacularly beautiful grounds (an obvious product of bubble era financing). Had we more time or come in the peak season (not during Daylight Savings Time) we would have loved to partake in a cowboy shooting range or a family evening wagon picnic up to a nearby mesa near the launch of the Commanche Pass for cook-out under the stars. Lajitas Resort also boasts a large equestrian center and a beautiful golf course. While we were there Roger Clemens and his entourage, which included Josh Beckett, seemed to be making the golf-pool-bar-restaurant circuit and Michael and Ken made fools of themselves gawking and fawning. Michael and Garrett brought their mountain bikes along and there was plenty of terrain available for hiking and biking right from Lajitas without even entering Big Bend.

If you are camping or even doing serious day trips in Big Bend it is best to bring food and supplies with you (or you can stock up in Marathon or Marfa and our room at Lajitas had a full sized refrigerator in the kitchen to store items) because there is not much beyond gas station convenience stores down by Lajitas or in Big Bend. We loaded up our YETI cooler with fresh fruit, plenty of ice, our Marfa brownies, a few bottles of rosé and a corkscrew and felt prepared. The Ford family was driving in straight from Austin but we had a head start, spending the previous night at The Gage Hotel in Marathon so we got in a pretty full day in the park before meeting up with them for dinner.

Our first stop was the Panther Junction Visitor Center, which is a 67-mile straight shot south of Marathon on I-385. We paid our park entrance fee ($20 per vehicle, good for a week) and picked up Junior Ranger field guide books for the kids. Like me, my kids love a project and relished the scavenger hunt activities in the guides and prospect of an end of trip “quiz” from the park ranger to receive junior ranger patches at the end of our trip. The 3-D model of the park in the visitor center offered a helpful overview of our options: hiking or climbing in the Chisos mountains, full day river rafting, scenic driving tours or hiking through canyons to the Rio Grande river bed. The canyon hikes seemed the best option for our group so I made a mental note to confer with Jill after dinner. Usually I am a meticulous planner but I forced myself to be flexible for this road trip to make some decisions on the fly.

Through pure luck with our timing before even leaving the visitor center the kids got an up close view of some huge dinosaur fossils that were uncovered near-by and were waiting out behind the lodge to be set up into an exhibit. Looking at the stark landscape it honestly would not have surprised me to see some Jurassic period creature cut a path across the hills.

We hopped back in the car and drove to the Chisos Visitor Center, which is the launching point for the Window Hike. The easy loop is a short, flat loop with a huge view at the mid-point through the Chisos Basin (the gap in the hills forms the window and a very long view). This is a perfect walk for young kids and those with limited mobility right in the heart of Big Bend. It is also possible to hike another few miles down into the basin from this point. Our kids got excited seeing the “watch out for bears and mountain lion signs” even though of course, the chances of seeing any were quite rare (at least in the daytime in the summer).

We hiked around a bit more in the Chisos Basin and found a picnic spot where we enjoy a late lunch overlooking the striped cliffs bearing silent witness to millions of years of volcanic activity and erosion. Careful not to overdo it with the kids on day one like I am prone to do, we called it an early day and set out in the car for Lajitas. Along the forty mile drive west to Lajitas we counted road runners and checked off all of the uniquely desert-adapted Big Bend fauna called out in the junior field guides. My personal favorite were the ocotillo and I made a mental note to see if we could find some of those to create a living fence around our Angelwylde property back in Austin.

We met up with the Fords at Lajitas and enjoyed a nice dinner (I had a filet of beef with avocado and an eye-wateringly spicy green chili sauce – awesome) while the kids ran around the grassy garden by the restaurant. After dinner the guys headed to the sports bar to watch a game and Jill, Coco and I retreated to our room to map out our plan for the next day. Coco made notes in her summer travel journal about seeing Saturn and hiking in Big Bend and by the time she finished illustrating her entries Jill and I settled on the Santa Elena canyon for the group adventure and called it a night.

After breakfast we loaded up the cooler and headed out to the Santa Elena Canyon. From Lajitas we elected to take the unpaved Old Maverick Road for a change of pace and along the way spotted jackrabbits and several road runners. We parked our trucks in the lot near the canyon overlook tailhead, grabbed our HACIENDA essential towels and water bottles and headed out on the short, sandy hike to the river.   The Rio Grande river level was low during our visit, casting the canyon walls in an even more imposing light. Even before mid-day the sun was heating up quickly so we all quickly ditched our shoes to wade into the water. The water in Terlingua Creek was clear and shallow enough to display a colorful array of river rocks – enough to keep a budding geologist like Coco consumed for the day. The boys waded in a bit further to the opening of the Rio Grande, where they opted for a nice, warm mud bath instead of continuing the hiking trail through the canyon to the main part of the Rio Grande.

I started the hike in my bare feet, did not get very far that way, and decided to turn back to play in the water with the kids. After we all had enough we walked back to the parking lot (it is a short enough walk to piggy back a tired kiddo on the way back, as I did).

We opted for a paved road out of the Santa Elena canyon – the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which includes several striking vistas and passes some old homestead properties. We stopped for a picnic at the Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff, a striking red-rock box canyon. The twins were not up for the relatively easy 0.5 mile hike into the canyon here in the mid-day heat so we had to settle for a view close to the turn-off point and a tailgate-style picnic.

After lunch we detoured slightly to return to the Panther Junction Visitor Center. In the car Jack and Coco finished off their remaining assignments and were calling out ocotillos and flowering yuccas (both new species to us but prevalent in Big Bend) and desperately hoping for a javelina sighting. The Ranger at the station patiently reviewed their work and inquired about their explorations in the park before approving awarding the twins official Big Bend junior ranger badges.

The next morning at Lajitas we reunited with the Fords for one more hike. A portion of the historic Comanche Trail intersects right near Lajitas so our goal was to make it at least to some trail marking in a morning hike. We must have gone off course because we never did find it, but I very much appreciated Jill’s advice to savor the moment anyway of all of us together, outside and unplugged without a plan.

On our final day in the Big Bend area we parted ways with the Fords, who were planning to make it to the Boquillas Canyon area more or less on their way back to Austin. But since we were continuing on our road trip to Santa Fe we opted instead to keep moving west, exploring Big Bend Ranch State Park, which stretches for 50 miles along FM170 between Lajitas and Presidio.   Most of the road winds along the Rio Grande River, with views of Mexico on one side and the vast Texas desert on the other. We stopped to stretch our legs at the Closed Canyon trail, which was completely deserted, like the rest of this stretch. I started to think this might be the better-kept secret way to explore the Rio Grande valley without the crowds of Big Bend National Park (which were light in early June anyway). Perhaps next time, we trailer the horses to Lajitas (or arrange trail rides from the Lajitas Equestrian Center) and then head West…

After passing through Marfa again and the infamous “Prada Marfa” installation in Valentine, TX, I looked out the window and snapped a picture of the desolate rail tracks to send my father in North Carolina, captioning it “I have 400 more miles of this today” (en route to Santa Fe).

“Fabulous. Enjoy it, “ he responded. Sometimes it takes a jaded East Coaster to appreciate the open space. I know I fell a little more in love with Texas on this journey. But one more sight really put me over the edge – the sight of wild horses near the Utah border! Ken did not understand why I was yelling at him to stop the car. “What, horses?” he said, somewhat wearily (aware we had many more hours of driving to go that day). He knows I not only have my own horses at home (or near my home, in Spicewood, hence the inspiration for one of (HACIENDA’s signature fragrances), but also I grew up around the wild Spanish Mustangs in Corolla on the North Carolina Outer Banks. However, I have never encountered them in Texas before! I don’t care how many times one can see animals on ranches or zoos – there is no comparison to seeing them in their natural habitats in the wild. There was no ranch in sight and the herd appeared to be a family unit, complete with yearlings and a couple of young foals lying in the grass. When I stepped out of the car to admire them (still from several hundred yards away) the adult horses formed a protective circle around the young ones. It was a magical moment to witness and perfectly capped off my first Texas road trip.