I’m embarrassed to say, as a native Texan, that Big Bend National Park was not on my bucket list. To be fair, it’s in farthest west Texas, on the border of Mexico, and one of the most remote places on earth (the dark skies due to lack of light pollution are famous for stargazing). I’ve heard it’s beautiful, enchanting, but challenging to get to. But here in 2020.. we have nothing but time and an SUV. Marfa, whose quirkiness grabs me in its many Instagram posts, also was not on my bucket list. My family had planned to hike in Slovenia and take in the Croatian coast this summer, but here in the middle of a pandemic, with Europe off limits, domestic driveable trips became the name of the game! And so, the great Bassett Family Texas – New Mexico Road Trip of 2020 took shape.
With a goal to really get in touch with our Texan roots as well as escape to cooler climes in northern New Mexico, planning began! I researched routes, drive times, hotels and their new covid precautions. We stocked up on anti-bac wipes, snacks, and chargers. Suitcases bulged with things for the dry, hot deserts of Texas, to the cooler mountains of New Mexico. So with 16 nights, just over 2,700 total miles driven, here is our route, with miles and approximate drive times:
- Dallas to the JL Bar Ranch & Resort in Sonora, TX – 332 miles (5-6 hours)
- JL Bar Ranch & Resort to Gage Hotel in Marathon, TX – 213 miles (3 hours)
- Gage Hotel to Basecamp Terlingua in Terlingua, TX – 97 miles (2 hours)
- Basecamp Terlingua to Hotel Paisano in Marfa, TX – 110 miles (1.5-2 hours)
- Hotel Paisano to Palo Duro Canyon Glamping in Palo Duro, TX – 427 miles (6-8 hours, with stops)
- Palo Duro Canyon to Taos, NM – 404 miles (6-7 hours, with stops)
- Taos to Vermejo Park Ranch near Raton, NM – 142 miles (3 hours)
- Vermejo Park Ranch back home to Dallas, TX – 614 miles (10 hours, with stops)
The JL Bar Ranch & Resort in Sonora, Texas, owned by James & Lois Archer, features over 12,000 acres of rolling Texas land on which to enjoy activities such as hunting, archery, horseback rides, or ATVs. Rest at day’s end in the beautiful main lodge, with pool table, bar, and a ranchy Texas ambiance. We spent a day at the pool, just off the main lodge, which overlooks manicured, tiered lawns and offers gorgeous views for miles. Smores pits and a wraparound top deck are where you’ll want to kick your boots up in the evening! Accommodation choices range from cabins (most with two queen beds) to king rooms in the Lonesome Creek building.
After two nights at JL Bar, the drive west to the Gage Hotel in Marathon (pronounced “Mara-tin”) was easy- mostly interstate. A little surprise to us was the increase in elevation! Sonora sits just over 2,000 feet above sea level, and Marathon goes up to 4,000 feet! This eliminated the thick humidity that envelops lower levels and helps make the evenings almost cool in June. Daytime heat was drier than Dallas, Houston, Austin.. and the overall pleasant weather was so great.
I am a sucker for a good little historical hotel, and the Gage did not disappoint! Built in 1927 by Alfred Gage of Vermont, who headed west to seek ranching opportunities in Texas, the Gage Hotel served as a base for his cattle operations. I love the Mission & Spanish-style design, with cowboy accents like saddles hanging on the wall and cowhide covered accent chairs. Texas Monthly magazine voted the White Buffalo bar the best in Texas. (Do it for the gram: the wall of cow skulls which forms the shape of a.. cow skull.) We spent one night here, as we headed next to Big Bend (1.5 hours south). But, you could also use the Gage Hotel as a base for day trips to explore the area’s treasures- Big Bend, McDonald Observatory (closed now due to covid), Marfa, Balmorhea State Park & pool, etc.
One night at the Gage seemed short, but the next day we were off to Big Bend National Park! The name Big Bend refers to the shape the Rio Grande River carves into the landscape here, diving the United States from Mexico. During June, the park had re-opened but with visitors centers closed and cars were granted free access into the park. Since we had a few hours between check-out at the Gage and check-in to our casita in Terlingua, we took advantage of all the empty roads in the park and did lots of scenic drives since it was honestly way too hot to hike midday (our car registered 110F). We entered at Persimmon Gap (north entrance) and stopped shortly thereafter at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit- so cool for kids! Did you know the Big Bend area was once underwater 100 millions years ago and inhabited by dinosaurs like the T-Rex over 70 million years ago?
We drove down through Panther Junction (visitor center there closed) and down into the Chisos Basin. The landscapes are like nothing I’ve seen in Texas- so hauntingly beautiful.. the broad plateau of the Sierra del Carmen range in the distance, cacti and rock formations in the foreground. The drive southeast from Panther Junction to the Rio Grande Village was one of my favorites. Normally you can actually cross the border into Mexico here at Boquillas del Carmen, but, it is currently closed due to covid. We wound back through the park to our base for the next two nights, a casita called Casa Miranda, part of Basecamp Terlingua‘s Nuevo Terlingua. This company has lots of cool options to stay including clear-domed bubbles (they were booked), teepees, casitas. I LOVED the desert chic decor and the outdoor shower was surprisingly refreshing! (Like I said, it really cools off in the mornings and evenings.)
What is there to do in Terlingua? Not a ton! It’s a ghost town, with several restaurants, a historic cemetery, and an eerie sense of what was.. an old mining town in the early 1900s. It’s a great base for Big Bend- both the National Park and State Park, as it’s only about 20-30 mins from either entrance. You’ll probably wind up at Starlight Terrace for dinner.. I’m pretty sure everyone else does!
The next day we got an early start (you must in the summer due to the strong sun and heat advisories!) to do the Ross Maxwell Scenic drive about 30 mins to the start of one of the park’s most well-known short hikes- Santa Elena Canyon. The elevation change is small as you ascend a bit only to come down into the canyon.. the knee-deep Rio Grande bisecting the steep canyon walls on either side (which are- Mexico and Texas). My kids waded across the middle to the other side to Mexico and back, checking off their “international trip” for the summer.
All in all, two nights in Terlingua was great. If staying at a cooler time like spring or fall with more opportunities do to daytime hiking, I’d stay for 3+ nights!
From Terlingua and the Big Bend area, we headed back up north to.. Marfa, Texas! We stopped at DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ on the way out of Terlingua, a wood-sided food truck with rustic Texas decor where I got for the road an overflowing to-go box of lean brisket, sausage, and sides.. yummmmm. We headed north back through Marathon and then Alpine where we saw their answer to Prada Marfa- it was Tiny Target. I’d seen it on insta and had to make a quick stop.
Then in about two hours, we were in this hipster little speck of a town that looks on the surface like many small Texas towns I’ve driven through before. But upon closer examination, you’ll notice hip coffee bars, offbeat boutiques, fun murals, and art installations like Prada Marfa (which is actually 30 mins west of town in Valentine, TX). It’s a bit of a mini Austin dropped into West Texas at an elevation of 4700 feet above sea level (so again, really pleasant, dry weather!) Donald Judd is the New York artist who put Marfa on the map with his Chinati Foundation and minimalist art works.. giant concrete blocks in the middle of nowhere = art. (Unfortunately the Chinati was closed due to covid, as were hours and opening times of other shops and restaurants, but we still had a great time exploring!) Before Donald Judd, the area became known in the 1970s for the Marfa Lights.. unexplained tiny dots of light, sometimes red, blue, or white that seem to dance on the horizon and zip about after dark. They say there is absolutely nothing, no roads south of there where the lights appear.. there is even a viewing platform about 10 mins east of town (really nice, like a rest stop!) for visitors to come and try to get a glimpse for themselves. Naturally, we tried it also.. did we see them? I did see strange dancing red & white lights in the right spot.. so I like to say I did see Marfa Lights. 😉
We stayed at the historic Hotel Paisano. Another popular choice, Liz Lambert’s (out of Austin) El Cosmico with teepees and Airstream trailers, was fully booked. I recommend Marfa for a couple nights as a weekend getaway. Early in the week very few shops, restaurants are open.. and of course now during covid everything is a little off, with some shops/dining displaying simple signs in their windows “closed” while others were offering takeout. We found open and enjoyable- Marfa Burrito (dine in), Do Your Thing coffee (takeout only), The Waterstop (dine in or patio), Lost Horse Saloon, The Sentinel (takeout only). This was accurate at the time, but be sure to check hours at the time you visit. We also did some laundry at Tumbleweed Laundry. Loved Marfa, and will definitely be back after covid!!
After Marfa, we headed up north to Palo Duro Canyon, stopping en route just outside of Midland at the Monahans Sandhills State Park. Original plan was to go up through southern New Mexico and visit White Sands (the newest National Park!) but sadly, it was closed due to covid. But.. of course Texas also has a sand playground in them middle of dry, flat West Texas!! It is literally right off of I-20 maybe 15 minutes before Midland & Odessa. Visitor center was closed, so we didn’t rent sleds, but we had a great time running up and down the massive white dunes! The perfect detour, as Marfa to Palo Duro is quite a long drive, around 6-7 hours if you drove straight through!
The drive from Monahans up to almost Amarillo is flat, fast, & dusty. Welcome to the Texas Panhandle! Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the US and nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” is just 15-20 mins southeast of Amarillo.. we stopped at a Pak-a-Sak just west of I-27 for some beer & snacks, since no alcohol is sold inside the park. But if you need provisions while in the park, the Palo Duro Trading Post is a great little stop- souvenirs, burgers, snacks, water. It is a privately owned shop, and these owners just opened the brand new Palo Duro Glamping in June! We stayed one night and wish we could have stayed another night or two.
Our glampsite was open, one more opened right after we left, and two more canvas tents are in the works. The A/C is cold, and they are well-appointed with refrigerators, microwaves, outdoor grill, hammock, gas fire pit, bikes, cornhole, board games. The only drawback is there are no en suite bathrooms; you use the state park bathrooms at the campsite about 400 feet away, and coming from someone who thought she would never shower at a state park.. they weren’t bad at all! Our family LOVED our glampsite and the great hiking trails right off our back porch. We’ll have to return someday to do the famous lighthouse hike, as our time was limited.. and in the heat of the day is not the best time to be out on the trails. (Other options to stay at the park are camping, RV, a few rustic cabins on the canyon rim, or stay in Amarillo and day trip over.)
We spent a quick night in Amarillo at the Embassy Suites after our glamping night because logistics, and we wanted to spend more time in the park. The glampsite was only available the one night, so we took that! We left Amarillo by Morning (George!) and made our way over to Taos, New Mexico! I knew that the original Route 66 went through this area, so we found a cool little town called Tucumcari to pull off in and marvel at how it seemed to be stuck in 1950. I would not have been out of place in a poodle skirt with cat-eye glasses, driving my wood paneled station wagon. The original Route 66 spanned 8 states, from Chicago to Los Angeles, and supporting burgeoning tourism via car.. many tourists from the Midwest heading to Disneyland or the Grand Canyon. Today, I was amazing to see the main street in Tucumcari pretty desolate, nearly frozen in time with it’s neon-signed motels and nostalgic diners. Thinking I need to discover more of this route someday!
From our diversion in Tucumcari, NM on the original Route 66, we headed up into the Taos, NM area. Here, the goal was to simply chill at a little mountain house, breathe in some fresh air, go on hikes, and enjoy family time. We did all of this, and really loved our time in Taos! Many shops and restaurants still were not open yet, as were many hotels, and the famous Taos Pueblo. But we had a lovely little rental home and enjoyed daily morning coffee on the wraparound porch and evening wine on the back patio around the fire pit. Could not have been more perfect!
After a few lovely days relaxing and hiking in Taos, we headed over to our last stop- Vermejo Park Ranch in far northern New Mexico! It was about a three hour drive through the beautiful Cimarron Canyon State Park on up through Raton, and then west from there about 30 minutes. Geographically, this part of New Mexico reminded me of Colorado! Vermejo’s main lodge sits at around 7000 feet elevation, while the Costilla Lodge on property is closer to 10,000 feet!
But what is Vermejo exactly? It is:
- Part of the 550K acre Ted Turner Reserves (Ted Turner – yes, of CNN – is the second largest landowner in America and is extremely focused on conservation efforts)
- Social distancing at its finest- with around 30 rooms spread out over 3 separate buildings, and several multi-bedroom homes
- FUN!!! So much to do- horseback riding, shooting, fishing, archery, hiking, conservation tours, biking, etc
- A ranch with history rooted in the early 1900s, when a prominent family from Chicago settled here and began building. Unique early Americana touches remain today, beautifully intermixed with ranchy decor
- So special.. the experienced and thoughtful staff are so obviously passionate about what they do and honestly made our whole stay!
Vermejo is within driving distance of many points in Texas. We drove straight home from here back to Dallas, and it was 10 hours, with a stop or two (including the Big Texan Steak Ranch for a pic.. haha!) Vermejo would also make a good stop for Texans driving to/from Colorado, as it is just west of Raton, and Raton is on I-25, a popular route for road trips in this area.
I would suggest Vermejo for families, couples, and even a fun guys weekend! With the accommodation buildings Casa Grande, Ted Turner House, and Costilla Lodge all having 10 rooms or fewer, these would be perfect for buyouts- I could totally see a group of men buying out Costilla Lodge at 10k and enjoying a few days of backcountry hiking and fly-fishing!
Haute Holidays clients enjoy the following Virtuoso perks here:
- Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
- Complimentary buffet breakfast daily (included in rates)
- $100 USD Resort/Hotel credit to be utilized during stay (credit is per reservation, not transferable, not valid on room rate, no cash value if not redeemed in full)
- Early check-in/late check-out, subject to availability
- Virtuoso Castle Rock Sundowner: includes cocktails for up to 4 guests at Castle Rock viewpoint. (A $350 value.)
- Complimentary Wi-Fi
Of course, no road trip would be complete without some kitsch.. so I bring you the infamous Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo. Home of the 72 oz steak, where if you can eat it in under an hour, it’s free! HA!! No thank you, but it’s quite the place and worth a pic as it’s right off the interstate.
That wraps up a FUN road trip through the best parts of West Texas and New Mexico! Travel memories made with my family are always great ones, and I have learned in the pandemic.. there are some amazing places closer to home that I may not have had the opportunity to check out otherwise. It’s been a blessing in disguise to travel throughout my home state and surroundings and I can’t wait to do it again someday!