Parched brown fields stretch into the distance as you make the drive from Marathon, Tex., to Big Bend National Park, where mountains rise high above the Rio Grande. Weathered fence posts and an occasional cow tugging at a patch of grass are the only interruptions to the vista.
This is West Texas -- the Old West of one's imagination. The 1956 classic Giant, starring James Dean and Rock Hudson as oilmen and ranchers, was filmed near here, in Marfa. Big cities with their lights are so far away that stargazers come from all over the world to set up telescopes or to look through ones open to the public at McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis.
A visit here gives a sense of quiet remove. But it's anything but boring. Trails inside the park yield dazzling views for hikers and rare finds for birders. An amble might bring you face to face with a roadrunner, a mountain lion, or a bristly-haired, piglike javelina. In the spring and early fall, the cacti bloom. For the adventurous, there is canoeing on the Rio Grande and, if the river is high, rafting. Even bon vivants can find something to amuse them, as this remote area is dotted with world-class accommodations.
Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall once holed up at Cibolo Creek Ranch, where three 19th-century forts have been renovated into 32 guest rooms. The forts sit on 30,000 acres of ranchland -- more than enough room for horseback riding, skeet shooting, or a day of solitude. Rates, which include three meals, are $450 a day for a couple, $600 a day at the main fort.
Not to be outdone, Steve Smith, co-founder of Excel Telecommunications (now a subsidiary of VarTec Telecom), has developed 25,000 acres tucked between the national park and Big Bend Ranch State Park into a place called Lajitas, the Ultimate Hideout. Double rooms go for $165 to $365, depending on type of room and the season. The resort features an 18-hole golf course with an optional 19th hole located across the Rio Grande in Mexico, allowing Lajitas to boast of an international course. Private jets are available to ferry guests to and from the resort; visitors with their own planes can use the landing strip.
The Gage Hotel in Marathon offers simpler but perhaps more authentic accommodations. A prominent rancher built the hotel in 1927 to provide a base from which to tour his vast holdings as well as a gathering place for locals. The original hotel has wooden floors, 17 smallish rooms, and furnishings evocative of the Native American, cowboy, and Mexican cultures. The newer section, called Los Portales, has larger rooms opening onto a courtyard with a fountain and cross-shaped swimming pool. Rates range from $69 to $89 in the historic section; $139 to $225 in Los Portales. The hotel's Cafe Cenezo features angus steaks and quesadillas, and for breakfast, huevos rancheros.
You can pass an evening pleasantly in the courtyard, enjoying margaritas or sangria from the hotel's White Buffalo Bar and listening to water splash in the fountain. Or you can head to Fort Davis and the McDonald Observatory, run by the University of Texas, to learn about the constellations and look through telescopes during a public star party (held every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday night; admission: $8 for adults, $7 for children 6-12). With reservations (432 426-3640), you can gain access to one of the facility's larger telescopes.
Contemporary art lovers and science-fiction aficionados will want to stop in Marfa. Minimalist artist Donald Judd moved to the town in 1972 and began installing large works at an abandoned Army base. It has since grown into the Chinati Foundation museum (432 729-4362), which houses large-scale installations by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, among others. The collection is open Wednesdays through Sundays. For the mysterious Marfa lights, glowing orbs in the desert that have baffled locals and visitors since they were first spotted in 1883, there's a viewing pavilion just east of town on U.S. 90. And for James Dean fans, a few Giant ruins remain on the outskirts of town.
The biggest attraction is Big Bend, an 801,000-acre national park that gets its name from a bend in the Rio Grande (nps.gov/bibe/home.htm). Hiking trails range from easy quarter-mile nature jaunts to strenuous 31-mile adventures. One of the most popular is the 13-mile South Rim trail, which rewards those who make the effort with a view into the desert 2,500 feet below and, on a clear day, into the Mexican mountains 30 miles away.
For those who prefer to travel by water, several outfitters, including Big Bend River Tours (800 545-4240) and Rio Grande Adventures (800 343-1640), rent canoes and rafts and lead guided tours that can last from half a day to 10 days or longer. Just don't go from May through August, when temperatures on the river can top 110 degrees. (The park's mountains are cooler.)
Less strenuous pursuits include back-country drives, wildflower seminars, stargazing, and birding. More than 450 species of birds inhabit the park, including the peregrine falcon, lucifer hummingbird, and rare Colima Warbler. The first Big Bend Birding Festival is planned for the third week in August.
Whether you come for the birds, the beasts, or the spectacular vistas, a trip to West Texas will transport you from the concerns of deadlines, commuter trains, and honking horns. You can almost imagine the dust rising from a cattle drive in the distance.
By Carol Marie Cropper