Road Trip! Marfa to Big Bend National Park

greetings from marfa sign - marfa to big bend national park

A big summer deserves a big adventure, and there are few bigger adventures than trekking across West Texas.

It takes an hour and a half to drive from Marfa to Big Bend National Park, but there’s no really good reason to rush the drive. Instead, might we suggest some stops along the way, stops that will turn an already impressive trip into an unforgettable experience.

We’ll show you two possible ways to get to Big Bend from Marfa, including a few highlights you can expect to find along the way.

Marfa, Texas

By the time you get to your starting point in Marfa, you will have already driven a fair bit. You can fly into El Paso or Midland and drive to Marfa in about 3 hours. Marfa is 6 hours from San Antonio by car, 7 hours from Austin, 8 hours from Dallas and 9 hours from Houston. So you will be ready for a rest when you arrive.

If you get in in the evening, you can enjoy an incredible sunset and drink in the dark, starry skies as you rest up for the next day. Marfa is small, but you can easily spend an entire day in this quirky town of 2000 people.

The town is best known for its art galleries. Make some time to visit the Chinati Foundation for contemporary art exhibits that stress the relationships between art and land. Check out Exhibitions 2d if you’re into minimalism, the Ayn Foundation if you prefer large-scale projects and Ballroom Marfa for site-inspired contemporary work. 

If time permits, Prada Marfa, a 2005 sculpture by artists Elmgreen & Dragset, is a visitor favourite. It’s on Highway 90, 37 miles northwest near Valentine.

Many other galleries dot the town—call ahead for opening hours. Some spots are still shut down over Covid. 

If contemporary art isn’t your speed and you want something more active, try a gliding tour with Marfa Gliders. If you want something with a little less action, you could spend your entire day eating at Marfa’s many fun restaurants and finding new treasures at unique shops. 

Architectural Digest even voted Marfa’s The Wrong Store the most beautiful independent store in Texas. Well worth checking out.

However you spend your day, your evening should include a trip to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area to see the mysterious (or not, depending on the level of childhood wonder still left in your heart) Marfa Lights. 

Many visitors have seen these strange lights floating on the horizon in the distance. Explanations of what causes them ranges from ghosts to aliens to car lights. The viewing area is 9 miles east of Marfa on Highway 90.

Route 1

santa elena canyon with red canoes - marfa to big bend national park

Fort Davis

When you’re ready to head out from Marfa, you can immediately take a detour by going north on the 17 for 45 minutes to visit the McDonald Observatory, located outside Fort Davis. Visitors can access daytime, evening and nighttime programming. Some nights, the Observatory even allows the public to view the stars through their big research telescopes. 

If you’re more into history than astronomy, the Fort Davis National Historic Site is a well-preserved frontier military post where you can learn about America’s colonialist past. 

On the Road

And if none of that sounds inviting, just head east on Highway 90 out of Marfa until you get to the town of Alpine. The drive takes 30 minutes. In Alpine, you can find the Museum of the Big Bend, where you can learn about local history. Or take part in a local tradition and hike up beautiful Hancock Hill to the desk at the top, leaving a message for other travellers in the notebook in the desk drawer before you go.

From Alpine, head south down Highway 118 for roughly an hour and 15 minutes and then west on FM 170 to hit Big Bend River Tours. This outfitting company specializes in local guided rafting and canoe trips, hikes and backroad tours. 

Float down the Rio Grande on a half-day raft trip, or go all-in for a multi-day canyoning adventure—the company offers tours of many types and lengths. You can also rent canoes for a self-guided tour.

From the junction of Highway 118 and FM (Farm to Market) 170, you’re just a 7-minute jaunt west to Terlingua, an old mining town most famous for its chili cook off (which you will miss, unless you’re there the first Saturday in November). Terlingua also boasts a ghost town, a trading company post and a saloon.

There are plenty of places to stay in the area, from camping to lodges and guest houses to more traditional hotels. If you have the time, it’s an excellent way to really take in the flavour of the area.

From Terlingua, head back out to the 118 for a short, 12-minute drive east to Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend National Park

This is one of the most remote national parks in the U.S., but folks love it for the stunning desert and mountain topography. You could spend one day or many here in the Park and remain astonished by it all. We’ll outline just a few highlights.

The Window Trail is a favourite—it’s a 5.5-mile hike through the Oak Creek Canyon, which leads to a panoramic view of the desert below. This is a popular hike, but the views are well-worth any waiting you have to do to get them.

The Chimneys Trail is a 4.8-mile out and back desert hike that takes hikers to the impressive volcanic dike formation the trail is named for. You can find Native American pictographs on the southernmost formation.

The Santa Elena Canyon is not to be missed. Santa Elena itself is a 1,500-foot canyon that straddles the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The Rio Grande runs through it. The trail is an easy 1.4-mile out and back trail that crosses Terlingua Creek before heading up to a stunning vista and back down to the edge of the Rio Grande.

If hiking isn’t your speed, you can still enjoy the breathtaking views along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Or check out the Hot Springs Historic Area, including a short (1 mile total) trip past the remains of an old resort and a soak in the hot springs themselves.

Route 2

big bend national park - marfa to big bend national park

From Marfa, you can also do a road trip that includes both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, a park that’s equally beautiful but lesser well-known than the National Park. 

Drive south down Highway 67, making sure to stop at the ghost mining town of Shafter, about 25 minutes out from Marfa. From Shafter, continue on the 67 south to Presidio, which is an hour’s drive from Marfa. 

Presidio borders the larger Mexican town of Ojinaga, and while these are quiet towns, they’re also fantastic spots to eat and take in the friendly border culture.

From Presidio, head east into the State Park. The drive is about an hour and 15 minutes, but you can stop along the way at Fort Leaton State Historic Site to learn about the natural and archaeological history of the area.

Big Bend Ranch State Park

Like the National Park, this State Park is an exceptional destination for adventurers keen on hiking, biking, paddling and general exploration. There’s more to do here than we could ever get into, but we’ll outline a few highlights.

The Closed Canyon Trail is 1.4-mile round trip trek into a slot canyon. It’s possible to use the trail to access the Rio Grande, but only if you have vertical climbing gear.

The Hoodoo Trail is a fantastic short hike, as well. It’s a 1.1-mile loop that leads hikers past the hoodoos and along the Rio Grande. There’s an overlook that rewards hikers with amazing views of the Park and the river.

Mountain bikers should go for the annual Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest in February. It features a 3-day, 54-mile loop through the desert, an adventure the International Mountain Bicycling Association has designated an “Epic” ride.

The FM 170

You can then take the FM 170, also called the River Road, to get to Terlingua and then on to Big Bend National Park.

The FM 170 is one of the highlights of a trip to this part of the world. It winds along the Rio Grande, with spectacular views of the river, the mountains and the desert. 

There are some trails leading off the road if you want to explore more of the countryside, but you can also just stay on the 170 and stop at any of the number of outlooks for panoramic vistas of Mexico and Texas. 


We hope we’ve given you some inspiration to take the slow road from Marfa to Big Bend National Park. There’s certainly enough to capture anyone’s interest and make for a once in a lifetime road trip.

Feature image: Mick Haupt; Image 1Mick Haupt; Image 2Mick Haupt

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