6 Unique Stops on a Road Trip from San Antonio to Marfa, Texas
The southern route through Texas is US 90. It takes you from San Antonio in the east to Van Horn in the west. Over the course of 400 miles, the terrain changes, the weather changes, and it’s a great way to experience “old Texas” before Interstate 10 becomes the preferred travel route.
Crossing the US 90 is a great road trip with plenty to see and do along the way. The best times to go are spring and fall. Winter will be cold and possibly snowy in the high western elevations. Summer is very hot in lower elevations – but in the mid 80s in western cities with cool nights.
There are many unique stops on this route, from “God’s Country” in the east to high-altitude rail towns in the west. Welcome to South Texas!
1. The Gateway City: Hondo
“This is God’s country” is the Hondo City Slogan, made famous by a billboard asking people to slow down “hell” when entering the city. The slogan has stuck and gives flavor to this historic town 40 miles west of San Antonio.
Hondo was made famous in part by the Louis L’Amour novel of the same name and the film adaptation starring John Wayne. The railway passed in 1881 and continues to dominate the landscape of this city. There is a Medina County Museum in the old railway depot, and the main street through the town has been preserved, showing the 1901 building of the Hondo National Bank.
Tripadvisor is giving a boost to Heavy’s BBQwhich offers traditional Texas dishes in a rustic setting.
Pro tip: There are two hours between Hondo and the next major stop. Watch your fuel tank and your water. You are heading for the desert.
2. Amistad National Recreation Area
Desert and increasing elevation accompany your arrival in Del Rio. Most of the people who live here are tied to Border Patrol, Laughlin Air Force Base, or the Ciudad Acuña border crossing in Mexico. Many retirees complete the population.
The real gem of the region is the Amistad National Recreation Area, 8 miles west of town. Amistad, a word that means “friendship” in Spanish, is a reservoir formed by a dam on the Rio Grande that meanders between the United States and Mexico. Boating, hiking, swimming and fishing are enjoyed here.
The campgrounds are no-frills and don’t take reservations but are worth camping there. The water in the reservoir is stunningly beautiful and the white limestone rocks are a stark contrast, adding to the geographical brilliance. You can watch military planes fly low and land at the Air Force base just off US 90. There are plenty of local Mex and Tex restaurants on both sides of the border, as well as most restaurant chains.
There are paved roads in the campgrounds and day use area, but otherwise it is not a wheelchair accessible place.
Pro tip: Take the Texas 79 Loop around town for beautiful views of the Mexican desert and mountains, and to avoid endless stops and starts in town.
3. Seminole Canyon State Park
This small state park is 30 minutes from Del Rio. Seminole Canyon is primarily a walking and biking park, with 10 miles of trails. The canyon is small but includes two sections of petroglyphs made by people 7,000 years ago. One sign is only accessible via a park ranger walking tour, which involves moderate stairs to descend into the canyon (and back up) as well as a moderate hike to the site. The other petroglyph site is only accessible by private tour boat and includes walking to the site after landing on shore.
Pro tips: Heading west, you will cross the historic Pecos River. There is a visitor parking area and exits near the bridge. Also note that to get to the rail towns you will climb over 4,500 feet to the high plain. Expect headwinds going west, which may require additional fuel.
Marathon, the first of the rail towns on this list, is 2 hours west of Seminole Canyon Park and is a hidden gem.
Marathon sees itself as the beginning of the western frontier. history, adobe Hotel Gage is the main attraction of this small town and includes a gourmet restaurant in the hotel and the Brewery and BBQ Brick Vault on the other side of the street. The Brick is very laid back and has great food and craft beers.
The Gage also maintains a 27-acre garden in town which is open and free to the public daily. It has an off-leash dog area and a putting green, which was a totally random find.
For me, however, the main attraction is the starry skies of Marathon. the Marathon Motel & RV Park and Marathon Celestial Park are under class 1 dark skies, which is the darkest classification on the Boris light pollution scale. Countless stars and fascinating space phenomena are visible. The parks have an observatory and astronomers who help visitors see the different constellations. On the cold night I was there, 20 of us looked through telescopic binoculars, Oh and ahhh on planets and stars. It was great fun for free.
The daytime views at Marathon are also stunning, and trains, including Amtrak, run frequently.
Alpine is the next railway town and is 30 minutes away. It is the largest of the rail towns and sits at 4,500 feet. This city is full of services, hotels and, above all, gasoline. There is a museum in town, historic buildings and local restaurants. I passed, because Marfa was my main destination.
Pro tip: There are two very convenient picnic stops between the three towns. These are easy hop on and hop off stops with covered picnic areas. Any rest stop in Texas allows a 24 night free stay.
The next railway town, Marfa, is a quirky place and worth the time to explore. It’s about the end of the road west – go south to get to Big Bend National and State Parks, or go north to Van Horn and El Paso.
As a city at the end of the line, Marfa has taken on a mystical twist. There are plenty of art galleries, artists in residence, and plenty of art for sale in stores. Many artists are celebrated and you will also find outdoor sculptures.
Marfa Ballroom is a major art gallery and performing arts center in the city. You’ll also find the sprawling resort of famed artist Donald Judd. He has a workshop, house and gallery downtown, located in redeveloped historic buildings and new galleries.
There is a beautiful courthouse square flanked by historic buildings including the National Historic Landmark The Paisano Hotel. The 1956 Western Giant was filmed nearby and the cast, including James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, stayed at the Paisano.
There are a dozen cool cafes and restaurants as well as food trucks for dinner. One of the places I tried to visit is Food Shark, a food truck. Unfortunately, a handwritten note was taped to a folding chair at the entrance to the property that read, “Closed Until Not”. This sums up the nature of Marfa. It’s a fun town to walk around and enjoy the atmosphere. You’ll even find the local public radio station housed in a new building that looks like a revamped 1930s gas station. It fits perfectly into the local culture.
Pro tip: Cafes and small restaurants may only be open on weekends during the colder seasons.
Besides art, Marfa is known for the sporadic and unexplained lights in its night sky, the Marfa Lights. There is an observation pavilion and rest area built for you to spot (if you’re lucky). Head east of town about five miles on US 90, and you’ll find plenty of people sitting or standing in the dark each night, staring at the horizon. The area is a disused WWII airbase that offers great sightlines to see those seemingly inexplicable lights.
I enjoyed my stay in the city in the cheeky name Marfa Nautical Club. You can rent one of their classic Airstream trailers for your visit or bring your own, like I did! It sits in the middle of the valley with stunning views of the mountains.
There is wind and dust on the high plain. It can be hot in summer and winter nights can drop below freezing. But the Guadalupe Mountains to the north and the Texas Chinati Mountains far to the south create a great view of the landscape at Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa.
Venture north from Marfa to the town of Valentine to see the unique outdoor sculpture, the Prada Marfa shop. There’s nothing else open in this town, but this attraction draws a crowd. The Prada “store” was commissioned by Ballroom Marfa in 2005 and is a replica of a real Prada store, down to its authentic merchandise. This eclectic piece was a busy roadside stop on the morning of the week I visited.
End of the road
US 90 ends 30 minutes down the road in Van Horn, where you can take I-10 to El Paso or San Antonio.
This road trip is rich in history, from prehistory to ranchers and railroads. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to the history of Native Americans in the area. Historical markers note the battles with Mexico and the advent of “settlers”. Local museums celebrate the taming of the land and the advent of railroads, while noting the colorful stories of bank robbers and outlaws of the Wild West. But the landscapes are worth the detour, as are the visits to towns and authentic and offbeat natural landscapes.