You’re in the middle of nowhere. Absolutely nowhere. For hours, you’ve been driving along a practically deserted highway. Every once in a while, a trailer truck, kicking up dust and loose pebbles, rushes ahead of you. You drive through old ghost towns, by tumbleweeds and cacti, and through the vast desert. Finally, you see a building in the distance. Hopefully, it’s a gas station. You need to stretch your legs and use the bathroom. But when you get closer, you don’t see gas pumps or a neon restaurant sign. Instead, the building reads: Prada Marfa.
This permanent sculpture installation—sorry, you can’t actually shop here—is your first introduction to quirky Marfa, 37 miles away. It’s also a warning to open your eyes and stay alert, because you never know what you’ll see in this art-obsessed town. Marfa is in the Trans-Pecos desert in remote West Texas. The little town is between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park. It was founded as a railroad stop in the 1880s, turned into an army training facility during World War II, and was pretty much forgotten until minimalist artist Donald Judd moved here in the 1970s.
After your immediately necessary bathroom break, find the Food Shark, a food truck set up near the railroad tracks, for an early lunch of mole pork tacos and an endless iced tea. Endless is a good thing when it’s already 80 degrees before noon. Start with a tour of Donald Judd’s studios with the Judd Foundation. He converted many old buildings into workspaces before his death in 1994. The Architecture Studio was a former bank, and the Art Studio was once a grocery store. To see more of Judd’s work, plus installations by other minimalist artists, head to the Chinati Foundation, where large-scale exhibits are scattered around 15 buildings and the grounds of a former army base.
Later in the afternoon, check into one of Marfa’s unique hotels. The Thunderbird, with its 1950s architecture, has turntables, a vinyl library, manual typewriters, and Polaroid cameras. At the nearby El Cosmico, choose between a vintage Airstream trailer, a safari tent, and a Sioux-style tepee. Or get a feel for the Wild West at the rustic Cibolo Creek Ranch outside of town. Eat dinner at Maiya’s. The menu changes daily, but it’s always difficult to decide between the appetizers, like curry carrot soup and a caramelized fennel tartlet.
Then head into the desert to try to see the Marfa lights near the Chinati Mountains. On clear nights, mysterious, sphere-shaped lights sometimes float across the sky. The lights have been fascinating people for years—UFOs and ghosts are frequently discussed—though no one has been able to determine their origin. You may not believe the paranormal theories in advance, but it’s hard to think otherwise once you actually see the lights.
The next morning, drink your coffee, but wait to eat breakfast until you arrive at Farm Stand Marfa. Grab a breakfast burrito to eat as you browse Ganka’s organic bread, Socorrito’s tamales, and Malinda’s watercolors. Stroll into town to see the classic Texas town square and the view from the fifth floor of the Presidio County Courthouse. Stop in more galleries to see paintings, photographs, and chalk drawings. Catch a film screening at Ballroom Marfa. And don’t miss the Marfa Book Company, an independent gem.
Back on the highway, you’re once again surrounded by cacti and tumbleweeds. An 18 wheeler is bearing down on you. Your bladder is making you uncomfortable. But there’s nothing ahead of you for quite a long time. And Marfa now seems like a desert dream.