Feel the frontier spirit in Big Bend, Texas

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Ruth Brindle took a road trip to the unspoilt south west US to discover exciting desert and mountain landscapes

Heading south in west Texas towards the Rio Grande and the Mexican border is exciting in its promise of travelling somewhere very different.

It’s the Borderlands, the wild frontier and an area where distances between towns are long and the desert and mountain scenery is spectacular.

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But as publicity for one of the towns along the way - Marfa - puts it, “it’s tough to get to and tougher to forget”. I totally agree.

The spectacular view on the Lost Mine TrailThe spectacular view on the Lost Mine Trail
The spectacular view on the Lost Mine Trail | other

On a winter road trip with my videographer son, we took the 10-hour flight from Heathrow to Dallas/Fort Worth, then on to Midland International Airport in the oil town of Odessa where we stayed the night, before setting off in our Hertz hire SUV on the first leg of the road trip to Fort Davis National Historic Site, nestling beside the Davis Mountains and during its operational days between 1854-1891, a crucial outpost of protection for travellers, settlers and mail coaches from marauding Apache and Comanche Indians.

It was a fascinating stop-off on our journey. A tour around the barracks, home at one time to 700 African American troops of the 9th US Cavalry, gives a vivid insight into their lives in contrast to the comparative luxury of the offers’ quarters - with all the beautiful trappings of a wealthy Victorian home.

The Buffalo Soldiers got their nickname because the Indians likened their hair to the curly tuft on a buffalo’s head.

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In the cute and tiny town of Fort Davis, the highest hamlet in Texas, now the centre of a ranching area, we stopped for lunch in a great cafe, stocked with the best ‘Java’ from the Big Bend Coffee Roasters. After that we took time to browse a charity thrift store and chatted with the friendly locals. We were even given a home-baked sourdough loaf to take with us.

A bunkhouse at Fort Davis, home to the Buffalo SoldiersA bunkhouse at Fort Davis, home to the Buffalo Soldiers
A bunkhouse at Fort Davis, home to the Buffalo Soldiers | other

Nearby, McDonald Observatory, a stargazing hot spot, is also a tourist favourite.

Then it was on to Alpine, with a population of 6,000, the largest town in the Big Bend region and home to Sul Ross State University and Big Bend Museum. It’s 4,475ft above sea level and with its mild summers is a haven for those fleeing the very high temperatures elsewhere in the state.

The town looks really cool with its late 19th and early 20th century architecture and street murals, one of which celebrates actor Dan Blocker, a Sul Ross college student who became better known as Hoss Cartwright in TV’s Bonanza series.

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Another favourite, if slightly offbeat, to tick off the to-do list in Alpine is to take the 20-minute hike up Hancock Hill behind the university to write in the notebook at The Desk that three students in 1981 hauled to the top of the hill. Spectacular views of the town and surrounding countryside.

One of the eye-catching murals in AlpineOne of the eye-catching murals in Alpine
One of the eye-catching murals in Alpine | other

We stayed in the Quarter Circle 7 Hotel in front of the town’s famous Twin Peak mountains and ate some sizeable slabs of barbecue meat at the nearby restaurant walkable from the hotel. Literally getting the taste of Texas. We were also recommended to join some colourful characters for drinks and music at the Hotel Richery bar in town.

Next morning we were off to Terlingua, our base for touring Big Bend National Park and a step deeper into the Badlands of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Nothing can quite prepare you for arriving in Terlingua Ghost Town. If the name isn’t intriguing enough, the tiny ‘town’ of a few homes, a shop and a restaurant is a mix between a hippy commune and an outpost from a Mad Max film. The spirit is definitely hippy, as many people wanting to drop out from normal society moved here in the '60s. Visitors have that same laid-back and escapist attitude.

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The Mad Max element is supplied by the metal artworks dotted around and the famous cemetery, filled with the graves of mine workers who lived and worked in the area in the 1930s. Terlingua was rich in cinnebar, from which mercury is extracted and owned by the Chisos Mining Company, founded by Howard Perry in 1903.

Santa Elena Canyon is a highlight of Big Bend National ParkSanta Elena Canyon is a highlight of Big Bend National Park
Santa Elena Canyon is a highlight of Big Bend National Park | other

He is important for our story in that our home for two nights was his old home - the Perry Mansion. A quirky and distinctive hotel, it provides a real escape from the modern pace of life. The Mansion is eccentric, no doubt proudly so, but amazingly cool-looking. There’s parquet flooring, dark wood furnishings, Victorian fittings and wooden shutters. No TV or phone signal, but there is wi-fi! I watched programmes on my computer as I wasn’t ready to go completely technologically cold turkey.

Our hotel neighbours from Austin, Texas told us they were regular visitors to Terlingua and they loved the place. They even had a party with friends one night, to which we were invited, serving up food from the huge outdoor barbecue at the mansion and hung out beside the private fire pit. The Mansion website states ‘room service is VERY expensive and requires 48 hours’ notice’. Ha ha, so true.

I stayed in Mrs Perry’s Room furnished in antique style but with all modern comforts, including access to a huge balcony verandah from which to enjoy the sunset and the view of the Chisos Mountains and the distinctive Mule Ears peaks.

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Right from the start in Terlingua you know you are here to have a good time! It was rocking with music in the restaurant and outside on the porch in front of the Terlingua Trading Company, once the mining company’s store. Guitars are left outside for any would-be musician to take up and play and we enjoyed listening to an impromptu jam from a group of singers. The former cinema, now only open in the evening, is an extremely popular eaterie as these are few and far between in this neck of the woods. It has an amazing choice of dishes and a well-stocked bar. Without a reservation we faced a 1.5 hour wait to dine in, so we decided on a 20-minute takeout. But we did eat there on our second night in town. Mains are from around $10 (£7.75) for a burger or sandwich to $30 (£23) for steaks and also include, surprisingly, venison, wild boar sausage, quail and antelope. There’s also ‘award-winning’ Terlingua chilli with cheese and onions.

On the first Saturday in November the town’s population swells to 10,000 with ‘chilliheads’ who flock in for two world-famous chilli cook-offs. In neighbouring Study Butte there is a well-stocked supermarket and ‘gas station’ to help visitors buy essentials and fill up for the miles ahead into the jewel in the crown of this region, Big Bend National Park.It is one of the most remote areas of the lower 48 states and the most ecologically diverse park in the US with more species of birds (450), plants, butterfiies, bats, reptiles (including rattlesnakes) and even ants than any other.

Last year it celebrated the 75th year since its dedication as a protected area and its 800,000 acres nestle in the ‘bend’ of the Rio Grande river on the Texas-Mexico border. It is the only national park to contain a complete mountain range - the Chisos Mountains.

Terlingua is a very distinctive placeTerlingua is a very distinctive place
Terlingua is a very distinctive place | other

With a 6,000ft difference between its highest point Emory Peak to the desert low point, there can be extreme temperature differences. This is a wild place and that’s why it is loved by its 440,000 visitors each year.

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Astronauts have studied its geology and it has prehistoric treasures too. But we particularly loved the ‘romance’ and tranquillity of the place. It’s where Indian tribes roamed and hardy settlers lived a very hard life. There are 200 miles of trails, ranging from short, even wheelchair accessible, to longer treks for the more hardy.

On our first day we drove about 30 minutes into the park to the spectacular Chisos Basin to take on the Lost Mine Trail. A stop-off at the nearby Panther Junction visitor centre will provide you with all the park information you need and plenty of advice. The trail is a 4.8 mile round trip and there were plenty of hikers striding off to tackle the whole route, but because of limited time we stopped at the Juniper Canyon Overlook about a mile up to gawp at one of the best views in the park in the 80 degree sunshine. Sadly, there is no ‘lost mine’ bit it didn’t matter at all.

A substantial lunch, again, with great views was had at Chisos Mountain Lodge. It’s also a good place to stay, but gets booked up quickly, so you have to plan ahead, although there are campgrounds in the park too.

On our second day those changeable conditions couldn’t have been more marked. A storm had moved in overnight and our planned excursion to Santa Elena Canyon, carved out by the Rio Grande with its 1,500ft rock walls, had to be delayed for a couple of hours because of icy roads! So a relaxed hot breakfast at Terlingua Ghost Town’s La Posada Milagro, Mexican dishes a speciality, was welcome.

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Eventually the roads were opened and the park’s big natural attraction did not disappoint. I did not take the trail along the canyon itself as it involved a short ’scramble’ to the trail head, but my son did make it up to take some spectacular shots.

This is one of the highlights at the end of the park’s Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive taking in desert and mountain vistas. We couldn’t resist a stop to take funny shots of us in front of the Mule Ears.

But it was a return to the Chisos Basin that provided one of the most awesome sights, and memories, of the entire trip. As we drove up the mountain and then down into the valley we were greeted by a frozen, winter wonderland. Where the day before we had sweltered in shorts and T shirts, the trees, bushes and cacti were now cased in solid ice. It was as beautiful as it was unexpected.

Luckily our river trip along the Rio Grande with Big Bend River Tours in the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Park was in better weather and certainly good company.

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The half-day float on the inflatable dinghy, piloted by our knowledgeable guide who also treated us to an elaborate ‘snack’ of crackers, cheese, fruit and goodies - tablecloth and all - at the water’s edge was tranquil and relaxing. The central part of the river forms the official border and we might have accidentally crossed into Mexican territory.

There is, however, a legal river crossing from the national park to Boquillas Del Carmen. Open after a closure of 10 years, you can take a rowing boat across to Mexico from the US and be taken into the nearby village by donkey.

Perhaps we can take that trip next time for, with great reluctance, we had to leave this amazing border region to make our way north on the 118 to take in the town of Marfa. Here we exchanged natural wonders for artistic ones. The town is famous for its galleries and is a haven for artists, drawn by the influence of minimalist artist Donald Judd who moved to the Marfa from New York in 1971 with the aim of permanently installing his art. Since his death in 1994, two foundations - the Chinati and the Judd have worked to maintain his legacy.

We stayed in the gorgeous Hotel Paisano, where Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean stayed during the filming of Dean’s last film Giant in the area. The black and white stills of the stars on the set featured inside are fascinating.

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The town can also claim fame from another, more mysterious, attraction - the Marfa Lights. These ‘ghost’ lights were first seen in the sky by rancher Robert Ellison in 1883. No one has fully been able to explain the bobbing light phenomenon. Swamp gas, ball lightning, UFOs, wandering spirits? All have been cited as explanations. Sadly, we didn’t see them, but if you want to try, there’s a viewing area on Highway 90, about eight miles from town to wait and watch.

As the last stop on the road trip, before flying home, it was fitting to leave on a mysterious and unique note. Big Bend country is truly unforgettable.

For more information on Big Bend and Texas, visit www.traveltexas.com

America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com / 020 8742 8299) has a seven-night fly-drive to West Texas from £1,415 per person, including return flights from London to Midland, one night in Midland, two nights in Alpine, two nights in Terlingua and two nights in Marfa, plus economy car hire.

Car hire in Texas with Hertz.co.uk starts from £27 a day. For an epic road trip behind the wheel of an iconic American vehicle, check out Hertz's new American Collection.