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Small Town Texas: Discovering Marfa, Marathon & Terlingua

Small town Texas isn’t high on most people’s travel wish list. Yet our spring trip to discover Big Bend National Park took us through three Texas towns worth a visit – Marfa, Marathon and Terlingua.

"Car parked on the main street of Marfa"

Car parked on the main street of Marfa – looks like Texas to me

"A fine welcome to Marfa"

A fine welcome to Marfa

Marfa, Texas

We arrived in Marfa in the dark which I always find a tad disorienting – and stayed near the edge of town at the Thunderbird, an updated 50’s style hotel featuring cowhide rugs, art work by internationally recognized artists and clean lines. It’s not fancy but nor is it what you would expect in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have time for Marfa till the end of the trip – so our first impressions outside of the hotel were more along the lines of what I normally expect from small towns in the middle of nowhere – not much to see and not too interesting.

Nor did I expect our breakfast at the local diner to be served on paper plates with a Styrofoam cup of orange juice and coffee on the side.

"Breakfast in Marfa the first morning"

Breakfast in Marfa the first morning

The return visit was a delight.

"Marfa's beautiful government building"

Marfa’s Presidio County Courthouse

On our return to Marfa we stayed at the historic Paisano Hotel – a happening spot on that Saturday afternoon with an outdoor courtyard full of visitors enjoying a cold drink in the shade. When late afternoon rolled around we spent a few hours dashing across residential streets looking for shade while admiring many an architecturally interesting house – ones that fetched big bucks before the 2008 market meltdown. We discovered a grocery store that was like a miniature version of Whole Foods – filled with lots of interesting locally sourced foods. By the time we hit the famous Chianati Foundation, a contemporary art museum founded by international artist Donald Judd, it was closed. We also missed the Marfa Book Company but had time to visit a few small local galleries. And all this culture is packed into a town boasting a population of only 1900 people.

Dinner that night was just a block away but it took us by an art gallery opening where people spilled out onto the streets. We even recognized a couple of them from our Marathon visit a few days earlier.

The choice of restaurants was amazing for such a small town. We ate at Maiya’s and thoroughly enjoyed our Italian themed meal – a far cry from our first breakfast in Marfa. It turns out that on Mondays most of the restaurants are closed including  Squeeze Marfa, where we happily chomped on waffles on the second visit.

"Marfa's water tower can be seen for miles"

Marfa’s water tower can be seen for miles

I wish we’d taken the time to view the Marfa Lights. The viewing place is eight miles west of Marfa on Highway 90. The Marfa Lights might just be atmospheric reflections from car lights and campfires though they’ve been observed since the 19th century – well before cars.

"Marfa mystery lights"

Marfa mystery lights


Terlingua is a small town near the Mexican border within easy driving distance of Big Bend National Park. It was originally founded because of the discovery of cinnabar – from which mercury is extracted. In the mid 1800’s about 2000 people lived in the area; now it serves primarily as a gateway to the park. We stayed in a colourful Chisos Mining Company cottage – one that a miner would have lived in years ago – very basic and furnace like hot in the summers before air conditioning.

"Chisos Mining Company Cabins"

Chisos Mining Company Cabins

The cottage welcomed us with a scorpion sighting – fortunately in the kitchen sink and not on the bedding.

"Small scorpion found in the kitchen sink"

Small scorpion found in the kitchen sink

There’s a ghost town in the historic part of Terlingua – and according to a sign it’s the birthplace of all chili cookoffs in the world! There’s also a 1902 cemetery listed on the National Register for Historic Places, which is still in use by the local community. Try a dinner in the Starlight Theatre or eat anywhere with an outdoor patio and enjoy spectacular sunset views.

"Starlight Theatre - a good place for dinner in Terlingua"

Starlight Theatre – a good place for dinner in Terlingua

"Sunset over Terlingua"

Sunset over Terlingua


Marathon, population 430, sits just 4o miles from the entrance to Big Bend National Park.

It’s hard to believe how much a town this size packs in.

For starters you can stay in the elegant Gage Hotel – one that was designed by architects Trost and Trost for rancher, banker and businessman, Alfred Gage. It’s a great spot to use as a base for not only the park but for exploring the nearby towns and sites. In fact the Gage Hotel puts out a booklet suggesting a 14 day itinerary in the area.

"The Gage Hotel"

The Gage Hotel

"Swallows at the Gage Hotel"

Swallows at the Gage Hotel

Marathon has been described by a volunteer staffer at the Chamber of Commerce as having a visceral feel about it. I concur.

The town enjoys a great bookstore, many restaurants with names like Shelly’s Burnt Biscuit Bakery, Johnny B’s Old Fashioned Soda Fountain and the Famous Burro. Don’t miss a stop at the While Buffalo Bar in the Gage Hotel late in the day for a drink. Take time to wander through galleries and giftshops, explore the Gage Gardens, a 26 acre site that grows produce for the Cenizo Cafe and walk the town.

"Picture on the door to the men's washroom in a public park"

Picture on the door to the men’s washroom at Gage Gardens

"Railway through Marathon, Texas"

Railway through Marathon, Texas

"Colourful Marathon dwelling"

Colourful Marathon dwelling

I think these three Texas towns might surprise you too.

To me west Texas is a three season place to visit – but that’s because I dislike heat. Consider a trip in fall, winter or spring and enjoy sunny skies, warm days and cool, clear nights.

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
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Photo credits: Marfa mystery lights

Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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