In early April 2018 I did a trip to plein air paint in Texas – State #25 in my Quest to Plein Air Paint in all 50 States. The following is my travelog about the trip. You may find it helpful if considering a similar trip to the big State of Texas. Since I had a week and didn’t want to spend the entire time driving I decided to limit the trip to West Texas, Big Bend National Park and San Antonio. Even with this limitation the distances we covered were considerable. My adventurous traveling companions for this trip were Jean Thomas of Soquel and Eunice Van der Linden of Scotts Valley. We are all artists and belong to the same painting group in Santa Cruz – The Santa Cruz Oil Painters Group.
El Paso to Alpine.
We flew into El Paso and rented an SUV for the week. We would drop it off at San Antonio Airport at the end of the trip. It is about 220 miles from El Paso to Alpine where we stayed at the Hampton Inn there. Not much to report about the drive other than the road was good and speed limit at 80mph. We had to stop at one Border Security checkpoint as this part of Texas is right on the USA/Mexico border. We were asked if we were citizens. A Police dog was at work at this Check Point. It took us about 5 hours of driving to get to Alpine.
It was desert landscape the whole way but gave way to a slightly more hospitable vegetation as we approached Marfa and Alpine. Ft. Davis, Marfa and Alpine form a triangle about 20 or 30 miles apart in this area of West Texas – lots of hills, volcanic cones and cliffs of larva and a few streams. – each has interesting aspects and deserves a visit if you are on the way to Big Bend National Park. Marfa and Alpine in particular have many art galleries and artist studios in town. Fort Davis has a well known Botanical Garden and geology display.
In Marfa we stopped at the delightful Hotel Paisano and gathered information on Big Bend and the Marfa/Alpine area. Marfa is also known for the mysterious “Marfa Lights” – These Lights have been seen for about 100 years and appear in the sky or near the mountains at or after sunset. The Lights are of unknown origin and appear about 8% of the time at a specific spot 10 miles from Marfa. No real explanation has been given as to what causes them – UFO’s? Aliens? St. Elmos fire? Other natural phenomenon? Everyone loves a good mystery after all! There is a special viewing area complete with bathrooms and extra roadside parking.
We stayed two nights at the Hampton Inn in Alpine (2607 Hwy. 90 West) – it turned out to be the best hotel of our trip! Large comfortable rooms, excellent full breakfast each morning as well as evening tea time snacks and “to go” lunch bags provided by the friendly staff at the front desk! All included in the price of the room. They also have a workout room, pool and hot tub spa, full laundry. Our room had microwave, fridge and coffee making equipment. All most satisfactory and convenient.
Fort Davis, Texas
Our first full day in Texas started out early – due to the hot weather we wanted to be on the road and painting before the real heat set in. Our first Texas plein air spot was on the way to Fort Davis. We found a picnic area about half way between Alpine and Fort Davis. It turned out to be a magical spot! In this desert country anyplace with water flowing attracts so much bird and animal life. As we set up our easels to paint the dark dramatic cliffs and lovely yellow meadow we heard coyotes yipping in the distance, noticed two hawks circling overhead and then saw a herd of white tail deer prancing through the meadow in from of us. We heard the calls of many different birds including cactus wren, doves, ducks and a myriad of small birds as we set about our paintings in the luminous morning light. The only visitor we had was a man in a truck with binoculars – on his way to do a job but doing a little birding on the way. Here is my painting from that spot – it took about two hours.
Chihuahuan Desert Botanical Garden in Fort Davis
After our morning painting we stopped at the Desert Botanical Garden in Fort Davis. If you go, notice the display of rocks at the entrance – these rocks represent all the different eras of earth geology from the earliest time to more recent – there is a map of the USA so one can see all the different zones – super interesting. The gardens have good displays of desert plants of the Chihuahuan Desert including a special greenhouse that houses species of cacti unique to this environment. The staff at the Gardens are extremely knowledgeable and kind.
We had lunch at an old fashioned General Store – green chili burgers and salad. It was good.
We stopped in Marfa after lunch and looked around – As it was Monday most of the Galleries were closed – too bad! If you visit plan it for later in the week – Galleries tend to be open Thursdays thru Sundays. We decided to get a picnic to eat out at the viewing spot for the Marfa Lights mentioned above. We were going to do a sunset painting, eat our picnic and hope to see the “Marfa Lights”.
We drove out to the special Marfa Lights viewing pullout on Highway 90 about 10 minutes East of Marfa. There are restrooms and a viewing platform with binoculars. The wind was blowing quite fiercely when we arrived but we were able to find a sheltered spot beside the wall of the viewing platform with a perfect view of the mountains and desert where the Lights usually show up – there is an 8% chance of seeing them we were told. Here is a photo of Jean Thomas and I enjoying a glass of wine with our picnic dinner just before sunset!
Quite a crowd started to gather as sunset approached – and it was a spectacular West Texas sunset! It was fun to interact with people who stopped to see what we were up to.
As it appeared that we wouldn’t be favored with seeing the Lights this night, I decided to “paint them in” anyway – I had seen a YouTube video of them so had fun putting them into this painting. A memorable evening and a really enjoyable painting session! Here is my "Marga Lights" painting. - appropriately mystical!
We left our hotel in Alpine at 8am in order to get a good start on our first full day in Big Bend National Park. What a huge and spectacular place this is! Right on the border of Texas and Mexico which is demarcated by the Rio Grande River which flows through the Chisos Mountains in the West and the Sierra del Carmen to the east. Ancient volcanic activity as well as sedimentary rocks make this a really interesting place for those into geology (which I am) as well as a haven of wildlife in the Rio Grande Valley area. It is a natural migration route for birds and animals from South and Central America. During the Spring and Fall it is great place to spot many different migrating birds as they come and go from their wintering grounds in the South.
Even with our early start we didn’t get to Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend until 1pm. We had brought our lunch with us which was just as well. There are virtually no places to get food and water in the park so be sure to have your own supplies in the car. The distances between places in the park can take a while due to the distance and the narrow winding mountain roads. There are fabulous vistas everywhere which necessitate stopping for photos of course! This park is exceeding my best expectations by a large degree. You will not be disappointed if you make the trek!
Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend N.P.
Our first stop and painting spot in Big Bend was Santa Elena Canyon – it took us a while to get there on the mountain roads but it is well worth the trek. Spectacular sheer canyon through which flows the Rio Grande River – this is right on the border of the USA and Mexico. Here is a photo of the Canyon
We had our lunch here and then got our plein air painting gear and set up on a sand bar right in the idle of the river. The water flow was low and slow so there was no problem in walking right out there jumping from rock to rock. It was very hot and forecast to get even hotter the next day. I used my umbrella gear and was grateful of it! We decided our best bet was to paint it today as we were already here. There were a number of other visitors but generally uncrowded by California standards. Here are some of the paintings we did at the Canyon - the one below is by me - Suzanne Elliott, the second one is by Jean Thomas and the third painting is by Eunice Van der Linden. I love how different all three are of the exact same view!
Due to extremely limited accommodations inside the park we stayed at the Lajitas Golf Resort just outside the park boundaries. Lajitas is a small town on the Rio Grande. Apparently the whole town and the Golf Resort where we stayed is owned by one man – the owner of Sunoco Oil Company! Here is a photo of the Mayor of Lajitas! No joke! The guy has a sense of humor.
Lajitas Golf Resort - Lajitas, Texas
The hotel is very nice – my room was across the road from the old hotel building – we used the lovely outdoor swimming pool a couple of times during our visit – very welcome in the heat! There is a restaurant for lunch and dinner and a couple of places to get coffee and breakfast in the morning. It is a 30 minute drive to find anything outside of Lajitas. They do have a well stocked grocery store there with a deli, a gas station (Sunoco) and all the comforts. Spa services are also available and of course, golf. Also hunting and shooting expeditions can be arranged. To check out the hotel and resort go to: www.LajitasGolfResort.com
After all the driving and painting in the heat we just wanted to relax and not go anywhere more that day. We had dinner at the Tex-Mex Grill at the hotel – Prickly Pear Margaritas, ribs and fajitas – yum! We shared two orders amongst the three of us as there was tons of food on each plate.
Into the Heart of Big Bend – Chisos Mountains Park Headquarters
After a good night’s sleep we were all ready to spend the whole day in the heart of the park. As the heat was really supposed to get more intense we decided to head into the Chisos Mountains were it would be about 10F cooler than next to the river. We found our morning painting spot just before the Chisos Mountains Basin Junction on route 118 from Lejitas. We were all set up and painting by 9.15. A good idea because of the heat. Here is the painting I did at this location – wonderful desert scene with craggy mountains in the background and lots of cacti and interesting textures and colors. The desert is blooming everywhere you look right now.
Chisos Mountain Lodge and Visitor Center – Big Bend N.P.
The Chisos Lodge is in the heart of the park in the mountains – we had tried to get rooms here but they are difficult to get due to scarcity and the limited amount of time one can visit the park without cooking in the heat – If you want to stay here you had better book two years ahead for the early part of the year. The only other lodging options are camping or staying outside the park as we are doing. The Lodge seems to be old and pretty basic accommodations from what I could see. They have a café next to the visitor store. Great view as it is set in a natural amphitheater surrounded by the Chisos Mountain peaks. Quite spectacular so it is worth a visit. I picked up an interesting book about the Comanche Indian tribe – very well written and interesting if horrifying in parts. It is called – “Empire of the Summer Moon” – by S.C. Gwynne – it is about Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history. Having now visited the country where this took place I found it a powerful read.
By the time we had lunch at the Chisos center Café it was too hot to do anything other than take it easy. So we drove back to our comfortable lodgings at Lajitas and lounged by the pool until dinner time. We ventured out at dusk to go to the small desert community of Terlingua which is 17 miles down Route 170 from Lajitas. We had spotted an interesting place called ‘The Kiva” there and went in for dinner. It is an underground restaurant and bar! Very weird with strange vibe – here is a photo of the interior - but the food was decent - Steak and BBQ menu. We had a good steak dinner and listened to their Open Mic night of local talent – entertaining for sure! And quite unique.
Big Bend Ranch State Park – Lajitas
Our last painting in Big Bend was done the next morning very close to our hotel – there is a State Park right on the Rio Grande. As we approached our painting spot we saw a couple of wild Javelinas – the wild pigs of the area! We were the only folks out there except for Mexican fisherman in his canoe bringing in his catch. We wanted to paint early due to the heat and this worked well. Here is the painting I did that morning.
The drive from the Big Bend area to San Antonio is a long one – over 435 miles. We shared the driving amongst the three of us so that helped a lot. We stayed at The Comfort Suites on Oak Drive in San Antonio which is about a 10 or 15 minute walk from the Riverwalk and The Alamo right in the heart of San Antonio’s tourist area. We spent a wonderful evening out on the Riverwalk and had a great dinner at a New Orleans inspired restaurant called Landry’s Seafood Restaurant. We also enjoyed some live Tecano Jazz at their upstairs bar after dinner. It was Jean’s birthday after all and we felt like celebrating. We had just walked back to our hotel after our fun evening when there was a violent lightning and thunder storm with some rain.
The Alamo and The Western Museum of Art
Our only full day in San Antonio was spent visiting The Alamo and The Western Museum of Art, both of which were close to our hotel and the Riverwalk. We also took a ride on one of the Riverwalk cruise boats that was fun. Got some more history during that ride – San Antonio is celebrating their 300 year anniversary as a city this year. It was founded in 1718 by the Spanish. We discovered an artist village area nearby and had a cup of tea there. Then we discovered a Ballet Folklorica Festival in progress. We watched about 5 different dance troops performing on stage – Amazingly diverse performances and costumes – it was wonderful to see so many young people enjoying such inspiring and healthy activities.
It was a wonderful trip through West Texas – we covered a LOT of miles – it is true what they say, “Everything is Bigger in Texas” – Thank you Texas for being gracious in all our interactions with us. We only had time to cover a small part of this vast State.