Best of West Texas

Best of West Texas, Part I
Alexander Moliski

"[Texas] is a place that can teach you about your own ignorance, because a lot of people, especially people who have never been to the south at all, think they know something about Texas, but there is a lot of Texas to know. That is true of every place, but Texas happens to be a good place to learn it. " - John Darnielle

The Best of West Texas, Part I

When you picture west Texas in your head what do you see? Rolling prairies, farmlands and plains? Try again, west Texas is filled with rugged mountains ranges, high deserts, and golden hills stitched together by the ancient and cold rushing waters of the Rio Grande. Scattered ghost towns, amazing BBQ and little mexican restaurants fill the areas in between. This space evokes the truest sense of the mythical cowboy and wild west. Influenced by the border, the area is diverse, desolate, and sometimes daunting.

Texas is big, but west Texas seems endless. I am not going to pretend like I have been everywhere and seen everything in west Texas, but I have spent some serious time exploring the massive area. Google maps, and most pictures don't do west Texas justice and almost convinced me not to drive the 10-12 hours from Houston. I was so impressed with my first trip I went back again a month later, and then again after that - making sure to visit different parks and areas each time. Focusing mostly on nature, parks, and small towns, I tried to put a list together of my favorite places in one of my favorite areas of the country.

Spending time to visit west Texas can be intimidating. There is a lot to do, a lot to see, and a lot of driving time inbetween. If you are unsure what to see while you are out there, take a look at my top ten recommendations. But first, we have to define what I am considering 'west Texas'

The mass of land west of San Antonio and south of Midland

It is difficult to rank these from least to best because they are all amazing, but some stops are more spectacular than others. So instead I ranked them off of my personal opinion in order of my favorites - I find that most would agree.

10) Amistad Reservoir / Seminole Canyon State Park

Starting closest to what I am defining as west Texas is our first stop. Going down Highway 90, the Amistad Reservoir is a massive (100 square miles) reservoir on the Rio Grande just past the town of Del Rio. The water and desert landscape mix beautifully, creating a drastic contrast to what is a lakeless area. The topography of the original area is apparent with desert 'arms' reaching far into the lake, giving the shoreline a dramatic look. There are numerous camping and RV locations around the water such as Governor's Landing and Rough Canyon Recreational Area.

As an avid fisher, I disappointedly decided not to bring my tackle and instantly regretted the decision once I found that the lake was full of large striped bass, big catfish, and a healthy population of large and smallmouth bass. There have even been some large gar pulled out of the waters.

A beautiful desert lake

Continuing down Highway 90, almost exactly thirty minutes past the Reservoir, is Seminole Canyon State Park. Coming east to west, there is absolutely no signage for the park, making it extremely easy to miss. There is also spotty connection in the area so make sure you are paying attention for the turn off.

An ancient arm of the Rio, filled with petroglyphs

Seminole Canyon is a small state park branching out from the Rio. There are a few options for camping and RVs, but found that there are no primitive camping sites and there is no access to the water. The canyon walls are 300-400 feet tall from the mouth of the Rio to all the way to the park HQ. Upon visiting we found that the canyon is littered with ancient petroglyphs, some you can see from the trail, but others are tour guide only (10:00 a.m and 3:00 p.m. every day).

Angler or not, the Amistad Reservoir and Seminole Canyon are worth checking out, and make a great day stop on your way to some other destinations out further west.

9) Pecos River Recreational Area / Pecos River High Bridge

After leaving Seminole Canyon, you are rewarded with one of the most unexpectedly pretty views in the country (at least that I've seen). The Pecos High Bridge spans a few hundred yards across the end of the Pecos River right near scenic overview - a stop I highly recommend. I ended up hanging out at the bridge for a majority of the night, taking long exposure shots of cars driving across the canyon.

The last 60 miles of the Pecos River sporting 350 foot canyon walls.

We found another hidden treat right around the corner - a boat launch and a small recreational area that don't show up on Google Maps sits at the base of the bridge. I believe it was called the Pecos River Recreational Area, but I could be wrong. It had grills, covered tables, and I believe camping options! We only saw a few people pulling their boats out of the river - otherwise we had it to ourselves. I almost liked this area more than Seminole Canyon due to the lack of traffic. The Pecos river canyon was also more impressive, and there was access to water.

Overlooking the Pecos River Recreational boat launch.

One of the best parts west Texas is that you will come across gems like this, you just have be willing to stop and enjoy the view. It really feels like your are exploring an area that the digital age has not yet caught up to.

Right across the Pecos Bridge lies a toppled gas station.

8) Monahans Sand Dunes State Park

Hoping off of our Highway 90 tour, number 8 sits on the northside of our west Texas border. After experiencing everything in west Texas it leaves you with one more surprise on your way out - the white, rolling sand dunes of Monahans State Park. Out of nowhere, almost beach-like sand dunes appear along the road to Monahans, there are signs for a state park which I recommend stopping to see.

Soft White Sands

Monahans Sand Dunes Park is small, but very unique. There are a few large sand dunes to climb over and play on, you can even rent sleds to glide down the hills! There are RV and camping options here, we used it as a last minute campsite on our way back to central Texas.

A happy Dave taking some shots!

7) McDonald Observatory

If you are even remotely interesting in space (who isn't) than the McDonald Observatory is a worthwhile stop. Placed in the remote mountains of Jeff Davis County, 13 miles past Davis Mountain State park, sits a few observatories and a really nice visitor center. I would recommend looking at the weather and finding a clear night to visit. They have various programs, the most popular being the Star Party. Make sure to reserve tickets ahead of time, because it almost always sells out. Note: The star party is not in the actual observatory, it is behind the visitor's center.

Wild hogs and the cosmos.

Unfortunately I choose the cloudiest night possible to visit the observatory, even so, the program continued. There were options to reschedule at no additional cost and the tickets last forever, so if you happen to visit on a cloudy night, just talk to the nice people at the front desk. Even if it is cloudy or you happen to be passing during the day, the observatory is still worth stopping and checking out. Being that it is high in the hills, the drive up had many scenic views.

Nearing the remote observatory.

6) Terlingua and Route 170

Driving through Big Bend national park and past Santa Elena Canyon are signs for the tiny border town of Terlingua. Admittedly, there are few option in the town in the ways of food and excitement, but there is the Terlingua ghost town. The slightly-touristy area houses multiple old buildings, abandoned foundations, a little gift shop, and once a year, the world's international Chili cookoff.

Terlingua ghost town

Past Terlingua is Route 170, which runs along the Rio Grande through the bottom portion of Big Bend Ranch State park. Route 170 has become a top contender for my favorite driving routes in the US. It dips through valleys and pastures, never leaving site of the spectacular river. There are various pull offs, scenic overlooks, historic areas, and even some old movie scenes along the route.

Continue to Part II

Cars passing over the Pecos High Bridge.