Beyond the Pecos
Exploring West Texas
If spring weather has you humming “On the Road Again,” it might be just the time to plan a trip to Texas –– and there’s no better place to start than Willie Nelson country: Austin.
Nicknamed “the Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin really catches the attention of the international music world every March during South by Southwest, or SXSW, one of the nation’s largest music festivals. Scheduled this year for March 17-21 (preceded by a SXSW interactive festival and a film fest), SXSW packs in nearly 2,000 bands of every genre performing at dozens of clubs across town. The eclectic scene is powered by talent ranging from garage-band startups to internationally known names.
Austin has come a long way from the ‘60s, when venues such as Threadgill’s, a restaurant now best-known for its chicken-fried steak, introduced the world to Janis Joplin via its weekly “Hootenannies” jam sessions. A few years later, the now-defunct but still revered Armadillo World Headquarters served as a launching pad for the careers of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Today, thanks in part to television’s Austin City Limits broadcast, the Austin beat has caught on around the world.
For all its nightlife, Austin has plenty of fun for daytime visitors, as well. Take a tour of the largest state Capitol building in the country, and then, just a block north of the Capitol, stop by the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, which is perfect for families. Three floors of exhibits cover everything from European immigration to space exploration. And Texas –– not to mention national and international –– history is the focal point of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum, located on the campus of the University of Texas. This recently renovated facility includes a reproduction of President Johnson’s White House Oval Office.
The Johnson family’s influence on Austin is also seen on the southwest side of the city at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Spring is the best time of year for viewing these unique gardens that are devoted to native plants and flowers.
As you head west of Austin, wildflowers dot the landscape of the Hill Country. Travel west on U.S. 290 to the community of Fredericksburg, founded by German settlers whose heritage can be seen in the town’s restaurants and its traditional gästehaus, or guesthouse, offerings, a large part of the area’s booming bed-and-breakfast industry.
Spring visitors to Fredericksburg can’t miss Wildseed Farms, the largest working wildflower seed farm in the United States. There’s even a self-guided walking tour through the colorful grounds.
The beauty of the Hill Country has inspired many Western artists whose work can be seen south of Fredericksburg in the town of Kerrville. Artwork and Kerrville go together like a boot and a stirrup in this city filled with antiques shops and art galleries. World-class Western art takes centerstage at the Museum of American Western Art. Western-themed paintings and sculpture fill the museum, and special shows highlight the work of member artists. In town, galleries feature the work of many local artists, and every Memorial Day weekend, the city presents the annual Texas Arts & Crafts Fair, which showcases the work of Texas artists. (No manufactured, mass-produced or molded items are permitted, and all the artisans must reside in Texas to participate.) Along with plenty of opportunities to shop, you’ll also find craft demonstrations, children’s activities, music and food at this popular event.
Kerrville lies on Interstate 10, the pathway to the Texas that many travelers picture from the movies: miles of open country and big skies. Head west, and soon you’ll be in Junction, the town that’s called “the Front Porch of the West.” Here the rolling Hill Country begins to give way to Texas-size vistas as you head toward the sunset and the promise of miles of adventure ahead. From Junction, the road points toward West Texas, well-known as the home of Big Bend.
Formed by a southerly dip in the Rio Grande, Big Bend country is often referred to as the Lone Star State’s “last frontier,” where sunsets explode nightly across the Technicolor sky. Hiking shares the spotlight with rafting in Big Bend National Park, a canyon-filled remote area in the Chisos Mountains and the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert.
You can book rafting trips down the waters of the Rio Grande, hike the national park trails or camp amid rugged solitude. Guided nature walks led by naturalists are offered year-round (several per day in the peak months through April).
The gateway to Big Bend is the community of Fort Davis, located in the Davis Mountains. Built as a U.S. military post in the mid-19th century, today Fort Davis National Historic Site is considered one of the Southwest’s best examples of a frontier military post. Sixteen miles northwest of Fort Davis, the University of Texas McDonald Observatory is a favorite with starry-eyed travelers. Considered one of the world’s best astronomy research facilities, the observatory is located far from city lights, enhancing the views.
Nearby, the town of Marfa is the scene of Texas’ most-talked- about mystery –– and one that’s never quite been solved. Nine miles east of Marfa, visitors gather to view the mysterious Marfa lights, which have been spotted here for centuries. Today, visitors can go to a special viewing area outside of town; it fills with cars nightly as curious onlookers gather in hopes of a glimpse of the lights, which resemble car headlights –– in an area with no roads. The mysterious lights are seen year-round (but not every night).
Even if you don’t spot the Marfa lights, you’ll find plenty of fun in this West Texas town that’s increasingly known as a thriving arts community. The attention of the art world was first focused on the small town when minimalist artist Donald Judd relocated here; today’s Judd’s Chinati Foundation, a gallery space and artists’ colony, is one of many art venues that draws international visitors.
Returning to I-10 and following the sunset, the last stop in Texas is El Paso, the largest city in West Texas and its westernmost point. The El Paso-Juárez, Mexico, metropolis holds the title as the world’s most populous border area.
Close ties bind the two cities, though sadly crime problems in Juárez keep most travelers on the U.S. side of the border.
Fringing the city are the Franklin Mountains, the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains. This region is part of the Chihuhuan Desert with altitudes that vary from 3,762 feet in El Paso to 7,200 feet in the mountains. It provides an ideal backdrop for travelers with a love for the outdoors. The city itself boasts Franklin Mountains State Park, the largest urban wilderness park in the country. To learn more about the desert plants native to the region, visit the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, located on the campus of the University of Texas El Paso. The gardens are adjacent to the Centennial Museum, which traces the natural and cultural history of the area.
El Paso is also rich with history. Stretching south of today’s city of El Paso along the banks of the Rio Grande, three missions recall the Spanish occupation of Mexico in the 16th century. The missions drew settlers to the region and acted as farming and ranching centers. Today the churches are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and welcome visitors.