7 cool little towns sure to brighten your West Texas road trip

There are a few things to know about road tripping through West Texas. First of all, the distances between towns will be LONG. From El Paso on the western edge of Texas to Austin near the heart of the state, the drive clocks in at nearly 9 hours. And that’s not even counting the detours you will want to include or the numerous gasoline and meal breaks you will need to take.

But just as certain as the long distances you’ll face is the assurance that you will have plenty of delightful little towns along the way to break up the drive. From the hip town of Marfa that is known worldwide for its art scene, to the tiny Interstate 10 outpost of Ozona that is the center of a county named for Davy Crockett, West Texas is a treasure trove of fascinating culture.

Everywhere you stop, it seems, you will be met with intriguing stories, historic hotels, ruggedly beautiful hikes, and friendly people. And as you drive from town to town, count on passing over long ribbons of pavement with views of distant jagged mountains.

After taking several road trips in southwestern Texas during the past two years, I have a few favorites. Here are 7 towns that are worth a pause on your waltz across West Texas.

1. Van Horn

I first came upon the little I-10 town of Van Horn (population 1,800) on my 2021 drive from the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to the Big Bend National Park. Although I made just a quick stop for gas in Van Horn on that trip, I noticed the two big roof-mounted neon signs on the Hotel El Capitan, located near the intersection of the north-south Highway 54 and the east-west Interstate 10.

While researching for my April 2022 road trip from my home in Arizona to Austin, Texas, I learned a bit more about the history of Van Horn’s signature hotel. Built in 1930, the Hotel El Capitan is one of the amazing historic hotels designed by prominent early-20th century architect Henry Trost. Having stayed at Trost’s beautiful Hotel Paso del Norte in El Paso on my 2021 trip, I decided I had to to check out the smaller El Capitan as well.

It is a lovely spot right along Van Horn’s main street, featuring the bustling El Capitan Restaurant and Gopher Hole Bar, a courtyard with a pretty fountain, and a well-stocked gift shop. I stayed in a room with a small patio overlooking the courtyard, and it was a perfect way to end a long day of driving.

Van Horn’s Hotel El Capitan at dusk
Hotel El Capitan courtyard

Pro Tip: The El Capitan is located across the street from the railroad tracks that run through Van Horn. When I stayed, I heard the train rumbling through town several times throughout the evening. Although it didn’t interfere with my sleep, I was told that guests are sometimes startled awake by the sound, so ear plugs might be in order for light sleepers.

2. Fort Davis

Jeff Davis County Courthouse

For me, Fort Davis was a happy travel surprise. My main purpose for visiting the little town located about an hour and 15 minutes southeast of Van Horn was to spend a night in the Davis Mountains State Park’s Indian Lodge, a rustic adobe-style hotel built by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.

I had read quite a bit about the state park beforehand, but I hadn’t focused too much on the similarly named town that is nearby. So, I was delighted to find that although Fort Davis is small (population 1,100), it has a thriving business district with a range of restaurants, hotels, a grocery store, and numerous shops.

It is also a remarkably well-preserved example of a Texas frontier military post town of the late 1800s. Many of the buildings in town are historically significant structures that were built along the Old Overland Trail.

Downtown Fort Davis

Fort Davis is also home to the Fort Davis National Historic Site, one of the best surviving examples of forts built in the 1800s to protect settlers, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and on the Chihuahua Trail.

The National Historic Site features a range of officer dwellings and exhibits that show what life was like for the military men and their families who were stationed amidst the rugged Davis Mountains.

Fort Davis National Historic Site
Indian Lodge from above

Pro Tip: There are several historic hotels in Fort Davis, but I especially loved my stay at the Indian Lodge for its example of the amazing work done by the boys of the CCC, a 1930s-era government work relief program that provided work for unemployed young men of the Great Depression.

3. Marfa

Giant movie display near Marfa

Long known as a magnet for artists, Marfa (population 1,500) has been attracting movie makers, artists, and musicians for decades. Back in the 1950s, Marfa was the location for the blockbuster movie Giant, starring several of the biggest movie stars of the time – Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.

Central to Marfa’s Giant story is the Hotel Paisano, a wonderful historic hotel that served as the headquarters for the movie. Like the El Capitan in Van Horn, the Hotel Paisano was designed by Henry Trost, and it shares some of the cool tile-and-archway design features of the El Capitan. Even if you’re not staying at the Paisano, be sure to stop by the lobby for a taste of old Hollywood.

Today, Marfa is billed by its tourism website as a destination for “live music, art galleries, mystery lights, and small bites.” It makes for a fantastically fun stop on a road trip in West Texas and either to or from the nearby spectacular Big Bend National Park, an hour and half to the southeast.

Hotel Paisano and the Presidio County Courthouse
Lobby of Hotel Paisano

Pro Tip: For an uplifting little message, be sure to check out the You’ll Be Fine graffiti on the Garza Marfa building. On a walking tour of the downtown, I also suggest stopping in at Frama Coffee for your morning latte, Marfa Burrito for a Mexican-cuisine lunch, and The Water Stop for diner fare like chicken and waffles.

4. Marathon

The Gage Hotel in Marathon

For such a small town (population 386), Marathon boasts an inordinately amazing hotel/restaurant/bar/coffeeshop complex. Anchored by the legendary 1920s-era Gage Hotel, the row of businesses on Marathon’s historic main street includes the Gage Restaurant, the V6 Coffee Bar, Brick Vault Brewery & Barbecue, and the White Buffalo Bar.

The little downtown also features a number of fun shops, such as the Rusty Rabbit and the V6 Collection Gifts, that offer a unique assortment of Texas-style art, books, and hand-crafted decor.

Marathon is known as the gateway to the Big Bend National Park, and at about 40 minutes north of the park’s north entrance, the Trost-designed Gage Hotel regularly attracts visitors to Texas’s largest national park.

Gage Hotel lobby
Marathon street scene

Pro Tip: When I visited the Gage Hotel on a Monday in early April, the crowds were sparse and it appeared that the only spot open for lunch was the V6 Coffee Bar, which offered a nice variety of wraps, bowls, and smoothies. Visitors who want a full array of Marathon’s bars and restaurants might want to visit closer to the weekend and plan to stay through the evening.

5. Alpine

At a population of about 6,000, Alpine is a bit larger than several other of my West Texas favorites. With the larger population comes more businesses, a college (the Sul Ross State University) and a hospital (Big Bend Regional Medical Center). Still, Alpine retains a decidedly small-town feel. A walk around the downtown yields plenty of historic buildings, charming cafes, and grassy areas.

Centering the downtown is the Holland Hotel, another of the historic hotels designed by prolific early-20th-century architect Henry Trost. Like other Trost hotels in the area, the Holland features a grand lobby and lovely courtyard area.

The hotel was built in 1928 by local rancher JR Holland. After changing hands many times over the years, the hotel was purchased by Greenwich Hospitality, which continues its restoration.

Holland Hotel lobby
Alpine, Texas mural

Pro Tip: Amtrak has an unstaffed station in Alpine, located just across the street from the historic Holland Hotel.

6. Fort Stockton

History and commerce converge in Fort Stockton, a town established in 1859 as Camp Stockton and later the site of both U.S. Army troops, and Confederate troops during the Civil War. After the U.S. Army withdrew in 1861, Fort Stockton was briefly occupied by Confederate troops, who would also go on to leave the area a year later.

Today, Fort Stockton is a somewhat spread-out Interstate 10 town of about 8,500 population. For great information about the town’s military, railroad, Native American history, be sure to stop by the Fort Stockton Visitor Center, which is housed in the renovated Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad Depot.

The visitor center is surrounded by informative interpretive signs about the region’s history. It is also near the statue of Paisano Pete, a roadrunner that is the unofficial mascot of Fort Stockton.

For a step back in history, check out the Historic Fort Stockton site and the Annie Riggs Memorial Museum.

Fort Stockton Visitor Center
Paisano Pete, Fort Stockton’s unofficial mascot
Historic Fort Stockton site

Pro Tip: The visitor center makes a great place to stop for a selfie and a lunch break before getting back onto Interstate 10. If you’re heading east, rest stops are few and far between for the next 100 miles or so.

7. Ozona

Downtown Ozona

It bills itself as the Biggest Little Town in the World, and Ozona does seem to have a large-than-life personality. For one thing, it is the county seat of Crockett County, named after Davy Crockett, who died at the Battle of the Alamo in nearby San Antonio. A large statue of Crockett stands on Ozona’s picturesque courthouse square, overlooking the imposing courthouse designed by noted architect Oscar Ruffini.

Visitors should be sure to wander the courthouse square and take in the excellent Crockett County Museum to learn more about the town’s history.

Crockett County Courthouse Square, Ozona Texas

Pro Tip: Ozona (population 3,000) is the last town for drivers to gas up and get supplies for more than 100 miles when heading west on Interstate 10. Road trippers might want to stop at the friendly Ozona Visitor Center located just off the interstate for information and a restroom break, and stop for refreshments at Ozona establishments like the Hitchin Post Steak House or Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant.

Bonus town: Luckenbach

Luckenbach Post Office

I call Luckenbach a bonus town on this trip because it is more central Texas than West Texas, and it is more an outpost than a town. But the little unincorporated settlement about 13 miles southeast of Fredericksburg is definitely worth a stop on a road trip in the Austin area. I absolutely loved sitting under the shade trees in front of the small stage behind the Luckenbach Post Office, listening to the live music provided by the Luckenbach Picker’s Circle. Anyone who grew up listening to the 1977 hit song Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love) by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson will surely appreciate the experience.

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