Trip Date 09/14/2017
Posted On 09/29/2018 17:36:03
Destinations | Texas | What to see in Marfa | El Cosmico | Marfa Lights Viewing Area | Tethered Aerostat Radar System | Day Trips from Marfa | Prada Marfa | Target Marathon | Fort Davis National Historic Site | McDonald Observatory
I don't remember when I first heard about the town of Marfa, however I do know that I've wanted to explore the city ever since I read stories about Marfa in the book Weird Texas: Your Travel Guide to Texas's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets (by Wesley Treat, Heather Shade and Rob Riggs) nearly 10 years ago. Since Marfa was included in the book, I characterized the city in my mind as a little weird or unconventional - but unique places are my favorite places to explore.
If you will be anywhere near Marfa, Texas, check out this list for 11 things to do and sights to see in and around the city. The first six items on the list are all inside the city, and the last 5 are easy day trips from Marfa. Depending on what time you start driving (and how long you are willing to be away), you can check off two or more all in the time of a single day.
As you begin planning your visit, keep in mind that the town of Marfa is quite different from most others. You will find that almost the entire city is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Depending on what time of year you are visiting, you may think that the town is never open!
1. Take a Self-Guided Tour of the Presidio County Courthouse
Built in 1886, the Presidio County Courthouse is a three story building with an octagonal tower overlooking downtown Marfa. Contrary to many other places in Marfa, it seems to be open to the public on weekdays during "business hours" - whatever those are! If you have the energy, make sure to climb to the top to see the view of the town.
2. Explore El Cosmico
Take a stroll through El Cosmico - you'll be so glad that you did! (We first learned of El Cosmico while vacationing in Kauai when a young lady that we met encouraged us to stop and explore the place.) With a combination of trailers, tents, tepees, yurts and hammocks, El Cosmico is a place for lodging like no other. The items for sale in the El Cosmico Provision Company are certainly uncommon as well. Be sure to check the Goings-On page of the El Cosmico website to see if there are any special events planned at the time of your visit.
3. Admire some of the Local Art
Marfa is known for being an artsy town, at least in part thanks to Donald Judd who founded The Chinati Foundation for the purpose of permanent art displays. A variety of tours of Chinati are offered including both self-guided and guided (2 1/2 hours for the $20.00 per adult "Selections Tour" or $25.00 for a 5 hour "Full Collection Tour"). After checking in at the front office, an outdoor path with 15 works by Donald Judd can be viewed at no charge on Wednesdays through Sundays (9:00 AM - 4:30 PM).
Our drive around the city led us to believe that more than one person is responsible for the art in Marfa. If you have some extra time, drive up and down some of the streets to see what artwork you can find!
4. Dine in one of the Local Restaurants
Don't miss the opportunity to try one or more of the local restaurants frequently recommended by previous guests including:
- Planet Marfa, a beer garden open from Spring Break to Thanksgiving;
- Lost Horse Saloon, billed as the "most cowboy kickin'-est bar in town"; and
- Food Shark, a food truck only open from 12:00 PM to 3:00 PM on Wednesdays through Saturdays).
5. Shop at (or at least roam through) some Local Stores
The Get Go in Marfa is a grocery store primarily known for their organic grocery selection. We only had the opportunity to peer through the window at The Wrong Store as a post-it note on the door read "Closed 9/10 - 9/14, open 9/15. Have fun!" While in Marfa, see if you can also find the "Always Closed" establishment - not sure if it is a store or a restaurant or a service building, just sure that it is always closed and proud of it!
6. Spend Time in the Marfa Lights Viewing Area
A late evening visit to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area is a must to see the famous (and mysterious) Marfa Lights that people have been claiming to see since the late 1800's. Why not visit the viewing area in the daylight to better prepare yourself for your night time visit?
The viewing area is actually very nice, complete with restrooms, benches and telescopes. The surrounding area has picnic tables and numerous markers full of historical information about Marfa. There are also a large number of cows in the fenced off field who will watch your every move!
7. Hunt for the Tethered Aerostat Radar System
Driving west on US-90 from Marfa, you may be intrigued by something that looks similar to a blimp that will be either in the air or tethered down. While the road is barricaded so you can't get a close look, the signage indicates that the Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) is operated by the U. S. Customs and Border Protection. TARS is a radar surveillance program designed to help prevent unauthorized entry of low-level air, maritime and surface smugglers / narcotic traffickers along the southern US border.
8. Visit Prada Marfa (No Shopping!)
Although not really in the city, take the 40 mile drive west to Valentine, TX to visit the Prada Marfa "museum". Technically, the classification of the building is a museum with a single display. In addition to the large number of dead bugs lying all over the floor during our visit, the locked building designed to look like a Prada boutique was home to 6 handbags and 21 shoes (not pairs of shoes) from Prada's 2005 fall collection.
9. Target Marathon
On one January night in the year 2016, an abandoned building very near the rail road tracks went to sleep as a very small, boring cinder block building and woke up as Target Marathon. If you enjoy seeing sites like Prada Marfa that many would describe as quirky, plan to take a drive to see "the store at the opposite end of the shopping spectrum".
Like Prada Marfa, the "store" has nothing for sale, however unlike the Prada boutique, Target Marathon is unlocked (in fact, the doors and windows are open air), and has no items on display. The inside walls are covered with graffiti, and the floor is filled with trash.
10. Explore Fort Davis National Historic Site
Take a drive out to Fort Davis National Historic Site and spend some time exploring.
The site has a $7.00 per adult admission fee, however that fee is covered with an America the Beautiful Annual Pass. Start your visit by viewing the 14 minute orientation video narrated by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar which tells the history of the fort that was in operation from 1854 to 1891.
Following the video, you can walk through, listen to audio commentary, read and follow interactive display instructions to learn about the buildings open to visitors.
- See the Fort Davis Post Hospital, considered one of the best medical facilities west of San Antonio, which had a maximum capacity of 24 patients primarily treated for diseases or accidents.
- The second building in Officers' Row was built for a captain however, due to a housing shortage, was redeployed as a Shared Lieutenants' Quarters accommodating 2 lieutenants and their spouses.
Officers' Row at Fort Davis National Historic Site
- In an effort to eliminate the transfer of heat or cooking odors and reduce the danger of fire, make sure to see the Officer's Kitchen and Servant's Quarters that are separated from the main house.
- Read about the Post Chapel (not yet restored) which also served as the library, schoolroom and Friday night ballroom.
Post Chapel at Fort Davis
- Listen to the audio exhibits to learn about food available at the Commissary for officers and civilian employees at cost plus transportation charges.
Commissary at Fort Davis
- See the two Enlisted Men's Barracks - one with displays including artillery, tombstones and transportation and the second displaying the living conditions of a troop of Buffalo Soldiers circa 1884.
Artillery Display in Enlisted Men's Barracks Enlisted Men's Barracks at Fort Davis
- Spend some time in the Visitor Center Museum (located behind the information desk), home to a variety of displays which provide additional information about the fort and the soldiers who served.
- Take some time to listen to and read about the various bugle calls which will be sounded throughout your visit.
11. Tour McDonald Observatory
Plan a visit to the The Frank N. Bash Visitors Center at McDonald Observatory - there is lots to see and do. Had we known that you could fill a day at the observatory, we would have planned our day so that we had some daylight hours available for a self-guided tour of the telescope domes on Mount Locke and Mount Fowlkes. As it was, we had just enough time to see the sun dial and a few of the indoor exhibits before being seated in the theatre to await the start of the evening programs that we had reserved.
If you can make it work, visit the observatory on a day when the 7:15 PM Twilight Program followed by the Star Party at 8:45 PM are offered. During our visit, a one-hour educational program, "Modeling the Night Sky" was led by Rachel. After her humorous differentiation between astrology and astronomy, she recruited members of the audience to create a "human model" to visually demonstrate the relationship of several planets within the solar system. The program concluded with a video which provided a more in-depth explanation of the relationship of all of the planets comprising the solar system.
Getting to the outdoor amphitheater for the Star Party required a walk through Rebecca Gale Telescope Park, another part of the observatory that we wished we had some daylight hours to explore. The Star Party opened with a tour of the night sky led by an observatory employee who used a green laser pointer to direct our attention to various constellations including Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the Big and Little Dippers), Capricornus, Lyra, Pisces, Scorpius, Taurus and many more.
Following the tour, we had the opportunity to view an assortment of celestial objects through a number of the telescopes in Telescope Park including:
- M11, the Wild Duck Cluster, located over 6,000 light years away and whose age is estimated to be 250 million years;
- M17, the Swan Nebula, one of the more recent star formations;
- M23, one of the oldest star clusters in our galaxy;
- M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, located about 2.6 million light years away;
- M57, the Ring Nebula, which ran out of fuel about 2,000 years ago; and
- and the oh so cool planet, Saturn, with a crystal clear view of one of its beautiful floating rings.
We wrapped up our visit at the observatory by catching the last showing of "Powers of Ten", a short film produced in the 1970s by Scott's former employer, IBM.
Camping in Marfa, Texas
In addition to an overnight stay at the accommodations in El Cosmico (see above), there are other options for those who prefer to camp in an RV or tent during a visit to Marfa. Check out our post titled Review: Tumble In RV Park in Marfa, Texas for a park with a limited number of spaces for both tent and RV campers.
What are your favorite things to see and do or places at which to eat in or nearby the town of Marfa?
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