I’m super excited about our upcoming week-long Texas roadtrip. As a native Texan with roots going back to the days when Texas was an independent republic, it’s high time I got myself to one of the state’s most iconic, unique and remote treasures, Big Bend National Park. I reserved one of the park’s coveted Chisos Mountains Lodge cottages a year ago and crossed my fingers that the weather would cooperate when the allotted time rolled around. A government shutdown didn’t even cross my mind back then. Fortunately, although Big Bend is a national park, the park is open, if unstaffed, and the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire, so we’re still a go. On our journey, we’ll also take in other Texas classics including a “Star Party” at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, a stay in the “James Dean” room at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa and lots more.
Driving straight to Big Bend would take us about nine hours from the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and what fun is that? I wanted to break up the trip, but a first glance at the map showed the Midland-Odessa area to be a likely spot and those light-on-charm oil towns did not exactly inspire. When a little research showed outrageous prices for low-end chain hotel/motels in the area, I looked for alternatives and was thrilled to discover the historic Hotel Settles in nearby Big Spring. The photos looked charming and surprisingly posh and the price was great in comparison to the Midland-Odessa options. We had our first stop!
The 15-story, 150-room Hotel Settles opened on October 1, 1930. The hotel was built by Will R. and Lillian Settles, following the discovery of oil on their ranch. At the time, it was the tallest building between El Paso and Ft. Worth. The Settles only owned the hotel for two years, being forced to sell it when the Great Depression hit and their oil profits fell.
The following years saw a succession of owners. The hotel’s restaurant, the Settles Grill, boasts of famous guests during that time including Elvis Presley, Lawrence Welk, and President Herbert Hoover, as well as Jerry Allison, a Big Spring native and drummer for Buddy Holly and The Crickets.
Although the Settles Grill looked good, the menu at nearby Lumbre appealed more to our personal tastes and we enjoyed a truly excellent meal there: seared tuna steak on lightly sauteed veggies for me and skewers of 8 big, bacon-wrapped shrimp and fish tacos for David.
Big Spring suffered heavy loss of businesses during the oil bust of the late 70’s and the hotel closed its doors in 1982. Over the next decades, the property fell into a derelict state until the local community began a preservation effort. A native of Big Spring bought the hotel in 2006 and invested $30 million in its historically-minded renovation. The original Grand Ballroom was fully refurbished and other rooms restored and given names honoring their regional history. Fascinating photographs throughout the hotel show pictures from Big Spring’s cattle ranching, railroad, and oil boom years as well document the amazing restoration of the hotel. The only negative to this comeback story we heard was from some locals we met at quirky Desert Flower Art Bar (a cool venue offering some of the only craft beer in town along with Texas basics like Shiner beer plus a selection of wine and liquor): Apparently, the Hotel Settles owner (a Fort Worth neighbor of Ross Perot) used no local labor in remodeling the hotel. Very disappointing to hear!
Wandering around town, we found an interesting mix of buildings from the early 1900’s (and a few from the late 1800’s) in various states, many clearly abandoned and in ill-repair, others renovated or in the process of being so. Money has obviously been spent recently in some restoration and Big Springs reminds me somewhat of a Fredricksburg wannabe, a town in decline trying to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. With charming old buildings, an infusion of new bars and restaurants, Big Spring State Park and nearby Midland-Odessa oil business, Big Spring has assets to work with.
I booked Hotel Settles seven weeks prior via an Expedia flash sale which got us a 1-queen bed room for $109.95 ($97.30 plus taxes & fees of $12.65). A quick check of Expedia a few days prior showed all 1-queen bed rooms sold out and the cheapest remaining room (a 2-queen bed room) offered at $254+$33.02 tax & fees=$287.02! A few moments after that Expedia search, the Hotel Settles web site showed only an “historic suite with parlor” available for $224.00 + $29.12 taxes & services= $253.12. When I checked in, the lady at the front desk was on the phone quoting similar prices to someone who understandably declined to book. It pays to plan ahead and keep an eye out for sales!
Our room is charmingly redone with excellent bedding and the old bathroom “chicken wire” and subway tile restored. The space is on the small side, typical of this era hotel, but well appointed with Keurig coffee maker, plenty of outlets, flat screen tv and a/c. My only quibble would be with the a/c rumbling to life and blowing on the bed during the night, but that’s a problem I find with lots of hotels. There was fairly loud music going on downstairs last night in the Pharmacy Bar, but we could hear nothing upstairs. Electronic keys are required for the elevators, and rooms feel very private and secure.