While not exactly a tourist destination, Sterling City does boast a historic little hotel and that was enough to get it on my radar screen as a half-way stop on our drive from Big Bend National Park back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I was looking for a hotel with character and–as nice as Hotel Settles was on the drive down–I wanted to take a different route home just to vary things up a little. When I found a list of historic Texas hotels online, I pulled up Google Maps and eyed the location of those I wasn’t familiar with. 1910 State Hotel in Sterling City seemed exactly what I was looking for.
After our stay in a Roosevelt Stone Cottage in Big Bend National Park, the next stop on our week-long roadtrip was Marfa, Texas. We’d originally planned to take US385 north to Marathon. US385 parallels state highway 118 that we’d taken south from Alpine to the park. US385 had the advantage of taking us a longer and different route through Big Bend National Park to exit. The time to drive to Marfa on either highway would be about the same. That original route plan changed when I spotted a longer route that ran along the border and the Rio Grande. When I asked some of the staff at Chisos Mountains Lodge about that road, I was told it was called The River Road and not to miss it if we had the time. It would take us an extra 20 miles and an extra 45-50 minutes. We had the time, and we had a new route to Marfa.
The goal and ultimate destination of our week-long Texas roadtrip was Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote national parks in the country. I’d heard about it all my life, but had a mental block about the distance. My loss! The park is remote…and desolate and harsh and ruggedly beautiful and vast beyond description.
My plans hadn’t included a government shutdown, and I was glad I’d booked one of the Roosevelt-era cottages in in the park’s Chisos Mountains Lodge over a year in advance since the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire and was open despite the unoccupied booth at the entrance to the park and the sign notifying visitors that park campgrounds were closed and staff was furloughed. I was happy to find the cottage all I’d hoped for, and we quickly settled in on our first afternoon, eager to get outside as soon as possible. We started with Chisos Basin Loop Trail, one of the seven hiking trails that start beside the cottages. The trail as far as we explored was well-worn and easy to follow. It had been groomed with logs and stones inset to ease the way on slopes. The view from the trailhead itself was hard to beat with the well-known “Window” at the end of the basin framing the span of desert, mountains and mesas beyond.
Heading to Big Bend National Park from Davis Mountains State Park, we made sure to make time for a stop-off in Terlingua, a former mining town known primarily for its eponymous chili cook-off (actually two cook-offs these days which take place on the first weekend in November). I’d heard about the Terlingua chili cook-off for decades and am the proud owner of a cookbook of championship recipes from the original event. The chili cook-offs draw upwards of 10,000 people to a tent- and camper-filled party in the desert. According to the town’s event calendar, Terlingua has also instituted a couple of lesser cook-offs including one for black-eyed peas and another for dutch ovens. Barring cook-offs, Terlingua is a desolate little town. I didn’t expect much, and a cook-off-less Terlingua turned out to be less than that. Oh well, all travel destinations are not created equal. If you’ve got the time, the turnoff to the Terlingua “Ghost Town” is about 5 miles west of Hwy 118 just north of a main entrance to Big Bend National Park. If you don’t have the time, no worries.
Located in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, Texas, the McDonald Observatory is a research and education facility of the University of Texas. The observatory offers “Star Parties” to the public Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year which are bookable online for a reasonable fee. While the observatory web site states that Star Parties often fill up months in advance, the permissible group size is large and I found 100+ spots still available several days before our Friday night reservation. Our January 17 date no doubt had something to do with the lighter crowd, but we chose the time of year deliberately to avoid crowds…and the sweltering peak-season temperatures in our ultimate destination, Big Bend National Park.
Deciding where to stay during our much-anticipated McDonald Observatory “Star Party” came down to a historic hotel in downtown Fort Davis or Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. Highly recommended by friends, closer to the observatory, located within the state park where we wanted to hike, and newly refurbished as of summer 2018, we opted for Indian Lodge.
Built to look like a multi-level pueblo village, Indian Lodge opened to the public in 1939. The lodge boasts a big two-fireplace den/game room, a lovely pool and a restaurant with hit-and-miss opening hours. Our room on the upper level had windows on two sides and a now-blocked adobe fireplace in one corner. The ceiling consisted of large beams and twigs. Just what I had in mind!
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.