I took a three-week road trip with my two then eight-year-old sons in the summer of 2018. We started out in San Antonio and wove our way throughout the Southwest. Here’s what we know about fun things to do in Alpine and Marfa.
We did a repeat visit to Alpine and Fort Stockton in October 2020. This post has been updated.
If you’re curious about my Southwest road trip and what it was like to travel mostly solo with two young kids, you can check out all of my blog posts here. As always, the best way to get real-time info on our family’s travels is to follow my Instagram Feed & Stories.
There are lots of fun things to do in Alpine and Marfa – both small cities in West Texas – keep reading for our best picks.
If you’re looking for more of a deep dive on things to do in Alpine TX with kids, check out this post.
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Fun things to do in Alpine and Marfa
Marfa and Alpine Texas are both smallish towns in the West Texas desert that are located near Big Bend National Park. Both towns boast Texas desert scenery and a distinctly artsy and quirky kind of vibe. Marfa and Alpine make great weekend destinations for in-state trips or road trip stops if you’re cruising westward on Interstate 10 from San Antonio to El Paso.
Looking for fall fun in San Antonio? Check out this list of San Antonio (+ the surrounding area) pumpkin patches open in 2020
1. McDonald Observatory
The McDonald Observatory is operated by the Astronomy Department at the University of Texas. Located about 36 miles from Marfa, the McDonald Observatory is a fun, educational activity for families and astronomy buffs alike. If you’re looking for things to do in Alpine, this will probably come up on your search results. It’s definitely worth checking out.
We did the daytime tour and solar viewing, which consisted of a presentation about the sun and an up close look at one of the research telescopes used by the university. The McDonald Observatory is at one of the highest elevations on a Texas public road, so you’ve got quite the scenic (and to be honest, a little bit scary) drive to get up to the visitor’s center. The tour takes you a bit higher and you can either drive on your own or snag a seat on the bus, leaving your car at the visitor’s center. There are 14 seats available on the bus, so you have to be quick if you want one.
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You can do a free self-guided tour of the Hobby-Eberly telescope and there are also free exhibits in the visitor’s center you can check out. There’s a fun gift shop and a small cafe on property. Be advised your cell phones probably won’t work but it’s nice and cool up there…the elevation brings the temperatures down a good 20 degrees from what you’ll experience in down the hill in Alpine and Marfa.
The daytime tour and solar viewing took about two and a half hours total. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon, and although my two boys were a little bit bored some of the time (they were eight at the time we visited) I like to think some of the info gelled and sparked an interest in STEM.
If you are visiting with younger kids, I recommend you read some books about space or telescopes in advance of your visit. We like National Geographic’s Everything Space. For younger kids, Dr. Seuss’ There’s No Place Like Space is really cute. 50 Things to See with a Telescope is a good one to check out, too.
Even if your kids are not into this, the scenery, the views, and the drive up are really pretty and worth a little whining from your small humans.
2. Prada Marfa
First, there is really no Prada store in the middle of the West Texas desert, nor has there ever been. Prada Marfa is an art activation in the middle of freaking nowhere designed to lure people who want THE perfect Instagram photo out into the middle of freaking nowhere to get said perfect Instagram photo.
Here’s what you need to know:
Prada Marfa is not located in Marfa but rather in Valentine, Texas, which is about 25 miles Northwest of Marfa. This is important to know if you’re visiting Marfa for the sole purpose of taking a picture in front of this iconic building. So…if one was driving around downtown Marfa looking for the Prada store..yeah, no. Ask me how I know this. Ahem.
Prada Marfa was never an actual Prada store. This region of Texas doesn’t even have an Applebees or a Macy’s, so the idea of a Prada just sitting there waiting for the odd road tripper to stop and purchase some trillion billion dollar shoes? Nah. Still, it’s a fun, iconic place to stop for photos…but do your homework. You might do best to plan your photo stop at Prada Marfa on your way into or out of town, since this art activation is near exactly nothing on this planet.
As long as you’re in the area, you might as well go another 90 miles to the East and check out the “Target store” in Marathon. It’s not actually a Target store but an art installation in the same vein as Prada Marfa.
I mean…if you’ve traveled out into the middle of nowhere to visit Prada Marfa, you’re probably the type of person who’d travel a little further to visit “Target” in Marathon.
3. Fort Davis National Historic Site
Fort Davis is a frontier military post that existed to protect emigrants, mail coaches, and freight wagons on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road and on the Chihuahua Trail from 1854 to 1891.
If you have a National Parks Service Pass, you can access Fort Davis National Historic Site free of charge. If not, a nominal fee will apply.
A surprising amount of the Fort is intact and we had a great time checking out the ruins. Portions of the fort have been reconstructed into museum-type areas where you can learn about what life on Fort Davis was like back in the day. A lot of the exhibits are interactive and give some insight into what it was like to be a child living on Fort Davis (some of the officers had their families living with them at this outpost.)
There is a Junior Ranger program, which is always fun for kids. If your kids haven’t done the Junior Ranger programs at National Parks or National Historic Sites, they’re missing out. I’ll warn you now, the Junior Ranger program at Fort Davis is HARD. Kids need to be able to read well to complete it on their own and some of the answers are fairly obscure. Also, some of the hints on our activity sheet were not quite right. We looked high and low for an answer to a question that was reported to be in the Enlisted Men’s barracks to find it was actually in the museum. The museum and gift shop are pretty cool, by the way.
There is no camping or overnight stays allowed at Fort Davis National Historic Site, although there is at the nearby Davis Mountains State Park, Davis Mountains State Park is worth a visit on its own, even if you’re not camping.
Fort Davis National Historic Site closes at 5:00 p.m. but please check the posted hours at the entrance or when you check in with the Park Rangers.
There is some nice hiking at Fort Davis National Historic Site. The trails are pretty easy, although I’d recommend long pants if I had a do-over. While the climb wasn’t that challenging, the trails are narrow and surrounded by a lot of brush and scrub. I did the hike with my boys and we had a great time. If you’re visiting in the summer, I’d recommend doing the hike first thing in the morning and then exploring the rest of the fort. The views from up top are pretty sweet.
We spent about five hours at Fort Davis, and then had lunch in town at Fort Davis Drug Store and Hotel, which I recommend as an awesome place to eat. I can’t give any recommendations on the hotel, but their website shows some fun and unique themed rooms for a low price.
The restaurant features and old-fashioned soda fountain and their milkshakes were ahhhhh-mazing.
This is clearly a place where the locals eat, which is always a good sign. You order at the counter and your food is brought to your table. You can check out the menu online but it’s a hop and a skip from Fort Davis National Historic Site which made it the obvious choice for lunch after a busy morning exploring. You can check out their menu online. Their lunch and dinner offerings is mostly burgers and sandwiches but they do have a nice soup and salad bar as well. They also serve breakfast.
There are other restaurants in Fort Davis – the main drag where the drugstore is located has lots of places that look promising for eating, coffee, and shopping.
5. Alpine Visitor Center
One of my best pieces of travel advice when you’re rolling into a new city is to stop by the visitor’s center, even if you think you don’t need to. This is your best source of information about the area you’re visiting and also the surrounding area.
Visitor’s centers usually have clean restrooms, WiFi (super important if you’re in a more remote area where you might not have great cell reception) and you might even find free coffee or someone nice who will give you a bottle of cold water.
Even if you think your plans are set in stone, go to the Visitor’s Center and talk through your plans. This is never a bad use of your time.
The Visitor’s Center in Alpine has maps of the trails on Hancock Hill, which is a useful thing to have since there are no markers on the trails. If you have some time to spare in Alpine, ask them for a guide to their mural tour, walking tour and driving tour. The mural tour was really fun for us and a great way to explore the city.
You’ll always find someone who knows all about the area and some brochures on attractions, so even if you think your plans are set in stone, the visitor center is worth at least a quick stop.
6. Cow Dog
Cow Dog is a food truck in Alpine that hangs out outside of Plaine Coffee on the day we visited. Food trucks seem to be a thing in this tiny town. We saw a couple of others downtown that looked to be quite popular.
We loved Cow Dog…it was quirky and fun and the hot dogs were really delicious, and, as you might guess, they are made from 100 percent beef. If you’re not a hot dog person, they also offer a veggie burger, pulled pork, Frito pie, and something called Tater Flops (trust me, you want this.) You can check out their full menu here.
Also, if you’re a hotdog lover, you’ll need to plan another trip to Waco and go to the Heart of Texas Dog House food truck that’s parked in back of Magnolia Market.
7. Plaine Coffee
This is a coffee shop that used to be a filling station located next to a laundromat and, if you’re looking for an “Instagrammable” place in West Texas, I think this beats Prada Marfa hands down. We found Plaine Coffee by searching for “ice cream near me.” We’d planned a quick stop in Alpine to look around and made the decision to have ice cream for lunch. It was vacation and hot outside, so…
Plaine Coffee (plaine being an anagram of Alpine) offers various coffees, cold drinks, smoothies, baked goods, and of course, ice cream. Their menu board is made of Scrabble tiles, which is really cute. There’s plenty of inside and outside seating and is a great place to relax and people watch.
8. Big Bend National Park
If you love the outdoors and appreciate the rugged beauty of the Texas landscape, plan to visit Big Bend National Park. As a Texan, what I love most about my home state is how much the landscape and scenery vary from region to region, so the views in this part of Texas fascinate me. Check out the National Parks Service website for information on Big Bend National Park. They have info on park hours and things you can do. I love their suggested itineraries section that helps you plan your activities in the park based on how much time you have to spend there.
Note that Big Bend National Park is about 90 miles from Marfa. You can definitely use Marfa as a jumping off point for a day trip if you’re wanting to stay in a hotel or vacation rental versus inside the park, but make sure you start out early, especially in the summer time.
9. Museum of the Big Bend
The Museum of the Big Bend is located on the Campus of Sul Ross State University. It’s a very well put together museum that gives some history on the area and is great to prepare kids for a visit to Big Bend National Park.
And the best thing? It’s totally free, although you can leave a donation if you like. There’s also a gift shop with some fun and unique art by local artists. You can find more information on their Facebook page.
10. Hike Hancock Hill in Alpine
Hancock Hill is located behind Sul Ross State University. There are a few different trails – if you make it all the way to the top, you’ll be rewarded with stunning view of the Big Bend Canyon.
I recommend looking at a trail map before you set out since the trails are not marked. You can grab a map at the Alpine Visitor’s Center or look up the trails on the All Trails app or website. We hiked up to The Desk and it was about a mile and three quarters round trip.
Some of Hancock Hill is owned by the University and some is private land. Make sure you look at a map and observe the posted signs. Some of the landowners allow hikers and some do not.
I recommend avoiding the Blue Trail unless you’re a hardcore hiker – the trail was a little bit rough for us. The yellow and red loops were fairly easy – although there’s definitely an incline on the way up – but make sure you’re wearing sturdy shoes because you’ll find lots of loose rocks.
Have you been to this part of Texas? What else should be on my list of fun things to do in Alpine and Marfa?
11. Wasserman’s Wranch
Wasserman’s Wranch is a hidden treasure in Alpine. If you’re an animal lover, you need to schedule 90 minutes out of your day and book a tour. This one is worth planning your day around.
Wasserman’s Wranch is a ranch that is home to donkeys, alpacas, and other animals. Your 90-minute tour will include lots of donkey education and one-on-one time with the animals.
Although this is a great activity for kids, this is something anyone can enjoy. I could have seriously stayed here all day and been happy about it and I know I enjoyed the experience as much as my kids did.
Wasserman’s also operates a store in downtown Alpine that sells products made with alpaca fleece. Their hours are limited but they will happily open by appointment.