Bookended by the leafy capital city of Austin and the international border town of El Paso, a drive through West Texas takes in not just two of Texas’s most distinctive cities, but also a host of cool little towns rich with frontier history, sweeping views, and delicious barbecue and Mexican cuisine.
The drive from Austin to El Paso clocks in at nearly 9 hours, and at first glance, it can look a bit daunting and devoid of major towns. But rest assured that there are plenty of fascinating attractions to break up the drive.
As with any road trip, it’s best to meander a bit, staying overnight for a few nights along the way, and detouring from the main route now and then. In order to soak up the Texas hospitality and try plenty of regional cuisine along the way, I recommend taking 5 or 6 days on the road trip across West Texas.
Here are my seven favorite stops from Austin to El Paso.
From the world-famous barbecue to the non-stop live music to the quirky charm of South Congress Avenue, Austin is a fantastically fun place to start a Texas road trip. I’ve visited in every season, and if I had to pick a favorite, I would say spring is the loveliest time of year.
When I visited in early April, the days were sunny, and the temperatures were approaching 80 degrees — perfect weather for a long walk on Congress Avenue, “The Main Street of Texas.” I started my walk on lively South Congress, proceeded north across the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge over the glistening Lady Bird Lake, and on to the Texas State Capitol, surely one of the most beautiful statehouses in the country.
If possible, I suggest you time your walk across the Congress Avenue Bridge for just before sunset, when the Mexican free-tailed bats that live under the bridge venture out to form dark clouds in the sky over Lady Bird Lake. It’s a sight to see, and one that attracts hundreds of sightseers to the bridge each night.
For a quick lunch, I love the Congress Avenue Torchy’s Tacos, a popular regional chain with a creative taco menu (try the Trailer Park with fried chicken, pico de gallo, and green chiles), and for dinner and live music, Guero’s Taco Bar, which is known for its spacious outdoor patio, hand-shaken margaritas, and chile con queso cheese dip. If a decadent dessert is in order, get in line at Amy’s Ice Creams, where the Mexican vanilla and dark chocolate flavors are standouts.
Along with the stellar Tex-Mex cuisine, any trip to Austin should include a visit to at least one of the city’s famous barbecue spots. The Visit Austin website breaks it down in its Ultimate Guide to Austin Barbecue. I love the boisterous atmosphere at Terry Black’s Barbecue, and that’s where I spent a delicious and fun Friday night on my recent trip. You can’t go wrong with an assortment of brisket, sausage, and turkey (sold by the pound) and sides of mac and cheese, green beans, and cornbread muffins.
The Congress Avenue area offers many beautiful spots to spend the night, but for a treat that combines sweeping views, great dining, a rooftop pool, and sumptuous surroundings, the 37-story Fairmont Austin is hard to beat. Visit Austin offers a list of accommodations by region.
You could easily spend a week or two exploring Austin, but on a road trip across West Texas, 2 or 3 days would allow you to take in a good assortment of the city’s attractions.
Heading west out of Austin, one of my favorite first stops is Fredericksburg, a mid-sized city with an astonishing array of well-preserved rock buildings from the 1800s days of German settlers.
Any visit to Fredericksburg should begin with a walk down Main Street to take in distinctive buildings like the Pioneer Memorial Library (built in 1882) and the Vereins Kirche Museum (built in 1847).
If it’s time for lunch, stop by the iconic Auslander Restaurant and Biergarten for authentic German fare like schnitzel and sauerkraut, or the Altdorf Restaurant and Biergarten for bratwurst or knockwurst. Or, for a beautiful look at the plants, seeds, and wines of the region, take a quick drive from downtown to Wild Seed Farms.
Bonus: Luckenbach, the tiny Texas outpost made famous by a 1977 hit song by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, is a 15-minute drive from Fredericksburg and makes a wonderful day trip. Luckenbach had long been on my list of places to visit in Texas Hill Country, and I finally made it there on my April trip. My afternoon spent listening to live music in the shade of the majestic oak trees behind the little general store and bar lived up to all of my expectations.
A statue of Davy Crockett stands guard over a charming courthouse square in the small town of Ozona, located about 2 hours west of Fredericksburg on Interstate 10. Ozona bills itself as being “the biggest little town in the world,” and the small town does seem to have an inordinately large personality.
It is the county seat for Crockett County, named after the 1800s-era frontiersman/soldier who died in the Battle of the Alamo in nearby San Antonio. Ozona is also known as the last place to stop for supplies and gasoline for more than 100 miles heading west on I-10. It is a perfect place for a walk around the quaint downtown, a meal at a local favorite like the Hitchin Post Steakhouse, and a gas fill-up before heading west.
4. Marathon, Alpine, And Marfa
Although staying on I-10 would be the quickest and most convenient way to continue west, consider heading southwest at the I-10 town of Fort Stockton toward Big Bend Country. Even if you’re not continuing on to the amazing Big Bend National Park, the row of little West Texas towns that are known as gateways to the park make a worthy detour off the interstate.
Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa are all within 30 minutes to an hour from one another. Visitors can take their pick among Marathon for its splendid night skies, Alpine for its bustling downtown and colorful murals, and Marfa for its movie, music, culinary, and art scenes.
I suggest choosing one of the towns to serve as a base for exploring the region for a day or two. In Marfa, plan to soak up some serious Hollywood glamor at the Hotel Paisano, which served as the headquarters for the 1956 movie Giant starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. In Marathon, there is the Gage Hotel’s heady mix of cowboy culture and gracious hospitality. And in Alpine, the Holland Hotel sits in the midst of a fun downtown scene.
5. Fort Davis
For another cool detour on your drive south of the interstate, consider the historic town of Fort Davis, a 20-minute drive from Marfa. Located in the middle of the craggy Davis Mountains, Fort Davis is a self-contained community of about 1,100 people that boasts a surprisingly robust selection of restaurants, hotels, and shops.
For authentic Mexican food, try Poco Mexico, where orders are taken at a window to the busy kitchen, or at Cueva de Leon, which features a full menu of Mexican fare and a comfortable outdoor patio.
And while you’re in the area, be sure to check out the well-preserved frontier military post, the Fort Davis National Historic Site, and the incredibly scenic Davis Mountains State Park.
6. Van Horn
Another worthwhile overnight stop awaits in Van Horn, a historic ranching town located along I-10 about an hour northwest of Marfa. One of Van Horn’s main charms is the Hotel El Capitan, a 1929-era treasure that is known as an oasis in the desert. It makes a wonderful spot for a night’s stay after a long drive on the interstate. On my evening in Van Horn, I was treated to a stunning sunset over the Texas desert.
Located on the route between Texas’s two national parks, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Big Bend National Park, Van Horn also makes a convenient stop on a north-south trip between the two.
The town features several sit-down restaurants and fast-food spots that make it a good spot for either an overnight stay or a quick lunch stop. For a classic Texas meal, check out the Hotel El Capitan Restaurant and Gopher Hole Bar, where you can sit in the spacious dining room or the shady courtyard and enjoy local specialties like the pistachio fried steak, or the homemade pecan pie made with local pecans.
7. El Paso
Located along the Rio Grande on the border between the U.S. from Mexico, the far-west Texas city of El Paso offers a wonderful mix of Mexican and Old West cultures. The international culture is evident in everything from the city’s historic buildings to the Tex-Mex cuisine to the colorful art.
Any visit to El Paso should include an exploration of the Las Plazas Arts District, an area in the center of town that features the picturesque El Paso Street, festooned with string lights and neon signs. The entire Arts District is a great place for a walk, and the area features a host of trendy spots for taking in a cocktail or meal at places such as The Berkeley, Anson 11, or the spectacular Dome Bar.
For accommodations right in the middle of the action, El Paso offers a number of standout choices, including the historic high-rise Hotel Paso Del Norte, Autograph Collection and the Hotel Indigo El Paso Downtown.
Sometimes called the Mexican Food Capital of America, El Paso also features numerous choices for authentic Mexican cuisine. The homey L&J Café offers a range of Tex-Mex specialties such as beef and chicken fajitas, chile con queso, and grilled steak. In the downtown area, the Kansas Street spot ELEMI sources heirloom varieties of native corn from sustainable farming communities in Mexico for its signature dishes such as deconstructed street corn.
El Paso is a great spot to either end or start a road trip across West Texas, and a stay of 1 to 2 days would give visitors a good taste of the city.
Pro Tip: For more Mexican cuisine choices in El Paso, see The 9 Best Mexican Dishes To Try In El Paso and Where To Find Them.
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