The last hour of the long drive to Terlingua, after you pass through the tiny town of Alpine and exit civilization, reminds you why you have sought out the remotest corner of Texas. Highway 118 winds up through the foothills of the Davis Mountains before leading down into the expansive flat of the Chihuahua Desert. The road runs straight as a gun barrel through the wide-open landscape, and mountains that loom on either side welcome you into the majesty of Big Bend country.
Big Bend is as rugged as it is beautiful, which has long meant that its natural wonders were reserved for adventurous sorts who pack a tent or brave the limited, Spartan lodging in the area. More recently, Airbnb has made finding a place to stay a little easier. But earlier this year, Basecamp Terlingua, a new “rustic resort” right on the outskirts of the tiny Terlingua Ghost Town, introduced a way to experience the scenery of Big Bend with some of the creature comforts of a luxury hotel.
In a landscape that itself looks somewhat Martian, the bubbles look like lunar stations out of a 1960s sci-fi film.
Basecamp Terlingua offers a range of accommodations, from tepees and lotus tents decked out with queen-size beds, minifridges, and Keurig coffee makers, to campsites outfitted with power and USB outlets, running water, wifi, and a nearby bathhouse. But the highlights of the resort are the two Basecamp Bubbles. Designed by the French company BubbleTree, the air-conditioned inflatable plastic spheres sit on concrete bases sunken into the soft undulation of the desert floor. In a landscape that itself looks somewhat Martian, the bubbles look like lunar stations out of a 1960s sci-fi film. They share all the tents’ and tepees’ amenities with one critical bonus: they have a window to the heavens. In the morning, while lying in bed, you can see the sun peek out over the distant Chisos Mountains. In the evening, after relaxing around a campfire in the pit dug just outside the bubble, you can crawl under the covers and still watch the stars emerge.
It’s like camping in a hammock, but with the comfort of cool air, showers, and high-thread-count sheets. And the location can’t be beat. A drive to the east leads straight into Big Bend National Park. To the west, there’s the underappreciated but no less spectacular Big Bend Ranch State Park. There are outfitters in town who can fix you up with your desert sport of choice: canoeing, kayaking, fishing, mountain biking (even small airplane tours). And don’t overlook the treasures of Terlingua, including two of the best watering holes in Texas: the famous Starlight Theatre Restaurant & Saloon and the evocative, cavelike La Kiva bar. —Peter Simek
Turner Falls Park
While swimming underneath a waterfall is usually reserved for weeklong trips to Costa Rica, travelers have a family-friendly (and relatively nearby) opportunity to do just that at Turner Falls Park outside Davis, Oklahoma. Honey Creek runs through a valley of granite uplift and spills 77 feet down into a pool packed with swimmers come the summer months.
The 1,500-acre park offers minimalist campsites, screened-in shelters, and a dozen furnished cabins for rent. The cool, clear creek is dotted with rope swings and dams that provide ample room to swim when the weather is warm, and about 5 miles of trails can take you up into the mountains and over the creek’s tributaries. Surrounding the waterfall and swimming hole are explorable caves carved out of the oldest rock formations in the country between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains.
The cool, clear creek is dotted with rope swings and dams that provide ample room to swim when the weather is warm.
One of the stranger parts of the park is Collings Castle, a series of English-style stone structures that were built in the 1930s by a University of Oklahoma professor with native stone on a bluff overlooking the creek. The buildings served as his summer home and now make for some interesting scrambling.
For risk-takers, two adventure companies operate zip lines in the area. 777Zip takes riders 700 feet above the valley and over the waterfall, while Air Donkey Zipline Adventures provides a two-hour journey through the Arbuckle Mountains that concludes with an 1,800-foot-long zip.
After working up an appetite, we ended up at Smokin’ Joe’s Rib Ranch, down the road from the falls. The line out the door reassured us when we rolled up to the restaurant sitting in front of an RV park. The succulent ribs and brisket could hang with anything we’ve had on this side of the Red River.
Back at the cabin, it didn’t take long for the soothing babble of Honey Creek to lull us to sleep. —Will Maddox
Most Dallasites don’t want their weekend getaway to end with a night in jail. But you won’t mind doing time in the boutique confines of The Cell Block in Clifton.
In this small town (population 3,400) 90 minutes south of Fort Worth, the 1930s-era town jail has been transformed into a single hotel room that offers unique criminal justice accents without compromising comfort. The original two cells, which are now the bedroom and bathroom, still have the iron bars and swinging doors from their lockdown days. The small living area is stocked with criminal- and jail-themed records (I listened to Johnny Cash’s lesser-known prison album, At San Quentin) and a Polaroid camera to take a mugshot in front of the height measurements on the wall. The bathroom is not luxurious but includes a bar of soap labeled “Don’t Drop.”
You will want to get out and enjoy the hills and meandering Bosque River, and a tasty way to do that is to visit the Red Caboose Winery. Owner and Dallas architect Gary McKibben bought a 200-acre ranch 15 minutes from Clifton, and then he brought an old red train caboose to live in as he transformed the property. It is now a productive and sustainable vineyard (hand-picked grapes are irrigated with rainwater) that hosts monthly campouts with food trucks in March and October. On a sunny spring day, I sat next to a fire on a stone porch overlooking the vines and enjoyed a glass of Red Caboose Merlot that went down smooth and kept me warm as the breeze blew across the patio.
When you get hungry, head into town and grab a bite at the Red Caboose tasting room and distillery, which produces gin, vodka, and brandy made from the vineyard’s grapes. Solar panels power electric stills, and geothermal wells heat and cool the space.
For flatbread pizza or seasonal specials, check out Olaf’s (Norwegian immigrants settled the area in the 19th century), found by winding between vintage furniture and knickknacks at the Bosque County Emporium.
Finish the day in downtown Clifton at the Cliftex, Texas’ oldest continually running theater. It was the site of live cowboy shows when it opened in 1916, and it still offers much-appreciated vintage snack prices. The theater is now owned by Rich Douglas, who preserved the balcony where black theatergoers were forced to climb through the projection room window to sit during Jim Crow, and who can often be found working the projector for the four showtimes each week.
Walk across the street and down Art Alley to let yourself into your cell for the evening, and rest easy knowing your imprisonment is self-imposed. —W.M.
Fall Creek Vineyards
If you’ve done much road-tripping in Texas, you know Austin has great barbecue and Fredericksburg has great wine. You might not know that both exist in exceptional forms in Driftwood, a small town set amid the lush tree canopies of the Texas Hill Country that stretches between the two cities.
After we settled in to Fall Creek Vineyards’ Wine Country Inn, our upscale-cottage-chic home for the weekend with a full kitchen, two bedrooms, and a cozy living room, we walked a few feet to the tasting room with an enviable back patio. While we swirled and sipped a rainbow of wines in a tasting that included Salt Lick Vineyards’ plum-permeated ExTerra Mourvèdre, sommelier Daniel Williams educated us about terroir and tannins.
Fall Creek co-founder Susan Auler told us that she and her husband, Ed, established the 400-acre Fall Creek Vineyards in nearby Tow in 1975 after an inspiring trip to France. Before the “First Family of Texas Wine” came along, the Hill Country wasn’t recognized as a viticultural region. The Aulers changed that and in 2015 opened the Driftwood outpost, a much smaller version of the Tow barreling and production facility—with the added benefits of the inn and a prime location across the street from the original Salt Lick BBQ.
The next day, fortified by the previous evening’s private, chef-prepared four-course dinner and a glass of Grenache Rosé for breakfast, we met Salt Lick owner Scott Roberts at his smoked-meat sanctuary for a Salt Lick Cellars wine tasting and, of course, a whole lot of brisket. Wine and barbecue do go together, he declared, a statement that was evidenced by the hundreds of people swarming picnic tables. The Roberts family planted roots in Driftwood decades ago, creating a symbiotic relationship between the restaurant and the Salt Lick Vineyards surrounding it.
Before the “First Family of Texas Wine” came along, the Hill Country wasn’t recognized as a viticultural region. The Aulers changed that.
We devoured all the sausage, ribs, potato salad, and baked beans we could, and set off on a tour of Driftwood with the barbecue king. We stopped at Vista Brewing, only a year old, to sample beer flights—the wine barrel-aged Brett ale earning approving nods from the group. Roberts, who’s friends with the Aulers and just about everyone else in town, spoke of barbecue and beer pairings in the works. Wine, he admitted, isn’t the only liquid suitable for washing down burnt ends slathered in golden sauce.
That evening, following a walk and a lasagna dinner at Duchman Winery’s Trattoria Lisina that we somehow managed to consume in full, we returned to our cottage, retired to the couch, and enthusiastically swore off all food and alcohol for a week. But then we spied the lone bottle of Tempranillo resting on the counter, only half depleted. It didn’t make the trip home. —Christiana Nielson
A sibling to the famed Arizona-based Miraval (perhaps best known as home to Oprah’s favorite spa), the Austin retreat sits on 220 acres of Texas Hill Country surrounded by spectacular views of Lake Travis. As soon as I walked into the chic arrival center, I was given a complimentary beverage and a welcome bag stocked with blank stationery (to write my future self a letter). Along with a reminder to refrain from phone use while on the grounds, it was made clear from the start that Miraval is as much about mindfulness as it is relaxation.
If the letter writing rings a bit campy, it’s because Miraval is truly a luxury summer camp for adults—albeit one with the world’s most comfortable bed (the company graciously sells its marshmallowy feather toppers online). My first activity: a ropes course filled with couples and mother-daughter duos who were veterans of the Arizona resort (Miraval junkies are absolutely a thing). It felt as much like a group therapy session as it did a challenge. My sister, perhaps on purpose, arrived from California just after the course but in time for a wine-fueled and extremely healthy group dinner, where I reconvened with my newfound friends. We all stayed up past midnight, drinking red wine around the restaurant’s handsome stone-covered fireplace, having the kind of instantly intimate conversations a camp environment—and, perhaps, alcohol—encourages. We were all in this immersive, mindful luxury together.
It was made clear from the start that Miraval is as much about mindfulness as it is relaxation.
We began our first full Miraval day with vegan blueberry pancakes and matcha lattes, followed by an itinerary full of aromatherapy massages; a visit to Cypress Creek Farm; and “floating meditation,” when we swayed in silk hammocks to the sounds of crystal bowls. (Other programming options included astrology basics, equine therapy, and mindful eating.) That night, the weekenders gathered for a healthy gourmet meal cooked in the Williams Sonoma-stocked “Life in Balance” kitchen. My sister and I sat with two best friends and Miraval devotees, Sue and Martha. Perhaps we had all just reached some sort of blissed-out state of wellness equilibrium, but the four of us immediately felt we’d be friends forever.
We had to hit the road early on Sunday to make it back to our respective gluten-filled cities, but we lingered by the spa’s infinity pool one last time to take in the Hill Country views (and some defiant selfies). As we rolled our luggage along the sprawling ground’s stone-lined paths, we ran into new friend after new friend, earnestly embracing each and every one. We promised one another we would stay in touch—or at least follow each other on Instagram. —Caitlin Clark
On my way to Round Top, I take a detour through Brenham, hoping to score some brisket at LJ’s BBQ. I get there too late. While wandering down a side street to find a sad lunch alternative, gunfire erupts. I flinch at the first pops before spotting a woman in antebellum attire waving me off with her lacy parasol. I learn later I had walked into the middle of the Brenham Bandits’ dress rehearsal for Local History Day.
Crisis averted, I continue on my way to my destination, a retreat built of storage containers and decorated with reclaimed artifacts by owner Matt White. Like the shootout in Brenham, it feels as if I have stepped into another time and place. White’s architectural salvage business, Recycling the Past, is based in New Jersey. But after years of trips to Round Top to sell his wares, he has put down permanent roots, building a barn to hold airplane parts, giant geodes, and the wood paneling from what was once Doris Duke’s father’s study. The storage containers are arranged out back, each with its own fire pit and shaded hammock, facing a bucolic view of verdant fields and nursing cattle. To be shared, there’s a Modpool for dipping, a raised platform for sunset-watching, and a covered patio for barbecuing.
Situated just out of the fray, on FM 1291, Flophouze would make a fine home base for hitting the Round Top Antiques Fair. But I decide to head in the opposite direction, to La Grange. I park on the picturesque Fayette County Courthouse square and walk to Big State Coffee House and Roastery for a warm salted caramel scone. Along the way, I happen upon the Texas Quilt Museum. Exhibits change every three months, but get there before June 23. “Fabric of Memory,” an exhibition of quilts from the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center in Wyoming that commemorates the internment of Japanese-American citizens there during WWII, is heartbreakingly beautiful.
I shop for yarn and fabric at The Quilted Skein next door, for kitchen gadgets at the expansive Le Petite Gourmet Shoppe, for turquoise cuffs at Richard Schmidt Jewelry, and for sausages to grill for dinner in the historic Prause Meat Market. Heading back toward my container, I spot a sign for Blissful Folly Farm and stop for pizza and a $10 tasting of its fruit-infused meads, ciders, and wines. Just down the road at Blue Mule Winery, I make a final detour to pet the alpacas and pick up some hand-dyed merino wool yarn and driftwood knitting needles.
Back at Flophouze, I curl up in the Adirondack chair on the porch and wind a fresh woolen skein into a neat ball, listening to the lowing of the cattle and watching as dusk settles in. My phone is forgotten inside. This reenactment of history suits me just fine. —Kathy Wise
JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa
Though the lobby was swarming with families when we arrived at the JW Marriott resort on a sweltering summer day, we found a free front desk agent and got settled within minutes. Our room was clean and comfortable yet thankfully not so upscale that I felt squeamish letting my 5-year-old hell-raiser loose in it. What was luxurious: the balcony view of the verdant, undulating golf courses and the Texas Hill Country beyond.
We quickly split off. My husband grabbed his golf clubs, and I took our son down to burn off energy at the water park, which encompassed several pools, a lazy river, a whirlpool, and a couple of “big-kid” slides. And it was there, wading in the park’s central pool, that I realized resorts are a lot like cruises: you have everything you could ever want—entertainment, food, booze, and waterslides—within yards of your room.
The campus amenities give you the ability to entertain a wide range of ages. Kids can choose from a full calendar of activities (mine made slime). Teens can hole up in the arcade. Adults can indulge themselves at the spa or take a load off in the sports bar. My husband, a recreational golfer since the age of 4, loved his round on one of the two PGA-certified courses despite the 100-degree temps. (He was grateful that his cart was stocked with ice-cold bottled water and an attendant came around with cold towels on the back nine.)
I realized resorts are a lot like cruises: you have everything you could ever want—entertainment, food, booze, and waterslides—within yards of your room.
But I also realized that, like cruising, there is a right way to resort and a wrong way to resort. The great thing about resorts is that you can drink daiquiris and parent your children without getting a single side-eye glance (obviously, pace yourself). Everyone around me was doing just that, clinking cups and gabbing with friends and family. It was no doubt a social atmosphere. I was pregnant, and therefore unable to imbibe, and I suddenly wished I’d brought a girlfriend with whom to gossip. Noted for next time.
That evening, we washed up and headed down to Cibolo Moon, the resort’s Tex-Mex-Hill-Country-barbecue-mash-up restaurant with an upscale cozy feel. My buffet grabs and my husband’s margarita and redfish entrée were fine but not exceptional, so I understood why we saw so many large families circling up in the courtyard around pizzas they ordered from off campus.
After dinner, the line for s’mores at the fire pit snaked down the walkway. Instead of waiting, we strolled the grounds, let our little one practice his somersaults and ninja moves on the perfectly groomed fields, and watched the San Antonio sky turn from peach to periwinkle.
I imagine, a few years down the road—when my oldest is brave enough to navigate the waterslides, my youngest can paddle around the kiddie pool, and I am free to sip a frozen cocktail—we will return and invite another family or two to join us. —S. Holland Murphy
Wildcatter Ranch and Resort
I wind my way up a bluff and find myself before the modern lookalike of a Wild West-style hotel-saloon that overlooks the 1,500 acres of Wildcatter Ranch and Resort. In 1999, its three owners—one the great-granddaughter of a local oil legend—bought the legacy ranch and by 2004 had built their dream.
The chic guest cabins, steakhouse full of historic cowboy paraphernalia, and horse barn with 24 well-groomed horses are part of a retreat for classic cowboy adventures, all set in former Comanche territory near the origin of the Goodnight-Loving Trail. (Oliver Loving himself is buried in nearby Graham, and it’s no surprise that local incidents are the basis of the John Wayne film The Sons of Katie Elder, and parts of the Lonesome Dove miniseries were filmed here.)
The chic guest cabins, steakhouse full of historic cowboy paraphernalia, and horse barn with 24 well-groomed horses are part of a retreat for classic cowboy adventures.
Just after dawn, hiking trails take me along a ridge. It’s spring: the trees have feathery green buds on their branch tips and birds warble everywhere. On a 90-minute trail ride, the pinto horse Scout is my sure-footed mount through mountain juniper that we could, according to our guide, Shawn, use to flavor gin. (He later reveals himself to be an able roper with decades of rodeo experience.) The ranch lies along the banks in a bend of the Brazos River, where summertime means kayaks and campfires.
In the afternoon, I find myself between more experienced marksmen shooting clay at the skeet range. Two young girls and I learn archery, while others throw tomahawks. Then in a Jeep, careening up and down hillsides where earlier we’d clomped with horses, I grip tight and feel like I’m on safari. Instead of giraffes, we get close to oil pumps. Oil production started here in the 1920s and fueled a small rush, hence the ranch’s name.
In the evening, the breathtaking vision of horses coursing from the barn out onto the open land, where they will roam until morning, is the most stunning sight I’ve seen. Until, that is, I return to my cabin. The sun is setting over the nearby infinity pool. Birds soar on air currents at eye level. As fuchsia and gold paint the sky, coyotes begin to howl. I sit on my back porch and imagine I’m not the only one here swaying in a rocking chair, a fire warming my cozy room, waiting for the night sky full of stars. We’ve all left the city far behind. —Eve Hill-Agnus
Chandler Ranch is technically located in Dryden, but it’s far enough away from that town and just about everywhere else—half an hour up TX 349 and 5 miles down a gravel road—that Waze more or less makes an educated guess when you type in the address. Not that it matters. The last bar on your phone will disappear long before you arrive.
So we surprised Richard Jasso when we showed up at the ranch’s game room/kitchen/dining room on a hot Friday afternoon. The email he’d received said we’d be there the next afternoon, and no one could call and tell him otherwise. Ten minutes later, we were in the back seat of a Kawasaki Mule as he gave us a tour of the property, part of the Explore Ranches family, snug in the crook of the outstretched arm of Texas’ southwestern border. Laughing his wild laugh, Richard—the cook and host and whatever else you need—gunned it over the rough gravel paths that wind around the ranch, under trees and over creeks and bending with the Pecos River.
It didn’t take long to understand how much he loves the place, still delighted by the (mostly) untamed beauty. Richard showed us the hollow of a pecan tree where a family of raccoons lives; where Native American tribes carved stones in the ground; what he called the “Redneck Spa” on the creek that runs into river, where minnows will nibble on your feet; the land that they are returning to its former life as grazing fields for cattle, so he can make his menu more farm to table.
You can bird-watch, shoot guns (at targets or animals), fish, hike, swim, and kayak or canoe the Pecos River.
Richard came here four years ago after the wife of Joe Chandler—the grandson of the original owners, now in charge—asked a simple question as they were readying the ranch to welcome guests again, after it closed in 1990. What kind of vacation is it if the wife is still cooking? They brought in Richard. He cooked dinner for them, then breakfast; they offered him the job by lunch.
His simple but flavorful meat-and-potatoes meals are part of the all-inclusive package, along with various adventures. “You’ll be treated as a guest in our home, not someone taking up space,” Richard says. You can bird-watch, shoot guns (at targets or animals), fish, hike, swim, and kayak or canoe the Pecos River.
We took a kayak out for what was supposed to be an easy hour or so the next morning. It was colder then and windy, and Richard thought we might not even have to paddle. And we weren’t paddling when the kayak flipped us out into the water. I don’t remember if we were paddling the other three times we capsized, before we eventually abandoned ship and walked (and crawled) through a thicket to the sound of Richard’s voice and the safety of the Mule.
After that misadventure, we mostly took it easy, and that is sort of the point at Chandler Ranch. To swim in the spring-fed concrete pool next to the game room, look at more stars than you’ll ever see anywhere within 50 miles of Dallas, and just generally get away from the city. And your phone: there is wifi in the game room/kitchen, but it doesn’t extend into the ranch’s three refurbished cabins (another is under construction). And you won’t need it. Or you don’t, anyway. —Zac Crain
Texas Safari Ranch
It seems silly to have been concerned, pulling into Texas Safari Ranch at dusk on a February Friday, about whether we would get to see many animals. We very quickly came upon something from an altered Texas version of The Lion King, an expanse of open land filled with wildebeests and African horned animals and one very large and very friendly camel named Marsha. They were chomping—you could hear it—on some recently scattered feed in and around the roadway. Had my companion’s window-roll trigger finger moved slower, Marsha’s parade float-size head would’ve joined us inside the vehicle.
The next day, on a tour with ranch owner Jack Harvard, we touched the horns of the extinct—in the wild—Scimitar Oryx, brought about wildebeest stampedes in our direction, turned around to find Marsha eating from the back of the truck as if having appeared from thin air, and stood just feet from dining table-size buffalo. The Safari Ranch holds and breeds dozens of roaming species, many of them horned things you’ll find only in Africa, some endangered, two extinct in the wild. What I hadn’t accounted for on the way in was our standing as a food source; they came to us.
The Safari Ranch holds and breeds dozens of roaming species, many of them horned things you’ll find only in Africa, some endangered, two extinct in the wild.
With Harvard leading the tour, you could almost forget the facts of the situation, which is how I almost got in trouble. I’d just finished Instagramming a zebra, his mane fluttering in the wind, when he turned on me, both figuratively and very literally, twirling his backend around for a hind-leg buck that could have, at minimum, seriously complicated my weekend. Luckily, Harvard, who was not Instagramming, chucked the aluminum feed scoop at the zebra’s ass before he could fully align the kick, sending it staggering back a few steps, restoring order.
Later, when we went out on our own, I couldn’t get out of my head how alone I was with these wild animals, and how constantly interested they were in my whereabouts. One zebra would gallop along behind the cart until it got up past 20 or 30 miles an hour.
It was only later that I realized Harvard was the former Plano mayor who brought J.C. Penney to town in the 1980s. He bought the ranch in 2001 from the previous owner. A few years before that, it contained beasts like rhinos and bears, set off by themselves.
There are two houses and one cabin so people can stay and explore. Two are right in the middle of the ranch, where Marsha might nestle up to a window. Our log cabin was on the river, and it was antler everything: chandeliers, bar stools, firewood holder, side tables. We spent the evening on the banks of the Meridian as the sun fell, scanning the terrain across the way for springbok.
I’ll say this about the weekend: it is without a doubt the most fun I’ve had chasing—and getting chased by—African animals on an ex-mayor’s ranch. No question about that. —Shawn Shinneman