After driving the many miles required to reach Alpine from just about anywhere, a lot of folks see this town as if it’s the last stop on the roaring open road to Big Bend National Park. But here’s my best advice any time you get close enough to feel Alpine’s gravitational pull: Just give in. Failing to stop and explore the biggest little town in the Texas Outback is like trying to huff up Mount Everest without spending any time acclimating at base camp.
The city boasts many attractions that enhance the West Texas experience, but I suggest these must-dos to help you immerse yourself in the geology and culture of the region: a visit to the Museum of the Big Bend, a day of rock hounding, and a one-two punch of serious browsing at the CatchLight Art Gallery and the Apache Trading Post.
First things first. For the most authentic Alpine stay, check into the Historic Holland Hotel. The Holland isn’t the only hotel in town, but as the oldest and most eccentric of lodgings here, I hold it dear. Recent renovations brought in new furnishings to enliven the Spanish-style architecture of the 1928 main structure. (Be sure to note the original ceiling beams in the lobby, meticulously restored by muralist Stylle Reed in 2005.)
If your taste runs to Egyptian-cotton sheets, The Maverick Inn, a newly renovated roadhouse adjacent to Sul Ross State University that boasts wireless internet, flat-screen TVs, and a swimming pool, may be more to your liking. And in the spirit of full disclosure, I also have to tell you that the Holland’s proximity to the depot promises a stream of night trains whistling through your dreams if you don’t take advantage of the earplugs provided.
We begin our day with a tour of the splendid Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross campus., a lively balance of videos and interactive exhibits creates a three-dimensional understanding of the high desert’s natural and social history.
Before leaving town, we are split on whether to visit the CatchLight Gallery or Apache Trading Post. We compromise by visiting both. And really, what would a trip into West Texas be without a trading-post visit? For 30 years, the Apache has set the standard, recently raising the bar with the Spirit of the West Gallery inside and a free, continuous Marfa Lights video. Great jewelry and other geegaws prove almost as compelling as the adjacent Jack-assic Park, home to furry little burros braying to be scratched behind the ears and a photo-op that begs to become next year’s Christmas card.
Monthly special exhibits and a surprising inventory make the CatchLight Art Gallery another not-to-be-missed window into the west. The 14-artist cooperative opened in October 2007 to feature a kaleidoscope of talent and media. There’s a deep breath of possibility captured in everything the CatchLight showcases; taking it all in somehow allows you to see more when you move on. As with everything in Alpine... just take your time.