My 7 Favorite Stops on a Road Trip from Austin to El Paso
Surrounded by the leafy capital of Austin and the international border town of El Paso, a drive through West Texas not only includes two of Texas’ most distinctive cities, but also a host of cool little towns rich in history. border, panoramic views and delicious barbecue and Mexican cuisine.
The drive from Austin to El Paso takes almost 9 hours, and at first glance it can seem a bit daunting and devoid of big cities. But rest assured that there are plenty of fascinating attractions to break up the ride.
As with any road trip, it’s best to walk around a bit, stay overnight for a few nights along the way, and take an occasional detour off the main road. In order to soak up some Texas hospitality and try many regional cuisines along the way, I recommend taking 5 or 6 days on the road trip through West Texas.
Here are my seven favorite stops from Austin to El Paso.
From world-class barbecue to non-stop live music to the quirky charm of South Congress Avenue, Austin is an incredibly fun place to start a Texas road trip. I’ve visited in every season, and if I had to pick a favourite, I’d say spring is the best time of year.
When I visited in early April, the days were sunny and the temperatures approached 80 degrees – perfect weather for a long walk on Congress Avenue, “The Main Street of Texas”. I started my walk on the bustling South Congress District, then north across the Ann W. Richards Congress Avenue Bridge over glistening Lady Bird Lake, then to the Texas State Capitol, surely one of the finest state houses in the country.
If possible, I suggest planning your walk over the Congress Avenue Bridge just before sunset, when the Mexican free-tailed bats that live below the bridge venture out to form dark clouds in the sky above Lady Bird Lake. It is a sight to behold and attracts hundreds of tourists to the bridge each night.
For a quick lunch, I love the tacos from Torchy of Congress Avenue, 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 large outdoor patio, hand-shaken margaritas, and chile con queso cheese dip. If a decadent dessert is in order, line up at Amy’s Ice Creams, where Mexican flavors of vanilla and dark chocolate stand out.
In addition to 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 raucous atmosphere of Terry Black’s BBQ, and it’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 macaroni and cheese, green beans and cornbread muffins.
The Congress Avenue area offers plenty of gorgeous places to spend the night, but for a treat that combines sweeping views, great food, a rooftop pool, and lavish 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 through West Texas, 2 or 3 days would allow you to enjoy a good assortment of city attractions.
Heading west from Austin, one of my favorite first stops is Fredericksburg, a mid-sized town with an amazing array of well-preserved stone buildings dating back to the 1800s from German settlers.
Any visit to Fredericksburg should start with a stroll down Main Street to admire 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 cuisine like schnitzel and sauerkraut, or Altdorf Restaurant and Biergarten for bratwurst or knockwurst. Or, for a great look at the region’s plants, seeds and wines, take a short drive from downtown to Wild Seed Farms.
Prime: 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 been on my list of places to visit in Texas Hill Country for a long time, and I finally got there on my April trip. My afternoon spent listening to live music in the shade of the majestic oak trees behind the small general store and bar lived up to all my expectations.
A statue of Davy Crockett stands guard in a charming courthouse plaza in the small town of Ozona, located about 2 hours west of Fredericksburg on Interstate 10. Ozona bills itself as “the largest small town in the world”, and the small town does seem to have an inordinately large personality.
It is the county seat of Crockett County, named after the 1800s frontier/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 gas for over 100 miles westbound on I-10. It’s a perfect spot for a stroll through quaint downtown, a meal at a local favorite like the Hitchin Post Steakhouse, and a gas-up before heading west.
4. Marathon, Alpine and Marfa
Although staying on I-10 is 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 don’t continue on to the incredible Big Bend National Park, the row of small West Texas towns known as the park’s gateways make for a worthy detour from the highway.
Marathon, Alpine and Marfa are all within 30 minutes to an hour of each other. Visitors can take their pick from Marathon for its glorious night sky, Alpine for its bustling downtown area and colorful murals, and Marfa for its film, music, food and art scenes.
I suggest choosing one of the towns to serve as a base to explore the area for a day or two. In Marfa, plan to soak up Hollywood glamor at the Hotel Paisano, which served as the headquarters for the 1956 film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. In Marathon, there’s the heady mix of cowboy culture and gracious hospitality at The Gage Hotel. And in Alpine, the Holland Hotel sits in the middle of a fun downtown scene.
5. Fort Davis
For another pleasant detour on your way south of the highway, consider the historic town of Fort Davis, a 20-minute drive from Marfa. Set amidst the rugged Davis Mountains, Fort Davis is a self-contained community of about 1,100 people that offers a surprisingly robust selection of restaurants, hotels, and shops.
For authentic Mexican food, try Poco Mexico, where orders are taken at a bustling kitchen window, or Cueva de Leon, which has a full menu of Mexican fare and a cozy outdoor patio.
And while you’re in the area, don’t forget to visit the well-preserved military border post, Fort Davis National Historic Site, and the amazingly scenic Davis Mountains State Park.
6. Van Horn
Another interesting 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 El Capitan Hotel, a 1929-era treasure known as an oasis in the desert. This is a wonderful place for an overnight stay after a long highway drive. During my evening in Van Horn, I was treated to a magnificent sunset over the Texas desert.
Located on the route between Texas’ two national parks, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Big Bend National Park, Van Horn also makes a convenient stopover on a north-south trip between the two.
The town has several sit-down restaurants and fast food outlets that make it a good place to spend the night or for a quick lunch break. For a classic Texas meal, head to the hotel’s El Capitan restaurant and Gopher Hole bar, where you can sit in the spacious dining room or shaded courtyard and enjoy local specialties like fried steak at homemade pistachio or pecan pie with local pecans. .
7. The Paso
Located along the Rio Grande on the US-Mexico border, the city of El Paso in the far west of Texas offers a wonderful blend of Mexican and Wild West cultures. International culture is evident in everything from the city’s historic buildings to Tex-Mex cuisine to colorful art.
Any visit to El Paso should include an exploration of the Las Plazas Arts District, an area of downtown that includes quaint El Paso Street, adorned with fairy lights and neon signs. The entire Arts District is a great place to stroll, and the area is full of trendy spots to grab a cocktail or a meal at places like The Berkeley, Anson 11, or the spectacular Dome Bar.
For accommodations right in the middle of the action, El Paso offers a number of great choices, including Hotel Paso Del Norte, Autograph Collection, and Hotel Indigo El Paso Downtown.
Sometimes called America’s capital of Mexican cuisine, El Paso also offers plenty of authentic Mexican food choices. The cozy L&J Café offers a range of Tex-Mex specialties such as beef and chicken fajitas, chili con queso and grilled steak. Downtown 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 place to end or start a road trip through West Texas, and a 1-2 day stay would give visitors a great overview of the city.
Pro tip: For more Mexican food choices in El Paso, see The 9 Best Mexican Foods to Try in El Paso and Where to Find Them.
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