From the Marfa Lights to Balrog Burgers and ageing deadheads at Hippie Hollow, there’s a strange and wonderful side to Texas. Gretchen Greer adjusts her reality
From its immense size (three times larger than the United Kingdom), to its unique laws (it’s the only state with the legal right to secede from the Union at any point), Texas is one of the USA’s quirkier states. It encompasses a variety of unusual sights and specimens, both natural and man-made, and often in the most unexpected places.
Marfa Lights, Marfa: When it comes to natural phenomena, there’s none stranger than the Marfa Mystery Lights. Scientists have variously attributed them to the mirage-like product of sharp temperature gradients between warm and cold air, or refracted light from a distant highway. Neither explanation is quite satisfactory once you see the lights for yourself. These slowly floating, multi-coloured orbs are not always visible, but when they’re out in full force they defy all rational explanation.
El Cosmico, Marfa: If deserts, tepee living and al fresco bathing are your thing, look no further than El Cosmico. Part trailer park, part upscale campground, El Cosmico has long been a bastion of hipster living, but it draws all sorts. Accommodation options include canvas Safari Tents, Yurts, vintage Airstreams, and a couple of the aforementioned tepees (luxuriously outfitted with fire pits and king-sized beds, no less, though running water is a little further afield).
Hippie Hollow, Austin: Hippie Hollow Park is an Austin staple, drawing crowds of tourists, college students, and genuine (if occasional) nudists alike since the 1960s. Located on a remote shoreline of Lake Travis, it is the only clothing-optional public park in the State of Texas. Its rarity might explain its immense popularity: a tourist boat recently capsized as viewers flocked to one side to catch a glimpse of its bathing beauties (or aging Deadheads). More adventuresome travellers can strip off and join the fun for a modest fee of $10 a person.
JAWS on the Water, Austin: Imagine floating in an inner tube on a balmy summer evening, beer in hand, as you gaze out at the sunset over Austin’s beautiful Lake Travis. Then imagine something brushes your foot—a fish, a weed?—or perhaps, given that you’ve just watched JAWS on a giant outdoor projector screen, a Great White Shark? Unlikely, perhaps, but the combination is every bit as suggestive to the imagination as it’s intended to be. So if you’re in the mood for some cheap thrills, join in with this Alamo Drafhouse-hosted event on select weekends every summer.
The Joule Hotel, Dallas: Dallas might not immediately spring to mind as the most deviant of Texan cities. Even its quirkier corners have a certain stylish polish, as in the case of the boutique Joule hotel. But its exquisitely designed lobby belies some stranger parts, as those willing to explore a little soon discover. First, meander down to the Midnight Rambler bar, designed to resemble both the hotel bar in The Shining and another Paris-based bar owned by Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks director David Lynch. Once tipsy on absinthe-laced craft cocktails, go gaze up at the three-story-tall sculpture of an eyeball sitting outside the hotel’s front doors. You’ll never look at Dallas the same way again.
The Hotel Emma, San Antonio: If you’ve ever wanted to sip cocktails in the privacy of your own converted beer tank lounge, look no further than the Sternewirth Bar at the Hotel Emma, itself a converted brewery. The atmosphere is a bizarrely coherent blend of exposed concrete and pipes, and the sort of furniture you’d find in your wealthy uncle’s country estate. A bottle-labelling machine chandelier casts a dim flow over the leather couches, an antique library table, and a mysterious spiral staircase. Various private nooks and crannies keep the atmosphere cosy even beneath the 25-foot high vaulted ceiling. This aesthetic spills over into the lobby, while the rooms themselves are the very picture of timeless elegance (claw foot tubs, and so forth).
The Sunken Gardens, San Antonio: Located in a nineteenth-century limestone quarry, the Sunken Gardens (also known as the Japanese Tea Garden) are an unexpected oasis in hot and humid South Texas. Built in 1917, a Japanese-style pagoda presides over an interlocking network of pathways and bridges that wind through lush garden beds and pools of water swimming with koi. It’s one of the Alamo City’s lesser known sights, and best visited in early morning or evening, when soft light and sparser crowds really draw out the spot’s particular sense of enchantment.
Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern, Houston: Strangely reminiscent of Istanbul’s remarkable Basilica Cistern, the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern in downtown Houston has recently opened for public visits. Dim light and a shallow pool of water cast infinite reflections of the cistern’s many columns, making it almost impossible to gauge its size and depth. Periodic art installations take spectacular advantage of this unusual setting and acoustic, playing with echoing sound and refracted light. But even unadorned, this subterranean spot is well worth a visit.
The Hobbit Café, Houston: Open since 1972, this slightly-psychedelic, mostly-vegetarian restaurant is the best homage you’ll find to the Tolkien classic outside of New Zealand. Located in a charming little house with patio garden, various hobbit-y touches, and Lord of the Rings-inspired artwork on the walls, there’s no better place to geek out (with a Balrog Burger and pint of ale) in Texas.
Dinosaur Valley State Park, Glen Rose: In the early Cretaceous Period, some 113 million years ago, a few gentle (and some not-so-gentle) giants walked along the shoreline of an ancient sea. Preserved in limestone, sandstone and mudstone, these prints have been exposed over the last million years by the gradual erosion of the Paluxy River. Now, you can drive about an hour and a half south of Dallas to walk and swim alongside the remarkably clear footprints.
Boquillas Hot Springs, Big Bend National Park: If you happen to visit Big Bend National Park in winter (the best time to go), plan on making the short hike to Boquillas Hot Springs, a cosy little clothing-optional natural pool located right on the Rio Grande, which separated the United States from Mexico. Built in 1909 and long renowned for its restorative properties, the Spring is the ideal spot to rest limbs sore from hiking and camping—as long as you don’t mind the onlookers across the border.
Luckenbach, Texas Hill Country: Immortalised in Waylon Jennings’ country song of the same name, the tiny town of Luckenbach (population: 3) is more than meets the eye. Located in the Hill Country about an hour from both San Antonio and Austin, Luckenback ahs little more than a post office, opened in 1850. But a nearby dance hall has since become a mecca for country musicians, including Willie Nelson and Robert Earl Keen. Live music every weekend draws crowds from far and wide.