High Desert Escape
By Eileen Mattei
Travel time from:
- Austin - 6.75 hours /
- Brownsville - 11 hours /
- Dallas - 8.25 hours /
- El Paso - 3.5 hours /
- Houston - 9.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 6.25 hours /
- Lubbock - 4.75 hours
In Alpine, you'll find amazing views, strange cacti, beautiful hikes and plenty of schnitzel.
Perched at 4,485 feet between the Davis and Glass mountains, Alpine is the coolest town in Texas for escaping the summer heat. Year-round art galleries, great restaurants, live music and friendly faces earn it the other kind of cool, too.
After a day trekking through Big Bend National Park, my husband and I drove 108 miles north to Alpine, a Chihuahuan Desert oasis. White envelopes with guests' names were taped to the glass entry doors at the Holland Hotel for self-service check-in. The establishment, which opened in 1912, has no front desk and comes by its refurbished western retro look honestly. The lobby has heard the voice of writer Ambrose Bierce, who stayed here in 1914 before he vanished into Mexico with Pancho Villa's troops.
Beyond the lobby, the Edelweiss Brewery and Restaurant's decor included 50-pound bags of brewer's malt stacked against two walls and a high ceiling braced by beams stenciled in Swiss-style motifs. In minutes Guy and I were sipping pint glasses of smoky dark ale, an unpasteurized, unfiltered ambrosia, strong with hops, a product of Texas' smallest and highest brewery. As we nibbled on a Bavarian snack plate of sausages, sour pickles and rye, we spotted the copper and stainless steel vats of the mini-brewery behind the bar. A friendly crowd of fellow travelers and Sul Ross University professors and students filled the room as we people-watched and tested the bittersweet Alpine Blonde and the Texas Black Gold lager before dinner.
The Edelweiss' Bavarian food lacks only an oompah band. From bread dumplings, Bavarian potatoes, and sauerkraut sweet with spices and peppercorns to endless varieties of schnitzel, the dishes may induce yodeling. After the perfectly breaded jaeger schnitzel topped with black forest mushroom gravy, I still found room for hot apple strudel topped with mountains of whipped cream.
Although a snug four-table bar complete with cuckoo clock is tucked off the dining room, we tore ourselves away from the bonhomie and brews for an amble in the cool night air down Holland Street. (The Holland ranching family owned the hotel until 1969.) Several freight trains rumbled and tooted through town as we window-shopped and discovered some of Alpine's many murals. The Rangra Theatre, a one-time vaudeville stage that's now a bi-plex, featured a mural of movie characters: Darth Vader, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan version), and from the cast of Giant, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean.
On a late stop in the lobby, we read the sepia-toned panels that offer a none-too-serious look at Alpine history, like the tale of hooch-laden Mexican burros sidestepping prohibition to supply Alpine's thirsty.
Upstairs in a cozy suite, we found – in lieu of chocolates – packages of ear plugs on the night stand to muffle train whistles. The trains never woke us in our one-of-a-kind room complete with transom over the door.
Out early after breakfast, we moseyed east to Big Bend Saddlery, savoring the crisp air. Fragrant with the new leather of saddles, chaps and belts, the upscale western shop is a feast for the senses: colorful dinnerware, saddle blankets, palm straw hats, silk bandanas, tarps for cowboy bedrolls. An in-house silversmith and two leather workers create gorgeous custom jewelry and spurs along with wallets, satchels and saddles.
College rodeo started at Sul Ross, according to Judy Spradly, Big Bend Saddlery proprietor. She pointed out rodeo-style belt buckles sporting the Sul Ross University brand. "Instead of a class ring, lots of people get a buckle," she said. I left with a barrette of silver conchas and braided horsehair.
Back on Holland, I began rolling through the shops: consignment jewelry and art at Mis Jen's Closet, the busy Bread and Breakfast bakery for a morning snack, and the Front Street bookstores – one on each side of the street.
The Native Plant Society's guided tour of the cactus garden at Sul Ross University drew us to the brick buildings that dominate the north end of Alpine. In front of Lawrence Hall, an extensive garden of Trans-Pecos cacti and succulents revealed an incredible variety of shapes, sizes and lethal spines. "The Chihuahuan Desert is known for its diminutive cactus. It's the most biodiverse desert in the world," our guide Nancy Hedges explained. From chollas jointed like twisted balloons to the aptly named golf ball, hedgehog and horse crippler cacti, the plants have an admirable bristly beauty.
We grabbed lunch at Texas Fusion, across the street from the old wool and mohair warehouse. This friendly hole-in-the-wall Southwestern café dished up grilled onions on burgers with crusty fries.
Then it was time to meet the Sunset Limited, a train that runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles, stopping in Alpine six times a week. In contrast to all the abandoned Texas train depots transformed into cute visitors centers, Alpine's working depot is, to be generous, nondescript. The tiny waiting room has a few wooden benches and sweet murals of kids waving at trains.
None of that mattered when the Amtrak Superliner pulled in to Alpine: eight gleaming double deckers - coach cars and sleeping cars topped with observation decks. A young couple stepped from the train to the ground ... no platform here. A huge tumbleweed bowled past them in an authentic West Texas welcome.
Samantha Lotti and Steven Gaudino, who had boarded the train in Houston, grinned while recalling the comforts, unhurried conversations and romance of the 16-hour trip. "We enjoy being able to really see the country while traveling," she said. From Alpine they would visit Big Bend National Park, before catching the train home.
After leaving the train station, Guy and I browsed a few shops and lingered in the Kiowa Gallery. The desert experience prevailed here in hubcap art, wire sculptures, framed wildflower triptychs and mixed media pieces.
Northwest of town, a herd of pronghorn antelope browsed and clouds raced their shadows across the mountains as we headed to the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. The self-guided trails of the wind-swept botanical gardens had plentiful interpretive signage for the 150 species in residence. The Happy Jack mine exhibit here is an accurate replica of a small 1880s Chihuahuan Desert silver mine.
The Reata Restaurant, Alpine's deservedly top-rated dining room, serves Western cuisine, but don't think chuck wagon. Think Ponderosa. Tenderloin tamales crowned with pecan mash started our evening off right. The tamales, split open like a baked potato, were moist, savory and crunchy. Next, we had a mixed greens salad with spiced pecans. Reata's signature dish of pan-seared pepper-crusted tenderloin with port wine sauce was succulent and savory, although the prosciutto and spinach stuffed chicken with a Marsala sauce was delicious, too, accompanied by a swirl of potatoes and sugar snap peas.
After dinner, we headed to the Railroad Blues roadhouse, where we found a happy crowd moving to live music, which is audible from the outside firepit. Habituè Amanda Ranly, 25, explained that Railroad Blues is the prime local hangout whether you're a 21-year-old Sul Ross student or a gray-haired hippie. "They're keeping live music fresh and great. They know what people like. It doesn't matter who you're sitting next to."
Late the next morning, sitting at a sidewalk table in front of the Holland, I had a view of clear blue skies above the hills plus views of artistic graffiti on passing freight cars. Hotel owner Tresa Mois joined me to talk about the 26 individualized rooms and the brewery. "Some people call the fourth floor Crow's Nest a penthouse, but that's as misleading as you can get," she said. "It's too small to hold anything but a double bed and a great view."
Tresa took me inside to the brewery and explained the brewing process in two minutes. Her brewmistress cooks the malt briefly in the copper kettle and then moves it to stainless steel vats to ferment and to the cold room to age. The brews on tap – three standard brews and a seasonal option like a stout or fruit beer – take from four weeks to six months to mature. Usually about 200 gallons are in the works, brewed according to the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 which requires beers to contain only natural ingredients – malt, hops, water and yeast. Clear tubes run from the vats to the bar wall and the taps. Guy and I decided it was only polite to again test the fresh-made ale with orders of the juicy knackwurst and Bavarian sauerkraut.
We had time to swing past the Catchlight Co-op Art Gallery and admire gourd art in subtle colors, mixed media pieces and jewelry before hitting the historic Alpine windshield trail. That took us past the tinsmith's tin house and homes from the late 1800s, as well as houses with windmills in their backyards, evergreen trees, and the courthouse for Brewster County, Texas' largest county, which is bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The town's pride is the trim green Kokernot Field, a classic brick-walled baseball stadium – a miniature of Chicago's Wrigley Field – that was built in 1947 for a minor league team.
The Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross campus is small but splendid, touching on the region's natural, cultural and historical riches. The humongous flying dinosaur swooping down from the ceiling is a reconstruction based on pterosaur bones and fragments found in Big Bend. Wingspan: 51 feet. The rainbow-colored Tall Rock shelter and a video on archaeology set the tone for other well-done exhibits on explorers and Indians, settlers and stagecoaches.
The mountainside behind the school's Industrial Technology building tempted us to hike up a path dotted with yucca, cactus and four mountain bikers performing trail maintenance. For puffing our way to the top, we were rewarded with a spectacular 360-degree vista of mountains, plains, the domes of McDonald Observatory to the northwest, and all of Alpine below.
Opposite Sul Ross, the Maverick Inn, a renovated 1930s motor court, pulled me in like a magnet. Lou Pauls, motel manager turned owner, finished folding sheets hot from the dryer before showing me spacious rooms with knotty pine walls, leather headboards and Western ambiance. "We've tried to keep aspects like the tin ceilings and heavy beams," she said. The addition of verandas all around certainly enhanced the charm of the stuccoed motel.
At Alpine City Limits, near where we'd seen mountain goats and javelina along the road, we enjoyed another outstanding meal. Guy said the barbecue beef ribs were the best he'd ever had.
Even with a big moon, the Alpine night sky seems to hold more stars than at home. I'll be thinking of that big sky until I get a chance to return again to this desert wonderland.
Holland Hotel and Edelweiss Brewery (800-535-8040, www.hollandhotel.net)
Alpine Convention and Visitors Bureau has a list of 100 things to do in Alpine (800-561-3735, www.alpinetexas.com).
Museum of the Big Bend (432-837-8143, www.sulross.edu/~museum)
Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, between Alpine and Ft. Davis (432-364-2499, www.cdri.org)