Sonora & Ozona: West Texas Rest Stops
When the road goes on forever, pause for fun in Sonora and Ozona.
The first time I headed out to West Texas, my mother-in-law pressed jugs of water into my hands. “Porque no hay nada, es desierto,” she told me. Because there’s nothing, it’s desert.
Her memories of driving along migrant worker routes in her youth didn’t include the smooth, well-maintained highway that has run the width of Texas since 1959. Still, driving west on Interstate 10 can make you feel as if you’re entering deserted territory.
The highway is hewn from plateaus and dips into ravines and washes, with opposing lanes so separated that they seem like different roadways. It’s by turns exciting and monotonous. The 200 miles between Junction and Fort Stockton would look completely absent of settlement if it weren’t for the twin cities of Sonora and Ozona. They are the biggest towns in their respective counties and appear as beacons to travelers looking for gas, a bite to eat or a place to get out and stretch their legs.
Shanon Biggerstaff, president of the Ozona Chamber of Commerce, says her community depends on this highway tourism.
“The big three of our economy are hunting, oil and gas, and tourism, in that order,” she tells us.
My husband, Roy, and I wander through an interpretive trail at Ozona’s well-appointed visitor center to view red yucca and purple sage before Shanon loads us up with maps, pamphlets and fliers.
The History on the Square walking tour catches my eye, and we head over and find the square filled with high school students. It’s lunchtime and, with picnic tables and gazebo shaded by stately trees, the square is clearly a popular destination. It’s decorated with purple-and-gold streamers, balloons and flags. An October Friday is game day in Texas, where football is king.
The tour covers a century of history and includes Gothic architecture, historical markers and a tale of a bank robbery gone awry. We also visit the Crockett County Museum, a small rock building that has served as church, hospital and courthouse annex and now houses three stories of exhibits, including my favorite, a room displaying the frothy, multi-petticoated skirts of decades past.
We’re staying at the X Bar Ranch, midway between Ozona and Sonora and about 13 miles north of the highway. Sitting on several thousand acres, the X Bar is a century-old working ranch and nature retreat.
In addition to trails that spread out from the main lodge, trails and observation points can be accessed through a second gate farther down the country road. The communal swimming pool is sadly closed for the season. There’s a bench facing east where the land drops steeply into the ravine below. The view is stunning. Sunrise will be a thing of beauty.
We head back into Ozona for dinner at The Cafe Next Door. The offerings are hearty, home-style dishes, and the tables around us are filled with folks sporting the now-familiar purple-and-gold game day swag. We grab snacks to take back to our cabin. Twilight is approaching, and we want to be back in time for the show.
The night is clear, and we can see the stars in glorious numbers. X Bar prides itself on its dark-sky efforts for good reason. The middle of nowhere is the best possible place to gaze into the sky. Tonight, we search for the meteors produced by the nascent Draconid shower. And we are not alone.
Adrian Gutierrez has stopped for the night on a road trip from Mexico and tells us that he hopes to see meteors.
“It’s a happy coincidence that this place is perfect for this to be enjoyed,” he says. “It’s what I was looking for.”
The Thomas family from New Zealand is on a stopover from El Paso.“
X Bar appealed because of its remoteness and a chance to be amongst nature,” the dad, Andrew, tells me. In the morning, they’re taking their son to the Caverns of Sonora.
It’s a good choice. While we don’t have plans to visit the caverns on this trip, we have been there in the past. Underneath the dry landscape southwest of Sonora, tours take visitors more than 150 feet below the surface into a subterranean world of crystalline formations that are actively growing. Each room opens into more wonders. It’s an amazing experience, and I’m sure their son will enjoy it.
After a night of stargazing, we turn in. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.
We wake with the sun, grab coffee and a muffin in the lodge, and head to our morning’s destination, a scenic overlook west of Ozona and about 10 miles south of I-10. The vista is breathtaking and overlooks historic Fort Lancaster sitting in the Pecos River valley. Our descent to Fort Lancaster is a roller coaster of hairpin turns and cool morning breezes. The idea that anyone ever did this in a wagon seems absurd.
Ruins lying beneath a blazing Texas sun are all that’s left of the 82-acre outpost that once protected a crucial military route on the 1850s frontier. Docent Jesse Medina tells us that stones removed from the site a century ago can still be seen in buildings in the nearby town of Sheffield.
We don’t venture that far, but we do take a quick detour to the Pecos River to drive across a 90-year-old metal truss bridge spanning the water. It’s Instagram-worthy.
Heading back the way we came, we find a lone cow blocking the road. Can you get more Texas than that?
We drive east, passing Ozona and entering the neighboring city of Sonora. Tonight, the Sutton County Fairgrounds will be alive with lights and music, but for now we take the guided tour of the heart of Sonora.
We start at the Old Ice House Ranch Museum and wander through exhibits as we wait for our tour to begin. On the west side of the square, the Historical Society maintains the Miers Home Museum, with period furniture and artifacts, as well as the Cauthorn Depot, a restored Santa Fe train depot decommissioned in 1977.
The standout of the tour is the historic Sutton County Courthouse, designed by Oscar Ruffini a decade prior to the Crockett County Courthouse we’d admired the day before.
Nearby is the old jail. It’s old and dark and disquieting. And possibly haunted, we’ve been informed. On the first floor, cramped rooms with little light served as living quarters for the jailer’s families. On the second floor, individual cells sit next to an impenetrable barred door leading to larger iron cages covered in bold graffiti. This jail, built in 1891 and designated a Historic Landmark in 1975, continued to serve the community as a working jail as late as 1980.
The gates are open for the Dry Devils River Music Flood, a free annual music festival. The first acts are taking the stage, ringed by food trucks and vendor booths. It’s still hours until the main acts go on, and it’s fast becoming hotter than we can handle. We need to cool off.
North of I-10 is the community of Christoval and our destination, Pugh Park. It’s a bit farther afield, taking 45 minutes to arrive, but well worth it. The park sits on the bank of the South Concho River and is free to the public. The water’s deliciously chilly, the current brisk and curiously flowing south to north. I hook my feet over the trunk of a pecan tree growing low into the water and let myself float.
Hours later our fingers are pruned, our stomachs are rumbling and the light is starting to fade. We drive south, back to Sonora.
The food trucks offer us a little bit of everything. We settle in to eat and listen to the music. To be honest, I don’t have huge expectations, but the company is fun, the food is good and the music is free — all things I like.
A new band launches into a song I know, That’s What I Love About Sunday. This free festival in tiny Sonora has a Billboard No. 1 recording artist, Craig Morgan, headlining. How about that?
As the applause dies on the final song, we head back to the X Bar. We’ve been up since dawn, and we fall asleep fast.
The next morning, we load up the car and head back into Sonora for an early morning visit to Eaton Hill Nature Center and Preserve.
Two miles of trails wind their way around and up Eaton Hill. Water features, including natural ponds and windmill-supplied tanks, are everywhere. Animal tracks make it clear that wildlife visit regularly. As we top the hill, we can clearly see how I-10 has cut through the topography.
It’s a fitting end to our stay here where the Hill Country meets the desert, where appearances can be as deceiving as the shimmer of a mirage on a hot West Texas day. There’s plenty to see and do when you’re making the drive along I-10. Take an exit and find out.
x bar Ranch
caverns of sonora
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