Five Days in West Texas: A Real Family Vacation

In case you weren’t aware, many of us are big fans of West Texas (see this post and this post as examples). It’s beautiful, wide open spaces as far as the eye can see, and it’s within reasonable driving distance. (Because let’s face it: spending at least one day driving to arrive at your vacation destination is a Texas rite of passage, even though the thought of being locked in a car for two or more hours with smallish kids is nothing less than anxiety inducing for adults.)

I’m not sure what led me to convince my family to spend Thanksgiving in Alpine rather than at home. It may have had something to do with me not wanting to clean and plan a meal that would take longer to put together than it would to actually eat it.

Once I had firmly planted this idea in my partner’s head, I had to find a way to sell it to the kids, who are 4 and 7. Their schools had been talking up Thanksgiving, as schools do, so it took some creative thinking to get them on board. What made it easy was that my mom was off on vacation in Australia for the holiday week, and we would be seeing my dad for the December holidays. We see our framily regularly, so no one’s feelings would be hurt if our untraditional traditions didn’t include a huge get-together.

But now what? The last time I’d visited West Texas had been on an eighth-grade field trip to look at caverns and see the Marfa lights. Plus, KIDS! They need things, like snacks and amusements. By the time I’d booked our AirBnB rental, travel anxiety was creeping in. I made lists to plan things and to make sure no one lost their little minds if there weren’t enough damn snacks.

Every vacation or trip is brain-dumped onto a notepad so I can prepare for a sane experience for everyone me. Clothing was also a necessary thing to plan, as this time of year in Texas brings weather that can switch faster than a tumbleweed can cross the highway. This doesn’t mean we have to follow the notepad to the letter. I recognize how nuts it would be to create A PLAN OF THINGS TO DO WITH KIDS. But also, am I alone in thinking that one always needs a mental itinerary of things to do while on vacation with little ones? 

I downloaded two movies on each Kindle, filled the backseat area with books, Crayons, food, water, and even some candy. I packed layers of clothes for everyone and coolers of food, wine, and chips, and off we went.

Day One

Travel from San Antonio to Alpine is approximately six hours with bathroom and sanity breaks. Once the girls discovered that they could use their Kindles in the car, it was smooth sailing for the entire drive out. Challenges began when we arrived and needed to find a place to eat dinner. We had to use Yelp because not every place is open all day every day. Food was negotiated, and we headed off to find a grocery store and load up on necessities (milk, eggs, bacon, pie). We explored our rental, watched a movie over wifi on the laptop, and passed out pretty early. Bonus: the property we stayed at had tons of pine cones, some chickens, and two cats. Easy entertainment for at least two hours.

Day Two (Thanksgiving)

Based on a tip from a friend, we left early (7:30 A.M.) to head to Big Bend to beat the crowds. We drove straight to the Panther Junction visitor center to pick up maps, explore, and grab two Junior Ranger workbooks. We completed one Ranger activity there and headed to the Chisos Trail—it’s close to Panther Junction and has a small, paved hike that’s great for kids and adults. We were so mesmerized by the views that we moseyed over to the main trailhead and completed a two-mile loop to get better views of the Window.

There was enough nature to keep the kids interested (and enough water and snacks in our packs) that NOT A SINGLE COMPLAINT WAS HAD about the length of our excursion. Next to the visitor’s center here (where your Junior Ranger can get their passport stamp) is a snack shop, so we earned our cheese doodles and ice cream and devoured them while completing the remaining Junior Ranger activities.

We made it back to Alpine by 4:00 P.M., picked up our pie, and headed to ACMB contributor Cristina’s place for Thanksgiving dinner with mutual friends. (Our alternative plan was to heat up some food at the rental, so it was awesome to have somewhere to go and stuff our faces.) We watched the full moon rise, ate some more, then headed back to pass out in our beds.

Day Three

I’d reserved tickets for the Solar Viewing at the McDonald Observatory for the morning, an absolute must if you’re in the area. Pro tip: pack snacks and more snacks to keep the littles occupied during the lecture and the tour.

One kid got to push a button. The other didn’t. You can imagine how well that played out.

We were done around 1:30 P.M., which meant hungry kids. (Yes, even with all the snacks.) Fortunately, Fort Davis is halfway between the observatory and Alpine and has a couple of great options. I’d already scoped out Fort Davis Drug Store & Hotel (“home of the old-fashioned soda fountain”) just in case we needed a place to eat (and also, the ice cream signs were sighted by the kids). After shoveling food in our mouths, we drove five minutes over to the Fort Davis National Historic Site.

It was pretty amazing to walk around, learning the history of the area. The kids liked that they could run from site to site working on their next Junior Ranger activity. You’d think all the literal running would tire them out, right? But, nope. We chilled out for the rest of the night, star gazing in the land of no light pollution.

Day Four

“Mom said we have to go all the way to the top before asking for more snacks.”

Did I mention I procrastinated reserving tickets for the Star Party at the Observatory? And that it meant being waitlisted for tickets because it’s a holiday week? Well, I did. And there was much panic until the email with availability came in one morning at 6:00 A.M. and I quickly logged on to get our tickets. (The lesson here is to get your tickets as soon as you know you’re going to go.) We had most of the day to explore, so we ended up at the Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University. The museum attendant was very informative and encouraged the girls to look at and touch everything, which they, of course, did.

She also gave us a hand-drawn trail map of the hikes available on the property. We trudged up the hill, fighting the wind and demand for snacks, and managed to make the summit before the requests to end this ride came in.

On our way back to our home base, we stopped at a city park for more outside time. This park, located at 11th and Gallegos, was well maintained and had enough entertainment for our wildings.

After some lounging around and more eating back at the house, we headed back up to the Observatory. Star Parties in the fall and winter time start earlier in the evening (6:45 P.M.), but the wind and cloud cover can make them challenging. We experienced a few of these challenges, but we did get to see some cool stuff, including Mars, so I’m still counting it as a win.

Day Five (Return Home)

Vacation Post-mortem

Was every day a perfect day? Nope. Did we just roll with it? As best as we could. This was the first time we’ve been able to complete more than one extensive hike, be offline for more than one day, and try more than one new thing a day with the kids. I’m positive we both grew some new grey hair in the process. The girls were able to start their love affair with nature in a new way, and they’ve already started planning for more hikes and even overnight camping. Plus, the national parks introduced them to the Junior Ranger program, and the idea of traveling the country to complete tasks and earn a badge and/or a patch is really appealing to all of us. I’m sharing this in the hopes of chipping away at some of the fear and anxiety that comes with planning a driving-vacation with your kids. Even we have been talking about when to do this again.

You can do this, friend. You’ve got this. Just make sure to pack ALL THE SNACKS.

Amanda R.
Amanda is a native Texan who spent a few years in the Boston area. Newish to the stay-at-home mom gig, she’s mother to an eight-year-old wilding and a five-year-old diva. When not trying to herd those cats, she runs a doula agency, Journey to Motherhood (@motherhoodsatx), and works as a San Antonio birth doula and childbirth educator. She has been married to her husband for almost nine years, which also means learning the ways of being a military spouse. Upon his return from his first deployment in their relationship, she surprised him by proposing to him when she finished her first half marathon (more like she held up a ring and he said yes). Their honeymoon was a babymoon (ehh) to Italy, followed by another deployment, building a new home, and having another child. Much time at home is spent cultivating a medicinal and vegetable garden (she’s a modern hippie), reading all kinds of books (everyone is a book nerd), crafting cocktails (because yum), documenting shenanigans and social activism on Instagram (@optimisticheathen), and holding spontaneous dance parties in the living room.