Have you experienced West Texas and beyond? Truly experienced it? It’s a romantic spread—sprawling ranches, friendly smiles and the biggest horizons. It’s full of wildcatters, sunny days and street dances. Right in the middle of it all, you’ll find Odessa. This city, population of nearly 120,000, inspired H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights.
It’s home to the world’s largest jackrabbit and the second largest meteor crater in the nation. Here, you’ll be entertained at the Globe Theatre of the Great Southwest. You’ll meet cowboys at an iconic rodeo, and see Stonehenge Odessa in person. With plenty of hotels and meeting spaces, Odessa is a prime place to host events—with some awesome pre- or post-con options.
If there’s one word to describe the west, it’s adventure. This place is for adventure seekers, outdoor lovers, history buffs, hikers, dreamers. Come experience the west of Texas for yourself. Odessa is your central hub, within driving distance of several state and national parks. What are you waiting for? Read on to see how one couple enjoyed Big Bend National Park, how four girlfriends gathered at Carlsbad Caverns, and a family made memories in Monahans Sandhills.
Big Bend National Park
210 miles south of Odessa
The start of Emory Peak’s trail meanders through the wilderness without too much incline and we enjoyed several species of birds that perched along the path. We witnessed two blue Mexican jays flirting and kept our eyes peeled for a Colima warbler, as Big Bend is the only place in the United States to see one.
We walked through vibrant scents of wet pine and sweet cactus flowers. We climbed rocks and stopped often to take in the view, like no other we’d encountered thus far. When we made it to the top, we stopped to soak it in. It was quiet and monumental. A hummingbird flew by in a congratulatory salute, and my husband squeezed my hand. We made it!
On our way down, about a mile from the Chisos Mountains Lodge, we heard sticks breaking near our trail. As we carefully walked past the noisy foliage, we saw a black bear! I was prepared to do what the signs say—get big, loud, don’t act like prey—but he paid us no attention. It was truly amazing to see a bear in its natural habitat. It was a hike we’ll always remember.
More information:Local outfitters provide a number of Big Bend adventures. Embark on a guided river trip that can last a couple of hours to a few weeks. Big Bend gets its name from the bend in the Rio Grande that forms the iconic border of the Lone Star State, giving it its unique shape. The river is the lifeblood of the desert and a gathering place, so a river trip is one of the best ways to spot wildlife. Tour guides enrich the experience with tales of the history, geology, flora and fauna of the area as you paddle along the cool waters and between steep canyon walls. Explore the beauty of Big Bend National Park on horseback, mountain bike, or an ATV or Jeep tour. Many of the outfitters provide everything you need for these tours, just be sure to book in advance. Pack your binoculars and telescope if you have them, because Big Bend is a certified IDA International Dark Sky Park and has the least light pollution of any national park in the lower 48. You will be dazzled by the night sky here. This is truly some of the best stargazing in the world.
Refuel on the patio at the Chisos Mountain Lodge, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. You’ll appreciate how they list the calories burned on popular park hikes. There is no guilt in saying yes to dessert here!
Big Bend National Park is one of the top attractions in Texas and is definitely worth the scenic drive from Odessa.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
160 miles west of Odessa
My three college roommates and I make it a point to get together at least once a year, and this time we decided to meet in Odessa and drive together to Carlsbad Caverns. We love visiting national parks, and none of us had been in a cave. The drive was memorable because the flat terrain suddenly revealed mountains peeking over the horizon and we knew we were getting close.
When we arrived at Carlsbad Caverns, we were giddy with excitement to go inside. It was like a wax palace down there; like stepping into another world. We laughed when we saw “Witch’s Finger” because it reminded us of a former professor we had who would always wave her long, crooked finger at us if we were late to class.
We stayed to watch hundreds of bats take flight at sunset—what an incredible sight. On our drive back to Odessa, we rolled the windows down and sang Alanis Morissette songs at the top of our lungs. Carlsbad Caverns easily became our favorite reunion spot.
The park is 46,766 acres, including more than 33,000 acres of designated wilderness, and has at least 120 caves. You can choose from self-guided or ranger-guided cave tours and visit underground wonderlands like King’s Palace, the Big Room and Natural Entrance.
If you want to kick things up a notch, reserve your spot in advance for one of the more rigorous ranger-guided tours where you crawl and climb for the chance to see more isolated stunning features like White Giant, Medusa Room and Cactus Spring.
Every evening from Memorial Day through October, visitors gather at Carlsbad Caverns’ outdoor amphitheater for the free Bat Flight Program. Witness hundreds of Brazilian free-tailed bats fly out of the cave at sunset, embarking on their nightly feeding of insects.
This adventure close to Odessa will give you a deep appreciation for this planet’s beauty.
Monahans Sandhills State Park
40 miles west of Odessa
The kids were restless. The end of summer was approaching and we’d been cooped up inside too long. I did a quick online search for a fun Texas getaway and saw pictures of the Monahans Sandhills. It looked beautiful and very different from any place I’d seen—I didn’t know there were sandhills in West Texas, far from any beach.
We packed up our van and headed west. We arrived mid-morning and the kids immediately begged us to rent huge plastic discs so they could slide down the hills. It looked so fun, my husband and I rented two for us. The four of us raced down the hills of sand, laughing and playing chase. We took turns burying each other and played tic-tac-toe in the sand. This was the vacation we’d needed. No distractions, just time together. We cooked hot dogs for lunch and played Go Fish.
That night, we stayed at a hotel in Odessa with a pool and we let the kids swim way past their bedtimes. We popped popcorn and piled into bed and fell asleep to a movie. Our family vacation to Monahans Sandhills was one we’ll never forget!
This Texas state park offers many adventures: sand surfing, disc sledding, hiking, camping, bird and wildlife watching. The park is full ofactive sand dunes that are constantly changing in shape and size by the West Texas winds. The sparse vegetation is mainly the shin oaks that are—you guessed it—around shin high, and part of the largest oak forest in the United States. Pack a picnic and enjoy a meal under the wide-open sky on one of the many picnic tables scattered throughout the park. Orient yourself with the wildlife that makes this region home at the Dunagan Visitor Center, and then venture out to spot birds, reptiles and mammals in their natural habitat. Fresh water is found at shallow depths here and often pools of water lie between the dunes, a perfect place to encounter creatures looking for a drink in the desert.
Pitch a tent or bring your RV, grill burgers and tell tall tales under the Texas stars as you enjoy one of the campsites in the park, each with water, electricity, shade shelters, restrooms and lots and lots of sand dunes. Be sure to pack that camera—this place makes for especially beautiful sunrise and sunset photos. This place is a Texas treasure that can’t be experienced anywhere else in the state. Plan your adventure now—the sand beckons.
As you can see, the adventures in and around Odessa are endless. This welcoming West Texas city is a great place to begin your journey to hike the mountains, surf the sand and tread deep underground.