The little desert town of Marfa makes no logical sense. How did this dusty outpost in the barrens of far West Texas, nearly 200 miles from the closest major airport, go from a water stop for the railway into one of the country’s most buzzworthy contemporary art centers?
Two words: pioneering spirit. It took folks with enough grit and vision and can-do attitude to invent a new life among the red rocks, sagebrush, and sand of the American West.
Related: America’s Coolest Ghost Towns
In Marfa’s case, New York artist Donald Judd was drawn to its sweeping high desert vistas in the 1970s, and his followers steadily put the tiny town on the international art map. But its psychic roots go back even further to the “Westward Ho!” homesteaders and dusty cowboy types who sought their fortunes in boomtown bonanzas all across the region, only to see them go ghost-town bust after the railroad was no longer king, after the mines dried up, and a highway bypassed the local state roads.
The result? Entire towns ripe for reinvention: rustic digs, cheap land, and endless possibilities.
That’s why you’ll find a James Beard Award–nominated restaurant in a formerly derelict rail hotel in northern Arizona, a luxe resort among the wildflowers of a southern California state park, and wineries in the high desert plains of Western Washington.
For other top desert towns, like St. George and Moab, both in Utah, hikers and bikers have replaced the prospectors of the past, turning the surrounding natural landscape—sandstone arches, majestic canyons—into its richest natural resource.
From the national parks of Texas to the microbreweries of Oregon and artisans of New Mexico,
America’s deserts are a fertile landscape for creativity, culture, and no small amount of quirk. Pack the sunscreen and consider this your compass to the coolest desert towns now.