How to See the Marfa Lights

Come for a shot at seeing the Marfa Lights, stay for the hospitable little Texas town.
Come for a shot at seeing the Marfa Lights, stay for the hospitable little Texas town. (Image: Scott Halleran/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

You can get a rainbow-hued light show in Las Vegas, but it won't come with the spooky good time of trying to spot the mysterious, legendary glow near a little West Texas town. The Marfa Lights remain an unexplained phenomenon, luring visitors to try to catch a glimpse and investigate their own theories. Because they don't appear following any schedule, you may not be able to see the lights on your trip.

About the Orbs

The mysterious orbs on the horizon that draw fans of the preternatural to the southwestern corner of Texas have never been explained, yet they've spawned lots of legends. The spherical lights dance in a range of colors, doing acrobatics including merging and splitting, shooting up or down, and streaking across the horizon. Native Americans had their own legends about the lights being falling stars, and settlers first recorded the mysterious light show in 1883. Scientific theories range from natural gas emissions to mirages or car headlights. Supernatural theories run the gamut from ghosts to extraterrestrial visitors.

Viewing Center

Just 10 minutes east of the town of Marfa, a special nighttime center unites you with others on the lookout for the lights. The Marfa Lights Viewing Center along U.S. Highway 90/67 features plenty of parking, restrooms, a round shelter with a broad platform to perch on as you try to spot the lights across Mitchell Flat, picnic tables for a bite under the stars, and gravel pathways with informational plaques posted about the old Army Airfield site and the history of the lights. On the other side of the highway, frequent trains on the Santa Fe tracks run parallel. Bring your own camping chairs to set up along the viewing platform's low stone wall. There's plenty of room to set up camera tripods to prep for any light show, though on pleasant nights and holiday weekends the area may be more crowded. You're also bound to hear some good stories from longtime light-watchers, or scientific theories from student groups out for the night.

When to Go

Unfortunately, you can't plan a viewing of the Marfa Lights like you would book a hotel room. The lights appear when they want to, with no favorite season or reason. According to LiveScience, they're seen about a dozen nights out of the year. So you can't predict when or if you'll be able to see them, but you can at least pick a pleasant night to sit out after sunset. Temperatures dip to around 25 degrees Fahrenheit in December and January, but remain around a pleasant 60 degrees on July and August evenings. Though the lights may be elusive, a consistent feature of any trip here is the classic minimalist art displayed through town and the rugged beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert and nearby Rio Grande, so book a Jeep or rafting expedition to round out your journey.

Labor Day Extravaganza

Even if you can't plan when the lights decide to make an appearance, you can head to Marfa to theorize with other orb-seekers at the annual Marfa Lights Festival. The city traditionally throws this party each Labor Day weekend; budget issues imperiled the future of the festival in 2014, so check with the city of Marfa to ensure that the celebration will happen on your chosen vacation date. It's got all the flavor of a small-town Texas bash, with live music, dancing, a parade, lots of grub and booths selling handmade wares. Or make your own festival, inviting friends to stay in vintage trailers and teepees at El Cosmico or at the historic Hotel Paisano.

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