Situated in the high plains of the Chihuahuan Desert, Marfa, Texas, is not a place you stumble upon. It’s at least six hours from any major Lone Star State metros, which makes the ranch town’s transformation into an internationally known contemporary arts outpost even more unlikely. But the folks who have called Marfa home for generations are accustomed to strange happenings. Most notably, the famed Marfa Lights, which were once the town’s biggest tourist draw.
Also called “Ghost Lights,” the Marfa Lights are glowing orbs that seem to alternately float, flicker, and dance across the night sky south of U.S. 90, between Marfa and Alpine, out over Mitchell Flat. The otherworldly balls of light reportedly merge and split at times and can appear white, yellow, red, or blue. Robert Reed Ellison recorded the first sighting in 1883. The West Texas cowhand attributed the lights to Apache campfires in the surrounding mountains, but the Apache witnessed the same phenomenon and believed it to be the result of falling stars.
Since then, theories have ranged from scientific to sci-fi. Cynics cite airplanes, helicopters, off-road vehicles, and cars whizzing past on U.S. 67 as the cause. Believers, though, ask, what about Ellison and the Apache? They were around years before Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T. The ghosts of Spanish conquistadors, UFOs, and glowing bat guano are some of the wackier explanations—readily dismissed by most. Scientists hypothesize everything from natural gas bubbles to mirages to the weather phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire as the source of the mystery.
But retired aerospace engineer and Presidio County native James Bunnell, who has spent more than a decade studying the lights, believes they are caused by the igneous rock under Mitchell Flat that creates an electrical charge. The real Marfa Lights, he says, only appear between fifteen and thirty times a year. The rest of the sightings are in fact likely from cars on U.S. 67, southwest of the Marfa Mystery Lights View Park. To see the lights for yourself, Bunnell suggests hitting the View Park just after sunset or right before dawn, and look southeast to avoid the car lights. And if you don’t spot a real Marfa Light? No big deal. “You won’t be disappointed by making the attempt,” Bunnell says. “Marfa nighttime skies are absolutely beautiful.”