Although the town of Marfa is nothing more than a small dot on a Texas map, it holds much more than initially meets the eye. Despite one stoplight and a population of fewer than 2,000 residents, Marfa’s lonesome beauty is a draw for artists, who have flocked to this remote outpost since the 1970s.
Isolated in the Chihuahuan Desert in the southwest corner of the state, the town is closer to the remote border of Mexico than it is to any major U.S. city, making it a haven for the unconventional, including an unexplained phenomenon known as the Marfa Lights.
What Are the Marfa Lights?
Also referred to as the Marfa Mystery Lights or the Chinati Lights (named for the nearby Chinati Mountains), this strange occurrence has baffled researchers, mesmerized locals, and drawn visitors for decades. Appearing as hovering orbs, these mysterious lights are visible on the horizon in an uninhabited section of the sprawling desert. Varying in hues of white, blue, and red, the lights are known to put on a mystifying performance — pulsing, splitting, merging, and dissolving, before reappearing once again.
Although the phenomenon is unexplained, the Marfa Lights are a recognized occurrence that has been studied by scientists, featured on television shows, theorized on podcasts, and even captured on film. The lights are most often witnessed at twilight, often around sunset as dusk is falling. Although they occur randomly, with no known indications as to whether or not they will appear on any given night, they’re best viewed when the sky is clear, without clouds or haze.
A Well-Documented History
The Marfa Lights have been reported for almost 140 years, ever since a cowboy named Robert Reed Ellison spied them in the distance while driving cattle in 1883. Perplexed by the distant, pulsing glow, Ellison began spreading tales about strange lights in the desert. Before long, ranchers and Indigenous people alike confirmed Ellison’s story — there were distant lights of an unknown origin that sometimes danced across the sky.
The first printed documentation of the lights occurred in 1957, when Coronet magazine wrote a story called “The Ghost Lights of Mexico.” A few years prior, James Dean reportedly became obsessed with the lights while visiting Marfa to film the movie Giant, and kept a telescope on hand to search for the orbs on the darkened Texas horizon.
Generally speaking, the Marfa Mystery Lights are known as “ghost lights,” which is a broad term used for unidentifiable floating lights. Also called “will-o-the-wisps” and “swamp lights,” these unexplained phenomena are typically blamed on gaseous emissions, which is why they are often spotted in marshes and swamps. But since there’s nothing swampy about the Chihuahuan Desert, the mystery behind the Marfa Lights is all the more peculiar.
As a result, conspiracy theories abound when it comes to the lights, as do far-reaching origin stories. Varying theories include the lingering ghosts of Spanish conquistadors, UFOs hovering in the distance, and secret atomic experiments hidden in the desert. Another well-known theory is that the lights belong to the spirit of a deceased Mexican man who lost his lover and continues to roam the desert in search of her.
During the 2000s, the lights were studied by two separate groups — the Society of Physics Students at University of Texas – Dallas and a cohort of scientists from Texas State University. Both groups concluded that the mysterious lights were caused by car headlights driving on nearby Highway 67. While this hypothesis is certainly plausible, especially when backed by scientists, it’s also easy to poke holes in the theory. First of all, there are documented historical occurrences of the lights well before automobiles were invented. And secondly, the lights occur far away from Highway 67.
An Electrical Enigma
James Bunnell, a retired NASA engineer, believes that the headlight theory is flawed — and he’s practically an expert on the subject. After studying the event for years, Bunnell has obtained enough knowledge about the lights to write a book on the phenomenon entitled Hunting Marfa Lights.
Bunnell believes that car headlights are frequently mistaken for the real Marfa Lights, with visitors often confusing the two. While headlights can often be spotted in the distance near Highway 67, sightings of the real Marfa Lights are rare. After years of research, Bunnell claims the lights occur only a few times a year, and when they do, they pulsate on the horizon for roughly 40 minutes. Bunnell theorizes that the lights are a byproduct of underground electrical energy that forms as a result of tectonic activity in the mountain range. Despite this plausible theory, there is still no concrete evidence as to the lights’ origins — so the mystery remains.
How to See the Lights
To search for the glowing orbs yourself, the closest airports to Marfa are in El Paso or Midland, both of which are roughly 200 miles away. Once you arrive, booking the “James Dean Room” at Hotel Paisano will ensure you stay in the same quarters where the famous actor slept during his stay in Marfa.
To see the lights firsthand, make the trek to the Marfa Lights Viewing Area along Route 90, towards the town of Alpine. The viewing center provides an open view of the faraway Chinati Mountains, where the lights are most often spotted. Make sure to arrive prior to the sunset, so you can orient yourself in the right direction of the lights. Another excellent viewing spot is south of Marfa on Shurley Ranch, a working ranch owned and operated by Billy Shurley. Shurley opens up his property to people on the search for the mysterious lights and also provides rental accommodations to stay overnight.
Once a year, the town celebrates the mysterious lights with the Marfa Lights Festival, hosted annually over Labor Day Weekend. The free event is located downtown and features vendors, live music, and a parade, with locals and visitors making a trip to the desert just before sundown to search for the elusive Marfa Lights.