Best Small Texas Towns | Some To Visit Once, Some More

Best small towns in texas
Iraan, Texas

best small towns texas

Iraan, Texas is pronounced “EYE-ruh-ann.” Living in a state with places named Paris, Rhome (pronounced Rome), and London, I figured this was pronounced like the country with a similar name. I was wrong. But in my quest to find the best small Texas towns to visit and live in, I just had to try it out.

First, Iraan, is pronounced in this unusual way because it’s named after the couple who founded the oil-rich area: Ira and Ann Yates.

“Ira + Ann” = Ira-Ann, Texas.

The oil field was owned by a succession of companies, including the penultimate owner, Marathon Oil. It’s now owned by Houston-based and 13-billion-dollars-a-year-earning Kinder Morgan Inc.

Iraan was one of several small Texas towns I wanted to visit during our trip to Ruidoso and back.

map of our trip
To Ruidoso and back

To Ruidoso (the quick way)…

Because we were moving our oldest son there, we took the quickest route, according to Google, which fortunately skirted most large highways.

london texas - best small texas towns
London, Texas, shares a flag with Paris and Rhome. Texas is so big that even the entirety of Iraan fits within the Lone Star State’s borders. PHOTO: Texas Escapes.

Perhaps my favorite small town was London. It is unincorporated and has a population of 180. While I wasn’t able to stop and get photos — we were very mission-oriented on the way out — the good news is that it’s only a little over an hour from home, so I can go another day. The majority of the way to London is on Ranch Road 385; taking the Interstate to Junction leaves you only 18 minutes on a more scenic road.

garden of eden, Eden Texas
“Garden of Eden” in Eden, Texas // PHOTO: Kelsey Yoder Ostroski

After London, we hit US-83, which points us toward our middle son’s college (Texas Tech in Lubbock). After Menard comes Eden. And, yes, there is a “Garden of Eden.” Even traveling between London and Eden — barely enough time to finish a fried bean burrito from Stripes — I am reminded of William Least Heat Moon’s book Blue Highways, which documents his travels around the country trying to avoid interstate highways and trying to encounter residents of the small towns he passes through.

Roswell, New Mexico — and I’m skipping over somewhat noteworthy small towns like Sterling City, Big Spring, Lamesa (one word), Brownfield and Plains — is not much to write about in my opinion.

The UFO Museum was closed except for the gift shop (any surprise?). Masks were required, my temperature was taken upon entering and I was asked what state I was coming from. My New Yorker-ness made way for my Texas driver’s license.

…and back (not so much)

I’ll touch on a few Ruidoso-related things in a minute.

Because I’d skipped a lot of cool places on the way to Ruidoso, and also because it was Father’s Day on the way home, I had a bit of leeway in the return trip.

I chose the “long way,” which again according to Google Maps appeared only 45 minutes longer but became the really long way, which became the “Honey-I’m-so-sorry-I-should-have-read-the-map-better” way.Vintage Trailer Supply

Being intrigued by Iraan, and also Eldorado (which Heat Moon discussed in his book) as well as Pecos and Rocksprings, I planned a trip that included all these pindrops. The stops along the way would be a wash with what my wife had offered earlier (“Let’s go the quick way out and you can stop along the way home”).

Halfway home going the southern route, I realize I had grievously miscalculated. My segments added up to a lot longer trip, and I also didn’t account for losing an hour when crossing from Mountain Time to Central Time. (The same way I didn’t realize we gained an hour going there.)

Yet, still some cool small Texas towns

My first taste of West Texas in all its glory was Artesia. Artesia is actually in New Mexico, but it blends in with West Texas and forms a vast oil-focused land.

gas flare
A “gas flare” at an oil or gas extraction point. Used to burn off harmful fumes.


Gas flares at extraction sites.

Long bunker-like housing for oil field workers, rented out by the week.

Even spotted my first coyote: dashing across US-285 just feet ahead of our Hyundai Santa Fe Sport.


This town boasts the Navajo Oil Refinery. I asked the cashier at the gas station we stopped at and she seemed amused that they didn’t get their gas from Navajo. (It was a Phillips 66 station, so I didn’t expect they’d get their product from across the street.)

Navajo, like other refineries, gets its crude from the Permian Basin, which straddles southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. If that geological detail sounds familiar, it might be because you saw either the movie or series “Friday Night Lights,” based on the Permian Panthers in Odessa, Texas.

Oaks Hotels and Resorts


I grouped these together because although Carlsbad offers the caverns, the towns came in relative succession toward our speeding re-entry to Texas.

I was told when I first moved here that if asked where I’d moved from, to say, “New York. But I got here as fast as I could.” I would practice this now as a resident.


Orla, Texas
Orla, Texas. A (quite nice) Pilot Gas Station sits across the highway from this shack. To get the photo, I tiptoed through the bramble with a stick, batting at logs and expecting to hear a rattle.

Shortly after passing a body of water I called “Lizard Lake” — because Google maps made Red Bluff Reservoir look like that…I actually thought it looked more like a salamander, but Karen liked my initial name of “Lizard Lake” more — we reached Orla.


All that was there, to my eye, was this shack. Everything else — the Pilot Gas and Travel Center across the road and the oil-related industry around us — was uninteresting to me. But this shack was. I subsequently looked up its address online — it actually still has one — and the apparent owner seems to be the same who owns the well-appointed Pilot Travel Center.

Next on the “too-long-honey” return route was Pecos.


There are numerous Texas towns and places I’ve mispronounced, the same way I did when moving to Atlanta — “duh-CAB,” not “duh-KALB” (DeKalb), or “may-RETT-uh” (Marietta, said by Georgians) — or to Massachusetts — “WOOS-ter” and the very England-influenced “NEED-um” (Needham) and “DEAD-um” (Dedham).

I had to get used to Boerne (“BERN-ee,” German influence), and Llano (it’s not pronounced like the Spanish word you’d think it would be), and I will never have the authority to call our nearby city “San Antone.”

Pecos was on my list to visit for other reasons, with the boys: namely that less than an hour south of there is the state’s largest spring-fed pool, Balmorhea State Park.

Pecos, Texas
Fonville Jewelry and Gifts, now closed. It is one of those buildings in the region that many people post photos of as an example of what the nearby Walmart has done. Little do they admit that many stores near Walmart continue to thrive.

And while the violent crime rate of Pecos is cause for concern, the city has a plan to move forward, and development was booming.


Increasingly people associate “West Texas” with Marfa, an oasis for artists and those who want to be like artists. But unlike an oasis, this one is sought rather than stumbled upon. And it is surely in the list of “Best Small Texas Towns.”

I’ll confess that I want to see Marfa not just to say I’ve been there but because it is so out of place in some ways, and simply by its location it almost certainly will not become over-commercialized.

Of course, I reserve the right to be proven tragically wrong, though I hope not.

Marfa and the Mystique of Far West Texas 2nd Edition, by John Slaughter

Karen and I drove past many fields whose gold colors were quite stunning, like those on the cover of this book I found about West Texas. We talked about what it would take for her as a painter to conjure up those colors onto her canvasses. I became more aware of and humbled by the original Creator’s work.

Marfa is still on the local bucket list.


I promised you a bit of Ruidoso.

I can’t do it justice since I liked it so much. So I’ll mention just a couple details and write more after the next visit.

Aside from a breakfast that was absolutely stupendous, I was able to settle a theory I had.

My theory was that totem poles were invented by a creative Indigenous Woman or Man as a way to solve the problem of an ugly and intractable tree trunk. (Yes, it turned into something spiritual, but first — so went my theory — it was a creative solution to a landscaping problem.) Maybe a tree was diseased or got struck by lightning, but for whatever reason, it was considered unsightly, and someone came up with a low-cost solution.

slow play rv park
Totem from stubborn tree trunk?

On the grounds of the Slow Play RV Park there are three tree trunks that have not been removed. On the contrary, they’ve been turned into fun brown bear statues/totems.

As a white man, I reserve the right to be corrected by an expert, but I will add that if my theory is right about the genesis of totems — I purposefully did not Google it yet — I will consider it all the more impressive.

Abandoned Ghost Towns | Homes and True Homes

A friend of mine grew up in Tasmania, Australia, and although I can’t recall the name of his town, it is wiped from the map. It’s one of the numerous mining ghost towns on that island and belongs to the silent fraternity of abandoned (“ghost”) towns across the world.

abandoned ghost town
Royal Hotel in Linda, Tasmania (Australia)

There’s something romantic, sad, mysterious, scary, yet peaceful to me about these towns. Once lived in, now abandoned, inhabited — some say — by ghosts. Yet we see them now because the people who built and lived in them built them to last.

“Abandoned ghost towns” have staying power, and they are the destination visits some take instead of, say, Cinqueterra.


We humans tend toward wistfulness.

We tend to remember things — even “good” things — with a sense of sadness and mental arthritis. Like our memories wince when stretched.

We gloss over the pain and remember the laughter; forget the loneliness and remember the times we laid on the hot white sand mere feet from the crashing Atlantic Ocean waves and listened to “Blinded By The Light” on our boom boxes. We may remember the break-ups in surround-sound, but the first kiss has a soft focus and patinaed surface.

Whether outdoors or inside, that which was and is no longer remains imprinted on our memory. We can see the phantom writing as if on the second page of a legal pad after we’ve taken notes on the first. An exact copy that tells the original story but in a whisper. After sitting overnight on the shelf, though, it may be mute in the morning.

The peaceful “eeriness” of abandoned ghost towns

abandoned ghost towns
Bodie, CA: one of the best-preserved abandoned “ghost” towns in the United States. CREDIT: Betsy Mallory Photography

When I look at a place like Bodie, I feel both emptiness and peace.

There’s a sadness in knowing that people lived there and all moved — not even their descendants chose to stay — but a certain peace knowing that they lived their lives and, while there, some were happy and some not. They built a place that stands today. Like the Romans and Greeks before them, and the Egyptians before them, they put up walls and roofs so that their roots stood a chance.

They married.

Raised families.

Then died or moved away.

Moved away

abandoned ghost towns
“Moving on Saturday” CREDIT: Luther Roseman Dease, II

But do you remmeber those days you moved with the help of friends, or when you helped friends move?

A couple days out, I always think ahead to the end of a move and imagine the hot pizza I will get from my new neighborhood pizza joint while navigating through the boxes cluttering my new living room. Maybe my moving buddies get beers while I drink water or a Coke. THere’s always excitement, and when you finally get moved, you don’t remember all the hassle and pain.

Or at least very little of it.

But before you sleep that first night — or at the latest, before the sun goes down the next day — you return to the first place to clean.

It takes you longer than expected, because you stop. A lot. To think. To remember. All the fun. ANd rarely the tears.

I remember when we sold our beach house, the one I spent summers in and had more wonderful memories than anyone deserves to have. I was blessed beyond measure. I spent five lifetimes in that house in the span of thirty years. The day came when I was supposed to collect some personal effects and then leave the next morning, leaving all the other furniture behind, just as many things were left for us.

The house was not “broom clean.” It was memory-full.

I couldn’t see myself spending the night. Instead I left late in the evening, and I drove all night to get to my new home. The home we bought with teh money we got from selling our share of the beach house.

Yet move we must


That I am not. In fact, if anything, I throw out too much. I remember being written up at a job for throwing out some back-up paperwork too quickly, when I had thought it was clutter.

My father, on the other hand, bought things like he was going to live another three hundred years. When both my parents had died, we went through the New YOrk City apartment my brother and I grew up in. In multiple places we found storehouses: a case of pickles Dad bought at Odd Lot; a quiver of 1970s era advertising posters from his days on Madison Avenue; jars and jars of nails and tacks and screws and small nuts and bolts. There was nothing in that apartment that would go unfastened.

“This place is not our home,” says John Koenig.

“Sometimes you move through the city and feel in your bones how strange and new this all is. The spectacle of modern civilization, just barely older than you are. …there’s a part of you that thinks: you are not at home here. That still remembers Eden, and longs to return.”

Is this true?

I don’t know.

I do know that moves make me sad because I feel I never made the most of the place I was living in, yet I know I never would have succeeded in a million years. It’s as though I expected my life to be perfect in that place, and it wasn’t. I entered with the highest of hopes, and even though I left with good memories, there was something missing.

My true home

When I visit somewhere I used to live, there is that sense of kenopsia. There’s an “eeriness of a place left behind.”

Like a ghost town. Like the gold-seekers who settled and built with the highest of hopes. And they either struck it rich and moved, or they struck out and moved. But they moved. Were these former residents to return to Bodie, they would remember only heartache or the joy of having a gold-paved highway out of town.

Either way, Bodie was never a place one would stay. Not forever.

Neither was Point O’ Woods, my summer home.

Neither was 50 East 96th Street in New York City.

It’s because none of those is my true home.

In those abandoned towns and houses and apartments, there are no ghosts. Only phantoms. Imprints of the page before. Sepia photographs of the future, of the place I’m eventually moving to.


Restaurants In Utopia, Texas | REVIEW: Lost Maples Cafe

How could one not want to go to Utopia?!

I mean, that’s a no-brainer. But what to do once you get there and are there restaurants in Utopia; that’s actually harder than you think. Because Utopia, population 227, is actually a census-designated place (CDP) by the Federal Register, meaning that there’s only enough of a concentration of people — as of mid-March, even if the whole town showed up for a parade, this wouldn’t have broken COVID-19 regulations — to be a data point for the Census. A CDP doesn’t have legal boundaries, and for a town the size of a decent wedding ceremony, why would there need to be any?

So, what is there to do in Utopia, Texas? Why, go to The Lost Maples Cafe of course!

For more info, don’t use their

Their website will lead you only to an error message, so you can see their menu here, and I’ve also taken some photos of the interior and surroundings.

A friendly review

I’ve decided to start using my own rating system, standard stuff like 1-10, 10 being best (no half-points, please; 10 is enough of a scale). And also a rating of my own, STI, for Small Town Index, meaning how typical of a small town is this.

  • NAME | Lost Maples Cafe
  • ADDRESS | 384 Main St, Utopia, TX 78884
  • PHONE | (830) 966-2221
  • DECOR |  7/10
  • SERVICE | 9/10
  • FOOD |  6/10
  • NOISE QUALITY | 9/10
  • STI | 8/10

The FOOD gets the harshest review, so I’ll start there, because it all gets better.

lost maples cafe

I had the fried fish plate, though I’ve been trying to cut down on fried food (am closer to 60 than I am 50). They had tilapia; previous night was catfish, which I prefer. The batter on the fish was good, and the fish was perhaps slightly undercooked. I mean, only slightly. The onion rings were to die for. Amazing batter, and you could bite into one without pulling out the whole ring. One of the best parts of the meal was having a roll of paper towels at the table. I get messy with greasy fingers. Big points on their sweet tea. Tasty and also served in a huge plastic cup.


Service was great. The two servers appeared to be high school seniors, and each worked very hard and quickly to take our orders and did so with a smile. As I mentioned in a previous post, I got the hard sell on cherry pie and it almost worked. I kind of wish it had, yet my BMI is glad it didn’t.

In terms of the interior (Noise, Decor, and how good it is for Families and Groups), all of those get high marks. This is definitely the kind of place to come for early breakfast before getting on the road, weekend brunch — though I don’t think that word is used much around Utopia — lunch with co-workers, and an early dinner anytime. (I suspect that not many people go in for European dinner hours anyway; they close typically at 9pm.)

lost maples cafe

The STI was 8/10. Lost Maples Cafe has a real small town feel, yet it would gain another point or two if it wasn’t such a rose among thorns. Nothing else was open. Granted, it was close to 6pm on a Saturday evening, and offices were understandably closed — there was a Justice of the Peace building across the street — and shops were also closed. But other restaurants appeared either vacated or closed. Perhaps midday on a Monday would be different, but on this particularly Saturday night, Lost Maples Cafe was a candle in the dark. I would give it higher marks if the town around it had the same charm as it did.

But whether your destination is Lost Maples or Mac & Ernie’s Roadside Eatery in nearby Tarpley, either one is a good place at the end of a relaxing drive.

lost maples cafe