Marfa 1883

Strictly speaking, the strange lights that appear almost every night in West Texas, between the towns of Marfa and Presidio, are not UFOs. However, over the many years that they’ve been seen, the lights have often been associated with UFOs in one way or another. Some witnesses claim the lights “chased” them and seem to be under intelligent control.

Marfa Lights

Drawing Copyright by Neil Reibe

When something strange appears in the sky, like a UFO, it rarely happens on a regular schedule. Usually, there is a lot of luck involved in seeing something out of the ordinary. The witness just happens to be at the right place at the right time. However, in West Texas, there is a strange phenomenon that has been happening almost every night since the 1800s. It’s called “The Marfa Lights.”

The lights are brightly-glowing balls of fire that float and dance along the horizon every night beginning at around sundown. These “orbs” of light will suddenly sputter to life, like someone lighting a campfire. They will sparkle and grow brighter, float around, move left and right, move up and down, and then suddenly, will grow dim and go out.


Marker “A” Shows Official Viewing Site. Arrow Points to Where the Lights Actually Occur.

This apparition is hard to explain in words, but most people who actually see the lights are amazed and thrilled by them. That is why the State of Texas has built a special “Marfa Lights Viewing Area.” The site has bathrooms and pay telescopes for viewing the lights. It is located on U.S. Highway 90, about nine miles east of Marfa, Texas. In order to see the lights, spectators look off to the southwest, toward the Chinati Mountains, and wait for them to appear.


Chinati Mountains (Copyright Noe Torres)

Almost every night of the year, the viewing area fills up with curious people hoping to catch a glimpse of these mysterious lights. Getting a good view of the lights often depends on the weather, cloud conditions, and so on. The lights seem more “active” on certain nights, and there seem to be more lights appearing on some nights than on others.

Some people have associated the mysterious lights with UFOs. A number of UFO sightings have been recorded in the Marfa area over the years. A reported mid-air collision between a small plane and a UFO occurred in 1974, about 30 miles from where the lights are seen. The incident is known as “Mexico’s Roswell.”

For many years, investigators have tried to explain the Marfa Lights. Some people say they are headlights from cars traveling on a nearby highway. Other people say they are balls of gas or electrical energy. Still others say they are some form of geothermal energy that is escaping from the Earth’s core.


Marfa Lights (Copyright Noe Torres)

The first serious attempt to discover their mystery came in the late 1800s. A railroad engineer named Walter T. Harris used surveyor’s methods to find the exact location of the strange lights. He was not successful and concluded that the lights might be coming from deep within Mexico.

Over the decades, people have chased them. Airplanes have followed them. Scientists have studied them. Television programs have been done about them. Books have been written about them. And still, nobody knows for sure what they are. They remain one of Texas’ most enduring and fascinating mysteries.

So, let’s go back in time to one of the very first sightings ever recorded of the Marfa Lights. The time was 1883, and Texas was very much a dusty, frontier territory. Few people lived around Marfa, Texas.

A cowboy named Robert Reed Ellison and several other men had been herding cattle through the area around Marfa, Texas. On their second night in the area, they camped at a place called Paisano Pass. Suddenly, Ellison saw flickering lights in the distance and thought they were campfires lit by Apache Indians. Scrambling onto their horses, Ellison and his men went out into the desert, looking for the source of the mysterious lights.

For hours, the men searched along the base of the Chinati Mountains and in the mesa between their camp and where the lights had been. They saw no evidence that Indians had been anywhere in the area. They found no tracks, no doused campfires, and no other clues. Ellison was extremely puzzled and began to think that the lights were something very unusual.

For the next two nights, Ellison and his men again saw the strange lights. They were never able to solve the mystery, though.

Later, Ellison talked to local residents about what he had seen. They told him that many local people saw the lights frequently. Sometimes, people would wander out into the desert trying to find the lights or evidence about the lights, such as ashes that indicated a campfire. But, nobody had ever found any trace of what might cause the lights.

It seems likely that the lights were seen even before 1883. Historical accounts show that strange lights in the sky were seen by people riding on wagon trains from Ojinaga, Mexico, to San Antonio, Texas, back in the 1840s.

In her article “Close Encounters of the Texas Kind” for Texas Monthly magazine, Patricia Colloff wrote: “According to Apache legend, the ghostly flashes of light that appear in the night sky of West Texas are the incarnation of the wandering spirit of Apache Chief Alaste, who has haunted the Chinati Mountains since his execution at the hands of Mexican Rurales in the 1860s. White settlers first noticed these lights, now known as the Marfa Mystery Lights, in 1883 when rancher Robert Ellison was driving his cattle a few miles east of Marfa. He and his companions spotted flickering lights along the horizon and feared that they were Apache camp fires, but when they searched the area the next day, they found no traces of encampments.

“Since that time, people have flocked to what is now Route 90, nine miles east of Marfa, to try to spot the lights, which have appeared in white, pink, yellow, green, and blue hues to the east of the Chinati Mountains. Sometimes the lights dance erratically, while other times they remain motionless, slowly brightening with intensity. Skeptics believe that the lights are simply car headlights skimming across the mountains, but that would not explain sightings in the last century, or the fact that the lights often move in circles or zig zag formations. Others have argued that the lights are nothing more than ball lightening, reflections, mirages, swamp gas, or static electricity, but scientists have not been able to prove that any of those phenomena could happen in West Texas terrain with such regularity. According to local folklore, the lights are believed to be many things: Alaste’s spirit, the reflections of Spanish gold, the hidden treasures of Pancho Villa, “brujas” (witches) who are learning to fly, and most recently, UFOs.”

Below is a report on the history of the Lights prepared by author Noe Torres and raw footage taken in 2013 of the Lights:

Regarding the legend about the Native American Chief named Alsate, who lived in the mid-1800s, some people believe his ghost haunts the area where the Marfa Lights appear.  Alsate grew up in Mexico, across the Rio Grande River from Lajitas, Texas. He was of the Mescalero Apaches and became a powerful and greatly feared war chief of the tribe. Alsate and his warriors went on frequent raids into Mexico, which caused the government to hunt him down.

The Mexican authorities eventually captured Alsate, executed him near Presidio, Texas, and then scattered his remaining followers, selling them into slavery throughout Mexico. After the chief’s death, stories were told about his ghost being seen in the mountainous areas around Marfa, Texas, where the tribe used to camp. According to this legend, the mysterious Marfa Lights are also part of Alsate’s ghostly apparitions.

In part because of this legend, the nearby Chinati Mountains are called the Ghost Mountains, and the strange lights are often called the Marfa “ghost lights.” This incredible story is just another part of the continuing mystery of the Marfa Lights.

This article is an excerpt from the book The Real Cowboys & Aliens: UFO Encounters of the Old West, by Noe Torres & John LeMay.