The first time I escaped to the West Texas desert I was hooked. My friend Carroll introduced me to the magical corner of the country on a multi-day road trip I dubbed 2 Chicks, 5 Days, 1001 miles. Since then I’ve been back a couple of times, including this weekend getaway with Carol and another dear friend Kerry. We drove the 7 hour road trip from San Antonio and got to Basecamp Terlingua’s Casa Azul shortly before sunset. I had found the eclectically cool place on a previous trip. The renovated 100-year-old ruin is my favorite place to stay in Terlingua because it’s in the heart of the ghost town. The two bedrooms are in their own casitas with a shared kitchen and the bathroom in its own small casita, with an outdoor shower if you’re so inclined. There’s an indoor shower inside of the bathroom too.
As day was turning into night, we walked down to the Starlight Theater, which was originally a motion picture house in 1939. The roof was lost during a summer storm, which is how it got its name. The roof was put back on in 1991 when the restaurant opened. The old-timey restaurant and saloon is a must when in Terlingua. It was already busy, but we managed to find a table where we could order drinks and appetizers while enjoying the live music. The round of margaritas with chips, guacamole and salsa really hit the spot. When our table was ready, we moved over for dinner. I ordered the veggie street tacos but was already quite full from the chips!
After dinner we sat around our fire pit as we laughed, chatted and sang as the vast array of stars appeared and twinkled in the night sky over the desert.
The next morning, Kerry and I bundled up in our puffy jackets and caught an amazing sunrise. Both of us are earlier risers. In my book, sunrises and sunsets in the desert are not to be missed. This one was one of the most colorful ones I had ever seen over a desert landscape. There’s a magical draw of the desert once you’ve visited West Texas. This sunrise solidified that draw for me. Once the sun was up, we retreated to the warmth of the kitchen. Carroll woke up shortly after sunrise and the three of us gabbed over coffee.
Knowing that La Posada Milagro gets packed for breakfast, we walked down about 8 a.m. You go inside a tiny building to order and where they’re cooking up breakfast and fixing lattes, then you can dine at one of the tables out on the patio. I had also stumbled upon this breakfast joint on a previous trip and think it’s one of the best breakfast places in Texas. I ordered a Mexicano burrito with a side of refried beans and an almond milk latte. That’s a perfect breakfast in Terlingua in my book! Plus, you get breakfast with a view from the patio.
Afterwards we walked up to check out the La Posada Milagro Guesthouse. I put the boutique hotel on my list for a future Terlingua stay.
My previous trips to Terlingua had been heavy on hiking, which I love. This trip was different, and I thoroughly enjoyed a leisurely morning exploring Terlingua. We wandered into Earth and Fire, a delightful shop filled with unique finds created by local artisans and from Mexico and throughout Central America. Then we headed over to Terlingua Trading Company next to Starlight Theater. The trading company, originally known as the Chisos Mining Company Store, started in 1908 and “sold everything from a spool of thread to a Studebaker wagon.” It’s still one of the largest adobe buildings in Texas.
As Carroll and Kerry shopped, I wandered outside to see the sites on the ghost town self-guided walking tour after I found a pamphlet. Quicksilver, or mercury, was found in the area in the mid-1880s. In the early 1900s, Terlingua was a thriving mining town, then abandoned in the 1940s. Adventurers, artists and those wanting to get off the grid started settling in Terlingua resulting in the eclectic cast of characters you’ll meet in this dusty desert town. I walked over to the Casa de la Cultura. Originally it was Hotel Chisos, but the two story, eight guestroom hotel burned down. Now the Casa de la Cultura is used as an event space. Very close to it is a grate covered mineshaft. It was hand dug. In the Terlingua area there are over eight miles of tunnels and some are over 800 feet deep.
I walked up the hill for a great view of the Perry Mansion. It was built in 1906, the “Beverly Hills of Terlingua” was named after the mine owner, Henry E. Perry. It’s been the source of legends for decades, including that it’s haunted, but that’s just rumors. Now it’s a hotel. The Holiday Hotel has also been restored and that was my next stop. The old motel style hotel was built in 1939 to handle the overflow of the Hotel Chisos. Over the years it’s been where teachers, geologists and artists enjoyed extended stays. Recently renovated, it now welcomes overnight guests. I walked over to what used to be the Perry School, which started as a tent school and grew to a 5-room building.
From there I headed up to the small St. Agnes Church. Services are still held in it monthly by visiting priests. It was rebuilt in 1999 using the same rock stacking method used a century prior.
We re-grouped and the three of us headed over to check out the Saturday Farmer’s Market, with a quick stop at the bathrooms by the Starlight Theater. The building was home of the Terlingua Jail, were detainees were usually put to sleep off a night of too much revelry.
Once we got to the farmers market, it was a piasano (roadrunner) in the community garden that sold the show for us though.
Realizing we needed to make our way into Big Bend National Park, we got in the car and started heading that way, with a short detour to the Terlingua Cemetery. There are over 400 graves in the cemetery. The oldest is from 1903. Not a single person died from mercury poisoning during the mining days, but in 1918 many succumbed to influenza.
We had a second detour before getting into the park. We stopped in Galeria Chisos, a unique gallery filled with everything from crystals to artwork.
Once in Big Bend, we noticed a tarantula crossing the road. We did a quick u-turn and watched it vanish into the desert landscape.
As we drove on to Sotol Vista and while we were eating lunch, we saw more. We realized we were in Big Bend during the tarantula mating season and they are way more active than normal. For lunch we had ordered things to-go from La Posada Milagro. I devoured a second Mexicano burrito I had ordered for lunch as the wind whipped and we enjoyed a great view of Santa Elena Canyon into Mexico.
We didn’t stop for long and drove on to Santa Elena Canyon. It’s one of my favorite spots in the national park. You do have to cross the creek to get to the trail. As we walked along the creek to find a shallow area to walk across, we couldn’t help but notice the turquoise blue to part of the water.
The hike into the canyon isn’t long, but it is pretty sketchy in spots. If you’re going to do this hike, I highly recommend hiking shoes or boots. There are multiple potential slide spots in you are just in sneakers. Once inside the canyon, we marveled at the towering canyon walls then made our back out. The sun started setting as we were driving out of the national park. It was a great drive back to Casa Azul.
Carroll’s stepdad, who had recently moved out of the area, had returned for a visit for a few days. On my first visit to Terlingua and Big Bend, Ed hiked with Carroll and me….at age 80! Since then he’s become quite the hiker and walker. He met us back at Casa Azul and we hiked up to the top of the hill for sunset and seeing some of the ghost town ruins and a Pegasus along the way.
We decided to dine at La Kiva, another famous or more like infamous spot in Terlingua. I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with him, but we all agreed the food had gone downhill. The gals split the pizza, while Ed dined on the burger. The food was just ok, but the company was outstanding.
The next morning, the sunrise wasn’t as stunning as the morning before, but it was still pretty. As Kerry and I watched the night turn to day, we had a four legged visiter in the form of a dog.
Carroll went to meet Ed for church while Kerry and I set out to explore River Road. We grabbed burritos to go at La Posada Milagro and off we went, after another stop at the cemetery. River Road is one of my favorite drives in the country and takes you right along the Rio Grande. We stopped at the Hoo Doos, part of Big Bend Ranch State Park, west of Terlingua. It was a very quiet Sunday morning on River Road, and we were the only ones at the Hoo Doos, which are strangely shaped rocks resembling animals or even goblins. That was our breakfast stop and we made our way back to Lajitas Golf Resort for a quick walk around before meeting back up to pick up Carroll.
We drove back into Big Bend National Park and headed into the Chisos Mountains. Big Bend is the only national park with an entire mountain range within its borders. We stopped for lunch at the Chisos Mountain Lodge Restaurant and had a great wedge salad for lunch along with a spectacular view. We took a nice walk along the paved path to the Window Overlook where Carroll and I reminisced about our hike to the Window a few months before.
After taking in the view, we hit the road to the Gage Hotel in Marathon for our Sunday night stay then onto San Antonio the next morning. As will all of my trips to Big Bend, I left wishing I had more time in the ruggedly beautiful and mystical West Texas desert and the obscure yet thoroughly intriguing town of Terlingua.
Author Jennifer Broome has been a West Texas desert lover since her first road trip there in 2017. She’s made multiple trips since and looks forward to her next visit to the dusty, off-the-grid, eclectic town of Terlingua to hike in the desert landscape of Big Bend.