Texas Living

The Ghost Town That Guards Big Bend Ranch State Park

By Peter Simek 1.31.18

From the road, the tiny ghost town of Terlingua doesn’t look like much, just a dusty expanse of sandy ruins and some gift shops rising in a soft slope. But the popular stop-off on the way to and from Big Bend National Park hides its charm in the little, quirky details — like the replica of a double-masted frigate in a lot otherwise occupied by a small collection of RVs.

Eccentric oddities like these make Terlingua unlike any other town in America. Stark and remote, its location in the entry to Big Bend country, isolated and surrounded by the harsh, extraterrestrial beauty of the West Texas desert, has helped to attract eccentrics, loners, outcasts, and wild men for more than 100 years. The town’s reputation for attracting salty characters also made it the subject of the National Geographic reality TV series Badlands, Texas.

Pay your respects to the ghosts of West Texas.

The first of the rugged characters came in the 1880s, when miners in search of cinnabar, a mineral from which mercury is derived, arrived in the area. The mining town grew to a population of around 2,000 before fading away. Today, Terlingua is something of a lively ghost town. With a population of just 58 inhabitants, it attracts upwards of 10,000 visitors each year just for two annual chili cookoffs.

Wander the historic remnants of the crumbling desert town, which boasts a fascinating cemetery, and browse a handful of shops that have appropriated some of the old buildings, where you can buy art, artifacts, and trinkets and examine Native-American history and industrial-era lore.

Witness country music history in the Starlight Theater.

The Starlight Theater is another legendary Terlingua attraction. Once a roofless music venue that hosted the likes of Willie Nelson and The Flatlanders, the Starlight has a roof now, but it still hosts live music and serves up steaks, salmon, burgers, and chicken-fried wild boar. 

Get out in the wilderness.

What draws people to this beloved, out-of-the-way corner of the world is the landscape. Big Bend National Park is just down the road. And while the national park is one of the country’s greatest natural treasures, don’t neglect to swing through the Big Bend Ranch State Park. With 311,000 acres of wilderness, waterfalls, desert big horn sheep, campsites, plenty of hiking, horseback trails, and unparalleled scenery, some say it is even more spectacular than its neighbor.

Don’t leave Terlingua until you’ve stood in the old amphitheater and watched the desert sun set to the foothills of Big Bend. It’s believed to be the best sunset in Texas — and, therefore, the world.

For more weekend getaways to take this month, read more here.

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