A Guide to Terlingua, Texas

Cemetery in Terlingua
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Terlingua, TX 79852, USA

Deep in Far West Texas, about 12 miles from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border, lies Terlingua—easily one of the most eccentric (and thoroughly Texan) places in all of America. Although it’s unabashedly a tourist town, Jackson Hole this ain’t. Here, you’ll find miles and miles of undeveloped natural beauty and just a faint sprinkling of humanity; depending on the season, Terlingua is home to only several hundred residents. It was founded as a quicksilver mining town in the 1880s, but the mines (and town) were abandoned by 1942—rendering it a bonafide ghost town. Today, a small but vibrant community persists, and the river guides, retirees, artists, lost souls, seekers, prickly introverts, park rangers, and die-hard desert fanatics that make up the local community are a huge part of what makes Terlingua such a unique, fascinating place to experience. 

What to Do

Terlingua sits just at the edge of Big Bend National Park—and its even more remote neighbor, Big Bend Ranch State Park—and it would be a shame to come here without experiencing the jaw-dropping natural grandeur that these parks have to offer. Geologic marvels abound, from steep, dramatic canyons to jagged mountains to the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert. If you’re up for a 12-mile hike, the South Rim boasts the best views in the national park (and all of Texas), but it’s a strenuous climb. If you’re not up for the challenge, the Lost Mine Trail is a kind of mini-South Rim, with its own breathtaking views of Casa Grande, Juniper Canyon, Pine Canyon, and the Sierra del Carmen in Mexico. Santa Elena Canyon and the Boquillas Hot Spring are both must-sees, as well (the latter, a natural hot spring pressed up against the Rio Grande, is an especially welcome activity after an all-day hike). And in the state park (which you’ll likely have mostly to yourself, depending on when you go), you’ll find pure, untamed wilderness as far as the eye can see. Closed Canyon is a gorgeous slot canyon hike, and the Cinco Tinajas Loop is a popular option; both are less than a couple of miles, round-trip.

Back in Terlingua, it’s time to explore the Ghost Town, of course. Although there’s not much to do here, it’s fun to walk around, drink up the stunning scenery, and attempt to get on desert time. Pick your way through the eerie cemetery, the final resting place for the miners who died here, digging for mercury. With its sun-bleached tin-can wreaths, grottoes, and rough-hewn wooden crosses in place of traditional graves, there’s nowhere quite like this burial spot (and yes, it’s most certainly haunted). The original Chisos Mining Company is now the Terlingua Trading Company, a packed-to-the-gills gift shop whose front porch is one of the prime gathering spots in town. And, the Starlight Theatre is the centerpiece of the community, with its mix of food, drinks, and live music—on most nights, you’re likely to hear a group of porch-side pickers and players. The town is also home to its fair share of river outfitters; if you’re looking to take a guided rafting or kayaking trip on the Rio Grande, this is the place to do it. Try Far Flung Outdoor Center or Angell Expeditions for guided trips and solo equipment rentals. 

Where to Eat and Drink

There aren’t a lot of dining and drinking options in Terlingua, but the smattering of restaurants and watering holes that are here are all charming in their own right.

The Bad Rabbit Cafe at the Terlingua Ranch Lodge serves the type of hearty, made-from-scratch breakfast that’ll have you salivating for days afterward (there’s even a “Big Bend-Sized Breakfasts” section on the menu). Got a hankering for iced coffee? Head to Espresso Y Poco Mas, a cheery walk-up counter at La Posada Milagro.

Considering the town’s proximity to Mexico, it’ll come as no surprise that there's some good Tex-Mex to be had. Taqueria El Milagro would fit right in across the border, with their homemade tortillas and supremely tasty tacos, and the High Sierra Bar and Grill at El Dorado Hotel features an array of Tex-Mex faves. And, the Chili Pepper Cafe has been a hometown favorite for years, serving up enormous quantities of burritos, fajitas, tacos, and more.   

Meanwhile, the Starlight’s menu centers on steak and wild game, with “Feature Presentations” like Tequila-Marinated Quail and Chicken-Fried Wild Boar. And, La Kiva is where locals go to toss back tequila shots and do karaoke.  

When to Go

If at all possible, stay far, far away from the West Texas desert in July and August. Even June is pushing it—unless you want to sweat buckets the whole time. And if you want to escape hordes of other tourists, don’t visit over spring break, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. Instead, the best times to go to Terlingua are early spring or fall, when the desert heat melts away, and the crowds die down.

Do note that Terlingua is famous for its annual chili cook-off, which draws upwards of 10,000 people every year. Depending on your affinity for chili, you may want to plan around this, as well.    

Where to Stay

There’s an abundance of eclectic, hip, and just plain weird places to lay your head for the night in Terlingua. You can opt to stay in a bubble (yes, really), tipi, or vintage Airstream trailer with Basecamp Terlingua. La Posada Milagro Guesthouse is a rustic-chic hotel in the heart of the Ghost Town. Take your pick from one of three Sioux-style tipis at Buzzard’s Roost. Or, for those willing to splurge a little (or a lot), there’s always Willow House, a series of 12 architecturally stunning casitas that have been featured in several high-end design magazines.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for more budget-friendly accommodations, camping under the stars in Far West Texas is a can’t-miss experience. Basecamp Terlingua has a relatively new campground, Arroyo, and there are always cool campsites to be found via Hipcamp, ranging from eco-ranches to remote primitive sites (Tierra del Sol is this writer’s preferred spot). 

How to Get There

Cue up your playlist of Texas country tunes; you’re in it for the long haul. From Austin, head west along I-10 to Fort Stockton. Then, continue on I-10 for 9 miles and turn south on US-67, toward Alpine. From Alpine, take a left onto TX 118, toward Terlingua/Study Butte Junction. The total journey takes roughly eight hours, depending on stops.

In the mood for a scenic detour? The River Road is often called one of the most beautiful drives in America. This swath of Highway 170 (which connects Presidio and Terlingua) snakes alongside the Rio Grande and cuts through some of the most ruggedly beautiful landscapes imaginable.     

Tips for First-Time Visitors

  • Buy your groceries beforehand—there’s no real grocery store in Terlingua, save for the Cottonwood General Store, just east of town along Highway 118. If you forget some essentials (bread, pasta, firewood, vino), you can probably find it at Cottonwood; otherwise, you’re better off bringing all your own food and drinks. 
  • If you’re visiting during the summertime, pool access is crucial. (We can’t stress enough how hot it gets in Far West Texas during the summers.) At the Terlingua Ranch Lodge, non-hotel guests can buy a pool day pass for under $10. Or, make a plan to stop at Balmorhea State Park on your way in; this is the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool, and it makes for an incredible (and refreshing) place to spend an afternoon. 
  • Dress for hot days and cool nights.
  • Cell service is generally abysmal out here, so you’re better off embracing the tech-free solitude than trying to text or upload to Instagram.
  • Take time to talk to the locals—Terlinguans always have entertaining, colorful stories to tell.
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A Guide to Terlingua, Texas