The historic west Texas towns of Terlingua and Lajitas share a common location as gateway towns for both Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Though only fifteen minutes apart, their personalities are as distinct as their heritage. On my recent visit, I found that both towns are very much a reflection of their historic cemeteries: Terlingua is wild and woolly while Lajitas is more sedate and proper.
Terlingua Ghost Town
Terlingua got its start as a mining town in the late 19th century when cinnabar – the mineral source for quicksilver or liquid mercury – was discovered in the area. Over the course of about 50 or so years, the three major mines in the area produced hundreds of thousands of flasks of this viscous metal until the last mine closed in 1947.
In its heyday, the town had about 2000 inhabitants with a church, a school, a hotel, a movie theater, the mine owner’s mansion, and of course, a jail. When the mercury dried up, so did the town. The population walked away leaving behind machinery that rusted and stone buildings that crumbled. The town became a true Ghost Town with the only remaining inhabitants buried three feet deep in the desert cemetery on the edge of town.
As the popularity of nearby Big Bend National Park increased in the 1960’s and 70’s some of the ghosts were again replaced with living inhabitants. But what really started to put Terlingua back on the map was its annual International Chili Cook Off which started in 1967. Today, this five day frolicking extravaganza at the end of October includes two different chili competitions that brings in over 10,000 party goers with all the proceeds going to benefit local charities.
Tourism has now also found Terlingua and where mining once provided the bread and butter, the outdoor activities in the nearby National and State parks now lubricate the economy. The town is once again populated, but don’t look for any order amid the rambling chaos. New buildings sit alongside the rubble of old ones – indeed, it can sometimes be hard to tell the difference. There were no street signs or house numbers that I could read. The town seems to have become a charming Neverland for the artistic, creative and bohemian types (or maybe just the hippies from the 70″s that have never grown up?)
Random rusty metal sculptures made from recycled motorcycle and car parts greet the visitor near the entrance to the town. A lived in, bright pink RV covered in retro graffiti sits in a parking area with a rusted out old car. A mock naval exhibit (cum art?) titled “Passing Wind” has a submarine rising out of the desert sand and a masted ship sailing amid the cactus.
And of course, the old jail is now a public bathroom. At least you won’t have to worry about posting bail if you’ve had a few too many at the eccentric Starlight Theater and Restaurant next door. Once the town’s movie theater, the building has been reimagined into a funky restaurant, bar and live music venue with a stuffed goat mascot guarding the stage (more about that later).
For a $1 donation you can pick up a Ghost Town Self Guided Walking Tour map at the Terlingua Trading Company (formerly the Chisos Mining Company Store) next door to the Starlight. The little yellow pamphlet takes you around what is left of the old mining town. The mine shaft is covered up and closed off and displays of rusty old metal machinery lean haphazardly against the building. Uphill, the Perry mansion, the mine owner’s private luxury retreat that had once also fallen into ruin, has been restored into a luxury western themed hotel. The old school across the road is still in ruins and in its heyday had five teachers and 80 students. Nearby, St Agnes Church still stands whole and apparently is still used for weddings, though the pigeon poop has to get cleaned off the pews before the bride arrives.
For potentially more authentic ghosts however, the star of the Ghost Town tour is the old Terlingua Cemetery on the edge of town. Like the town, the graves are laid out in a ramshackle hodgepodge of old and new. Many of the oldest graves are just mounds of dirt and random stones with weathered remnants of wood that had once been crosses laid across them. Some graves still have standing crosses or even small alcoves built out of the local flagstone. The oldest graves mark the resting place for mine workers or influenza victims from the 1918 epidemic. A few are obviously more modern with clear identifying information about the deceased, some quite young unfortunately.
Each year on Nov. 2, the town residents honor those interred in the cemetery, with an elaborate Day of the Dead celebration. For the rest of the year, the evidence of this celebration continues to remain on display. A variety of coins have stayed surprisingly untouched throughout the cemetery. Candles, flowers, flags and other paraphernalia also adorn the mounds or the alcoves.
The Day of the Dead tradition holds that you are supposed to leave favorite dishes on the gravesite of an adult. One newer grave was all filled in with empty beer bottles – no need to guess what that person liked.
Far from the very minimal town lights, the cemetery is also a good place to see and photograph the milky way on a clear dark night.
Where to Stay in Terlingua
Only 15 minutes from the western entrance to Big Bend National Park, Terlingua makes a convenient home base to explore the park. There are a number of accommodation options that range from the luxurious Perry Mansion Hotel to Airbnb tepees. I enjoyed my stay at La Posada Milagro, a boutique property built on top of original Ghost Town structures. The room choices include double beds or bunk bed options for groups or families. My Chisos suite had such lovely details as a fire place, down duvet, robe, and great smelling toiletries. The property’s outdoor seating areas were great for watching the sun set and the star studded night sky over the mountains. Just one hint, there are no street lights in town and the property could be hard to find in the dark. I recommend getting there and checking in while it is still light out.
Where to Eat in Terlingua
The options are pretty limited, but fortunately the Starlight Restaurant is not only quirky, it also has good food. Since I was in chili country, I had to try theirs, and it did not disappoint.
Fifteen minutes to the southwest of Terlingua on Route 170 sits the small town of Lajitas. Its history is almost as old as that of Terlingua, but for completely different reasons. Here, the smooth rock bottom of the Rio Grande provides the best river crossing between El Paso and Del Rio. It is believed that the Spanish used this river crossing during their explorations in the 1500’s. Later, when they still roamed free, the Apache and Comanche also passed this way. At the end of the 19th century, as mining and ranching prospered in the area, the crossing at Lajitas became a substation port of entry, with goods and people passing between the US and Mexico. Eventually a town grew up around the river crossing with a store, a church, a school and a post office.
By 1916 the Lajitas crossing had become so important to commerce that it brought General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and his troops to provide protection against Poncho Villa’s marauding revolutionaries. Pershing built a cavalry post at Lajitas to protect the crossing and the commerce it supported. For about a year or so, Pershing and another future famous general, George S. Patton, led campaigns from here into Mexico to capture Villa who manage to outwit the US troops at every turn.
Over the subsequent years, the economic fate of Lajitas ebbed and flowed much like the river next door. Since 2000, the land that had once held a real western town, now celebrates that historic past with a western themed luxury golf resort.
The Lajitas Golf Resort is a beautiful 27,000 acre oasis of green amid the rugged Chihuauan desert landscape. Where the town of Lajitas once supported the commerce resulting from the river crossing, the Lajitas Golf Resort now caters to a different form of commerce – the commerce that comes from providing a manicured environment that encourages pampered relaxation and complete solitude. With the cliffs of Big Bend National Park edging the resort on one side, and the Rio Grande river on another side, the resort is a peaceful and luxurious retreat from which to explore all that the Big Bend area has to offer.
My first impression on entering the property was that I had stepped into a restored western town that could have passed for a movie set. The Boardwalk area of the resort has a variety of building fronts that make it look like a street in an old west town. These buildings hold a diverse collection of accommodations as well as the restaurants and other amenities. While the superstructures all look brand spanking new, many of these buildings were actually built on the foundations of Pershing’s Cavalry barracks.
The list of amenities at the Lajitas Golf Resort are lengthy enough that it makes a tempting home base for exploring the local scenery, even if you are not a golfer. Besides the highly rated golf course, there is a pool, a zipline, an equestrian center, a movie theater, a full service spa, a workout facility, two restaurants, a bakery, a boutique shop, meeting and event spaces and an airfield if you don’t feel like driving in. The resort also has Red Rock Outfitters which will set you up with a variety of outdoor adventures and will also work with the outfitters in Terlingua to satisfy individual itineraries.
The Lijitas history has not been completely buried among all these modern resort amenities. Where possible and practical, the historic buildings have been restored and repurposed. Even though the original trading post built by H. W. McGuirk in 1899 is now the golf Pro Shop and Longhorn Museum, the old bullet holes from the town’s wild west past are still visible in the exterior facade. And Pershing’s connection also continues to be honored in the name of the 18 hole golf course which is called “Black Jack’s Crossing”.
The little town chapel which was also built in the 1890’s has also received a face lift and is now a frequent site for weddings.
The most historic site though is the Lajitas cemetery which lies across the road from the resort. No graves in a shambles here – the cemetery has undergone a restoration and the result is an orderly resting place with a cross standing guard over each tidy stone mound. The graves are neatly aligned, much like the soldiers that once must have paraded on the cavalry grounds or the rows of barracks that were once situated nearby. Most of the graves are still unmarked with time having erased the information, but some graves are clearly newer, evidence that this cemetery is still alive (of sorts).
Don’t let all this refined luxury fool you – there is an element of irreverent fun at Lajitas as well. If you want to meet the mayor of the town, you’ll find him behind bars. That’s because the mayor is literally, an old goat. Mayor Clay Henry III (and his newest she goat companion) reside in a luxury pen across the road from the resort. You could say that the political machine in Lajitas has been dominated by one family for the past 30 years. The current mayor is the third Clay Henry to hold office since the first goat was elected in the 1980’s. You can also still see the first Clay Henry. He’s been stuffed and holds court in front of the stage at the Starlight Restaurant and Theater in Terlingua.
Where to Stay in Lajitas
Offering 101 rooms, the resort has a style for every need and group size. The choices range from standard hotel type rooms in a variety of sizes at the Badlands Hotel to suites, condos, villas and cottages scenically situated throughout the property. The rooms also boasts a broad variety of themed decor, so you could stay at the resort on numerous occasions and have a different experience each time. If you are driving your own bed, the resort also has the 100 site Maverick Ranch RV park with all the RV camping amenities you might need.
Where to Eat in Lajitas
The Lajitas Golf Resort offers food options for all needs. There is the Candelilla Cafe which is a full service restaurant; the Thirsty Goat Saloon, Licha’s Bakery and the General Store Deli. I had a late lunch at the Candelilla Cafe and thoroughly enjoyed my meal and the service. (For families, note that the Thirsty Goat Saloon has a large painting of a female nude hanging behind the bar).
Both Terlingua Ghost Town and Lajitas make a great home base for exploring Big Bend National Park and the adjacent Big Bend Ranch State Park. Each locale offers a unique environment that has been shaped by its history. There is no reason why you can’t experience them both, just like I did.
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Thanks for visiting.
Please note that my visit to the Big Bend area was hosted by Visit Big Bend but all content is my own.