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Travel Lightly: Terlingua & Big Bend National Park

This is part of a new series on the blog called Travel Lightly. It chronicles places I’ve been and highlights some of the wonders of the US (and maybe in the future, the world). As an eco-conscious blog, I understand that traveling has an impact on our footprint. I also think it’s important to observe the beauty of nature and to be able to see it. Like many, I find myself balancing these two realities: that I hate the waste caused by travel & I love to travel. Most of these travels have been made on road trips while camping in the back of a Honda Element, which you can learn more about here.

What better time to start writing about travel than right now? I thought it was a great time to share some adventures I’ve been on with you, my lovely readers. Even prior to quarantine, I spend most of my time in my home. When I’m not at my house (or, previously, at my physical desk job), my husband and I like to travel to National Parks or go camping locally. As I fell asleep last night, I thought about a town in Texas called Terlingua, which lies in the center of Big Bend National Park.

When I visited this wonderful place, my husband and I were on our honeymoon. We just lost our precious cat, Bourbon, while on the road. Heartbroken, we almost canceled the rest of the trip prior to going to Big Bend National Park. I am so thankful we powered through, however. This quickly became one of the coolest parts of our trip!

Journey to Big Bend

While heading down the road from our previous location, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, I thought “is this place even worth it?” And before I start my story, yes, it absolutely is. While camping in the Carlsbad Caverns campsite (which is just a large parking lot, but that’s a story for a different day), we awoke to strong winds. There was a huge storm on the horizon and, it still being fairly early in the morning, decided to pack up camp and get out of dodge ASAP. Our journey took us down the longest, sketchiest road I have ever been on (and I have driven across the country several times).

This road had asphalt in some places and dirt road in others. It took us through the belly of Texas’ oil fields. Endless miles upon miles of oil fields. Trailer towns of RVs, trailers, and almost FEMA-like temporary housing. Oil trucks drove sketchily and quickly, barely staying in their lanes. It’s a no-man’s land of America and truly a sight to behold. It felt endless. We spent several hours on this road, usually with no service, wondering if we’d ever make it out alive. As a woman, I would not have felt comfortable getting out of my car in the towns we passed through, and I have traveled alone a lot.

When we finally did reach somewhere with service, which was Pecos, Texas, we got the call from our house sitter that our beloved cat was sick. After a long disgusting day of driving through the belly of the whale, we got a hotel so we could have consistent wi-fi and make arrangements to take him to the vet. After he passed later that night, we laid in bed and ate pizza, and cried. It was one of the hardest days of travel I’ve ever had.

Camping at Carlsbad Caverns NP

Marfa, TX

In the morning, still heartbroken, we discussed our travel plans. We couldn’t stay in Pecos forever. After all the traveling we did, we decided to go to Big Bend anyway. It would have been a waste to go through all that just to not reach our destination. I had heard about Marfa, TX over the years and we decided to make that our first destination before choosing a resting place at Big Bend. If you’ve never heard of Marfa, I’ll let this song by Susto take it away:

Marfa is known for its artistic community. It’s a weird little place, and I love and live for weird little places. I live in one currently, and it’s wonderful. A fair warning: to get the full Marfa experience, go during the “on” season, and at night. We went on a weekday on the offseason during the day, so much of the town was closed. We did get a drink at a little saloon with a big outdoor courtyard, and some burgers from one of the few restaurants. If you like to go off the beaten path but also love art, culture, and music, this is the place for you. Also: if you are into paranormal phenomena.

Stumbling Upon Terlingua

From Marfa, we decided we wanted to get closer to Big Bend National Park. Big Bend National Park is an extremely large national park, with very few towns surrounding it. With few options and even fewer bars of service, we set our sights on one of the towns in the bow of Big Bend: Terlingua. Little did we know that this choice would make the whole trip!

Passing through the very quaint town of Alpine on the way to Terlingua, the sun started to get low when we pulled into the El Dorado Hotel. The El Dorado Hotel is a very unique place. Filled with a population mainly of bikers and other road trippers, it’s very much a Route 66-era motor inn with a southwestern flair. Best of all, it has an adjoining grill and bar, the High Sierra Bar & Grill. Here, you can sip a Corona with a lime on the rooftop while listening to some of the best musicians from around Texas playing almost every single night. There really is no better way to end the day.

Terlingua Ghost Town’s Front Porch

They say Terlingua is a ghost town, but it’s the most active ghost town I’ve ever been to! With a year-round residency of 58 people, Terlingua is a mere village in the shadow of what used to be a bustling mining town. That said, it’s bustling almost year-round from tourists. Every night, folks gather on Terlingua’s front porch: the Starlight Theatre. The night we got to town, we decided to visit the front porch and it was a treat. It was someone’s birthday, and everyone in town was out celebrating. We listened to bustling conversations, music, children playing, dogs barking, laughing, dancing – everything. As we watched the sun go down over the town and the valley, I felt okay for the first time in days.

We returned the next night to the front porch to get some dinner from The Starlight. Built at the turn of the 20th century, the Starlight has everything you could want in a restaurant – a dining area, a bar, and a large stage. Or at least that’s what I want in a restaurant. Music is the heart and soul of this town. Musicians come in from all over the country to play almost every night in Terlingua, and this night was no different. The musician playing was from Austin and said he comes a few times a year to escape the city. (A separate Travel Lightly for Austin coming soon).

Big Bend National Park

The next day, we ventured into Big Bend National Park. Normally, we camp in national parks. We saw during our entire journey in the southwest, however, that campsites were completely filled up. Also, this was towards the end of our trip and we were heartbroken and ready to be in a bed for a few days. So anyway, we decided to drive into the park and do a driving tour, and try to hit up as many of the good spots as possible. If you go to Big Bend, set aside more than a day to see it. It’s massive and deserves more than a day trip!

Hot Spring Loop Trail

The nice part about this trail is that there really is a Hot Spring on it! And history, if you’re into history (which I am). In the early 1900s, Big Bend National Park was not yet a park and was still inhabited by several homesteaders. The Hot Spring at this time was owned by J.O. Langford, who built bathhouses for the springs. Eventually, he built a post office and a resort, which flourished until the land was sanctioned. The family sold the land to the state of Texas, to be used only for the park, for $10. You’ll find a lot of these homesteaders donated land to the park.

The hot springs are worth a visit. The hot spring itself sits in the ruins of a bathhouse and is nestled literally right in the Rio Grande river. After a small hike along a cliffside and the Rio Grande, you’ll likely hear others when approaching. This is one of the biggest attractions in the park and stays fairly busy. It’s best to try and go early so you can enjoy the scenery and the experience. (Without having to deal with someone’s extensive photoshoot in the middle of the cramped space).

Go while the river is a little more full, so you can enjoy the hot springs and immediately cool off in the Rio Grande. Take water shoes if you have them – it’s quite muddy in the Rio Grande. They say the water itself has medicinal healing qualities, and I’m not sure whether it’s true. I do know that taking this little hike and soaking in hot springs was quite relaxing. Also, it was a great way to start our day trip to Big Bend National Park.

Trail sign at Hot Springs Loop Trail

Chisos Basin & Chisos Mountain Lodge

From the hot springs, we set our sights on Chisos Basin. This is in the very belly of the park and is a cool spot (in temperature as well). Since it is in a basin, it’s a gorgeous surround-mountain view. There’s a visitor center here and campsites of all types. There’s also the Chisos Mountains Lodge, which comes highly recommended on my list for some of the more luxury accommodations in the area. Staying here would also be a great option for families.

Getting sick of our sad corn tortilla wraps, we stopped by the Chisos Mountains Lodge to grab a bite to eat. They have a dine-in restaurant with an array of options, but definitely go for the view. The restaurant has surround views of the beautiful mountains, where you can watch wildlife casually strolling through. There might be a bit of a wait, as it’s the only restaurant in the park. Don’t be a jerk and start loudly complain while standing in line the whole time. It’s not going to change the speed of the line but annoy the other line-standers.

Santa Elena Canyon

After Chisos Basin, we decided to continue exploring the park. As I mentioned, this park is massive. It was a hot day, and we were tired. Normally, we’d do a few big hikes, but we decided to drive through the park to get all the sights. This park is filled with vast, expansive views that make you feel tiny, which is great. It’s one of the more unique landscapes I’ve seen in my travels. We made our endpoint on our day trip to Santa Elena Canyon, a must-see if you go.

Another destination on the Rio Grande, Santa Elena Canyon is absolutely gorgeous. On one side is the US, which is the more flat side. Directly across from the US side, is a deep steep canyon that shadows everything around it. The water was low enough for us to wade in, and, naturally, we waded to the US/Mexico border. Please note that if you do go here and do go in the water, there are multiple signs warning about crossing the border. We waded and swam and enjoyed the warm October day.

Sunset at Big Bend National Park

If you do nothing else at Big Bend, watch the sunset. A truly spectacular sight to see, the sunset seems to last for hours. The area is so huge and the sunset colors are so uniquely gorgeous, that you will be in awe from the golden hour until twilight. Actually, the stars are spectacular, too!

Fortunately for me, my wonderful husband scouted out the perfect spot to watch the sunset while we were driving around the park. Worried that it might fill up, we headed back to Sotol Vista Overlook a little early to get a good spot. We sipped on -er- beverages while lounging in our chairs, watching wildlife, and identifying some of the plants. As the sun started to set, we saw some truly spectacular colors. The stars started to peak out soon after, which burned bright since there is almost no light pollution in the area. I highly recommend this outlook for watching the sunset.

Trip back to Terlingua

In the twilight and early parts of the night, we drove back up the Ross Maxwell Scenic to Panther Jct to make our way back to Terlingua. The night was still young. Hungry from doing nothing but looking at things all day, we decided to get a bite at the Starlight Theatre. There was no room in the restaurant, so we ate at the bar and chatted with fellow travelers and locals. The vibe in Terlingua is so laid back. In many other tourist spots, locals dislike the constant flurry of tourist activity. In Terlingua, however, it seems to be the spice of life. You’re accepted with open arms.

We listened to the musician from Austin play and we watched folks dance under the big Texas flag. People say a lot of things about Texas, but there are many places here that are a gem. This is one of them, and it will not disappoint. Exhausted after our meal, we walked back to the El Dorado Hotel, a short walk from the Starlight Theatre. On this walk, you can see the canyon and other parts of town. At nighttime, the stars are bright and beautiful. The walk also leads you past the old cemetery, so definitely check that out during the day (or at nighttime, if you dare).

Leaving Terlingua & Big Bend National Park

I have traveled to 45 states now and countless National Parks. Leaving Terlingua and Big Bend was one of the hardest places to leave. I’m not done exploring! On the last morning at Terlingua, we grabbed breakfast at Espresso Y Poco Mas. This place has a ton of character and is often filled with people as well. Lounge in the courtyard while waiting for your order. It has a beautiful shaded patio with a wonderful view of the town. It’s a great place to get coffee and a light bite to eat while enjoying the views. Nothing is rushed in Terlingua, so you won’t notice the crowd at all. The food was fairly good as well.

I arrived to Terlingua crying and left smiling

If you decide to go to this part of Texas, set aside a few days or more to explore. One can not truly get the whole experience in just a day. We tried, though. Terlingua and Big Bend National Parks are national treasures that everyone should see at some point in their lives. They will not disappoint. With vast views of desert scenery, interesting wildlife, and even more interesting plant life, the exploration never ends. You will feel right at home in Terlingua, and you might even find yourself dancing or talking to complete strangers – even as an introvert! I can’t wait to return again soon.

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1 Comment

  • Mary Ellen Green
    October 6, 2020 at 1:34 am

    My son and I just returned from a trip to Marfa, Terlingua and Big Ben. Lots of places were closed because of COVID but we still enjoyed the spectacular scenery and slow pace of life. It is definitely a great road trip that will leave a life long impression. Glad you enjoyed visiting our state.

    Reply

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