Cactus Blooms and Tourism are Alive and Well in the Terlingua, Texas Ghost Town

Rene Cizio

There are "ghost towns," and then there is Terlingua ghost town. One is for tourists and the other is an abandoned old mining town filled with ghosts. You'll notice the difference immediately.

See, I'm a city girl, so you'll understand when I tell you that I expected there to be cafes and gift shops in Terlingua. They call it a "ghost town," but I've been to ghost towns before. They're usually tourist traps. Tarted up little towns that attract people like me curious about ghost towns.

Because Terlingua is outside of Big Bend National Park, I assumed it would have the usual amenities. I was wrong. What it has is enough to sustain life, but not much more. You're certainly not getting any lettuce wraps.

Drive to Terlingua

I've been staying in Alpine, Texas, about 85 miles outside of Terlingua and 100 from Big Bend. Like many towns out this way, Alpine is made up of just a few hundred structures in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert. It sits in a little valley between the Davis Mountains to the north and the Chisos Mountains to the south.

There is one road between and on it there is little more than mountains and Chihuahua Desert brush. Because of the curves and elevations, gains and drops, the journey takes about an hour and a half, and I tried not to think about the absence of cell phone coverage.

Out here in West Texas, my favorite architecture has become the cell tower. There is no other joy like spotting one in the distance, standing tall and proud, promising me a connection to the world and potential lifesaving technology. Still, on this trip, I wouldn't be seeing one for another hour.

Roadtrip Fantasy

Having a road trip fantasy is probably pretty common and I imagine, if you're anything like me, you've envisioned yourself driving down a road with mountains alongside, no other cars or people, just you, the open road and some good music celebrating your freedom. Well, TX 118 is your road.

Almost nobody else is driving in either direction, and you have the entire world completely to yourself. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to the world out there. Not even the daisies grow like they seem to do everywhere else in this state. There's no cell service, gas stations, stores or rest areas. You're on it until it ends.

After about 50 miles, when you're deeper in the Chisos Mountains, the landscape starts to change and the mountains come closer. On the road, you will see every shade of brown you can imagine. If you think brown is boring your imagination can use a road like this.

The Ghost Town

Since it was my first time driving into Terlingua and I didn't know what I would find there, I was getting nervous about gas (I'm always nervous about gas on these long roads). I was not immediately relieved when I pulled into Terlingua.

I expected something more like a city. I mean, in my limited experience, Ghost Town didn't literally mean ghost town.

Here, the majority of buildings were made from corrugated steel, like shipping containers. They have tent-like awnings that hang over them to keep the sun off. A few homes and buildings are made from adobe, but most of it looked pretty derelict. The buildings were all only one level, dust covered everything, and I didn't see anyone walking around.

Exploring Terlingua

After driving around a bit, I found the only gas station/cafe. I was so relieved. The gas was good, but the cafe consisted of a single coffee pot of stale, burnt coffee. I still drank it. It probably would have fueled the car just as well.

The town of Terlingua is small with only a few lightly paved roads, a cemetery, a trading post and a couple of roadside diners. If you arrive expecting more than that, you will be unhappy, so plan accordingly.

The majority of the community subsists on the tourist economy now. People like me come in to visit Big Bend for rafting and canoeing on the Rio Grande, mountain biking, camping, hiking, and stargazing. The entire area around Big Bend is International Dark Sky Park. It’s one of just 10 in the world and said to have the darkest skies in the lower 48 states.

History & Cemetery

Miners populated the town in the mid-1880s, but like all mining towns, once the mineral was exhausted, the economy died and people left. I found the remains of those who stayed in the town cemetery. You know I can't resist a good cemetery.  

The graves were different than I’d ever seen before. Mounds of rocks piled high with wooden crosses on the top of them. Some of the rocks were formed into body-like or oven-looking shapes. It was impossible to read the names. Some of the graves were fairly new too. It’s still an active cemetery.

I assume they don’t have to bury the bodies very deep because the heat and the dry air will shrivel the body up to nothing absolutely no time. I mean, I’ve been drinking water LITERALLY nonstop and I’m as dry as a fossil.

Terlingua Buildings

There are several ruins, of the remaining adobe and brick structures, but the most preserved is the jail. There are still bars on the door and a lone window. It's not unlike many of the current structures, truth be told.

There are a few small art shops, a BBQ trailer, and one fabulous cafe, where I stopped for an iced coffee and grilled cheese. The coffee was excellent and my sandwich was served with half a whole avocado. Odd, but good.

The town is considered a food desert, as nothing will grow and there are no grocery stores. One of the locals told me that a refrigerated produce truck parks about 50 miles outside of town once a week and that's where they go to get their fruit and vegetables. It's either that or travel to Mexico - hence my delicious avocado.

So, food, and everything in the town, is expensive. It's all hard to come by.

Speaking of a ghost town - I'm told that in June, July and August many of the people living here leave. The few tour companies shut down and the place empties out. Why? 115 degrees without water, constant sun and no trees or shade of any kind, will turn you into an actual ghost.

Tip: right now the cactus' are blooming and locals say they have seen so many flowers in over 15 years! It's worth a trip.

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