Terlingua, Texas: Experience the “Other Side” of Big Bend National Park

Just outside of Big Bend National Park, there’s something really odd going on in Terlingua, Texas. The once thriving mercury mining town has literally reincarnated itself; turning what used to be a whispering  ghost town into an outdoor museum that’s full of life but full of mystery. Simply put, Terlingua isn’t just a map dot. It’s a state of mind. Amidst the ruins of the past, there’s a bit of quirky lore that you just have to stop and see for yourself.

Ghost towns are typically what remains of old towns that have gone from bustling to bust. And while Terlingua is designated as a ghost town, it’s very much alive with quirkiness , Terlingua, by far, is unique, quirky and well…different.

Located near Big Bend National Park in west Texas, the historic ghost town of Terlingua is one of those places that you just can’t look away. In fact, it’s drawn visitors from all over the globe dubbing it Texas’ most visited ghost town. Terlingua is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Terlingua plays host to mine shafts, old building ruins, a roofless saloon and a cemetery that celebrates dawn of the living dead everyday. Though this small Texas town ranks low in population, Terlingua surely makes up for it with a personality as big as Texas.

 So, let’s go for a ride down to see why Terlingua ranks up there as one of our all time favorites!

Always On Liberty - Terlingua, Texas-2

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Terlingua, Texas: Quirky Living Ghost Town

Viva Terlingua! The Town that Rose from the Dead

In the 1960’s, a group of people looking for freedom and free love happened upon Terlingua to settle. Because of it’s located near Big Bend National Park, the once-was ghost town reincarnated itself drawing in visitors and new life.

Only a few years later, did they come up with a way to put this eclectic town back on the map. In 1967, a few townsmen put together their first annual Chili Cookoff which later deemed Terlingua as the “Chili Capitol of the World” by the Chili Appreciation Society.

Today, a little over 100 people inhabit the eleven square mile small town. Living amongst the ruins mixed in with a sprinkle of small art galleries, trading  company, hotel and eclectic outdoor exhibits, the humble residents of Terlingua stand tall and proud.

The ghost town residents find simple reasons to celebrate life from their annual chili cook-off, Day of the Dead and good old fashion dirt floor dancing while throwing a few back while living life in the slow lane.

What to See and Do in Terlingua, Texas

Today, Terlingua portrays itself more of an attitude and state of mind than anything else. When you visit this former quicksilver mining town, appreciate all that’s now happening here; even if it scares you a little. And guess what? You don’t need a dime to explore Terlingua! Admission costs you nothing! Visitors are free to roam the town ruins (with respect of course!) and help keep Terlingua alive by patronizing their restaurants, lodging, shops and galleries.

St. Agnes Church

Terlingua Texas - St Agnes Church
Photo courtesy of The Big Bend Holiday Hotel

Amongst the ruins of Terlingua, it’s no surprise that one of the buildings left standing would be the church. Considering Terlingua is located in a Catholic religious region, there was a need for a church for worship and gathering for the miners, settlers and passing through peddlers.

Formerly known as the Chisos Mission, St. Agnes Church was established not until 1914 after the town of Terlingua acquired a dependable water supply, a town doctor, hotel lodging for outsiders, mail service and even telephone service.

Terlingua Texas - St Agnes Church
Terlingua St. Agnes Church

The adobe constructed church building sits on a the side of a hill overlooking Terlingua. Today, St. Agnes Church continues to present its’ iconic symbolism to not only the faith but that of life in this desert town.

St. Agnes Church was the gathering place to worship, mourn the dead and celebrate new life of baptisms and weddings. Still remaining as the town’s sentinel of faith, the simple altar, hardwood benches, and pine floor is all that’s needed for the spiritual seeking comfort which still renders today.

Terlingua Cemetery

Terlingua Texas - Terlingua Cemetery Signs

LOCATION: FM170 & Terlingua Ghost Town Road · Terlingua, TX 79852

One of our favorite draws of Terlingua is the Terlingua Cemetery. I can’t quite describe it so you’ll just have to go to see for yourself. Also listed in the National Register of Historic Places, this indescribable cemetery resembles nothing of most cemeteries in the United States.

There are no perfect rows of headstones or grave markers. It’s a hodge podge collection of scattered graves wherever the families of the deceased can find a place to lay their loved ones to rest. In fact, there’s not one blade of grass to be seen hence, why there’s not manicured landscaping.

Terlingua Cemetery Graves
Terlingua Cemetery

Historically, the first graves dug in the Terlingua Cemetery were to lay the victims of the 1918 influenza virus outbreak. But also, miners who perished are also buried here and there’s even the grave of a Civil War Veteran.

Since there is no local granite stone grave marker company within hundreds of miles, makeshift crosses and memorials were constructed by family members. As you walk around the makeshift mounds of sandstone and rock graves, you’ll notice there is no uniformity or even rhyme or reason of who is buried where.

Now, as we’ve heard from a couple of the local Terlinguans, the reason for the cemetery’s quirky humanistic approach to death is those left behind believe since death is inevitable that we should embrace it with hilarity (I guess?).

Terlingua Texas - Cemetery Memoirs

And, it’s kind of an untraditional sense of how family members memorialize their deceased loved ones with anything from beer bottles, plastic toys, old faded silk flowers and little personal trinkets only the dead will know.

Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon

Terlingua - Starlight Theatre
The Starlight Theatre in Terlingua
LOCATION: 631 Ivey Road, Terlingua, TX 79852
PHONE: 432-371-3400

The Starlight Theater Restaurant and Saloon is one of the focal points in the dried up, desert town of Terlingua. The Starlight offers a fine selection of gourmet dishes, fun drinks and stories that only a dog will believe. They also have live entertainment from local talent as well as afar to fill in the gaps of boredom.

First constructed in the early 1900s, The Starlight served as an entertainment theatre venue for the local miners who lived in Terlingua and area villages. But, story has it that the roof blew off in a storm thus, for it being named The Starlight.

Then, established ninety-some years later in 1991, the roofless theater has been thriving while still keeping the original vibe of The Starlight. While it remains as a historical site, it still provides a great venue for concerts and dances, parties and yes, even theatrical shows.

Terlingua Starlight Theatre Music Entertainers

The Starlight is open Sunday through Friday from 5:00 pm to midnight. And Saturdays, they give you another hour of imbibing and storytelling from 5:00 pm to 1:00 am. If you are coming in a group of ten or more, you’ll need to make a reservation as it’s the popular weekend watering hole for them there local cowboys and their lasses. Oh, and if you wear a tie, they probably shoot ya! 

Terlingua Trading Company

Terlingua Trading Company Store Door

LOCATION: 100 Ivey Street Terlingua, TX 79852
PHONE: (432) 371-2234

You don’t want to miss taking in a little shopping at the The Terlingua Trading Company, formerly the Chisos Mining Company’s Old Trading Post. Located right next door to The Starlight Theatre, the general store once was the gathering place for nomadic cowboy, settlers and trappers.

The Trading Company has remained in the family since Rex Ivey opened it. Today, Rex’s son, Bill along with his family own and operate the thriving quirky store.

Terlingua - Terlingua Trading Company Store Interior

You can find everything from Cowboy hats, pottery, regional jewelry, soft stuffed animals and cool story books for the kids to Dawn of the Dead souvenirs! There’s something for everyone; even hot pepper lights and regional Christmas decorations! It literally has everything under the sun and stars!

Terlingua Starlight Theatre 3

And, they have quite the collection of books; ranging from history of the region, rockhounding, travel and nomadic campers.

Where to Dine in Terlingua, Texas

La Kiva: A Bar to Die For?

Terlingua Texas - La Kiva Restaurant and Bar

LOCATION: 23220 FM170, Terlingua, TX 79852
PHONE: (432) 371-2250

If you’re into trying something indescribably eccentric and weird, you’ll want to visit the La Kiva Bar in Terlingua. This cave bar and restaurant is situated on about 25 acres in the center of the town.  But dang, the food and drink were excellent!

Unfortunately though, this little hole-in-the-wall cowboy watering hole put Terlingua on the map of notoriety. Apparently, the former popular bar owner got in a drunken, heated altercation that left him murdered in front of his own bar only to be discovered by an employee the following morning.

Terlingua - La Kiva Bar

Today, this borderline brow-raising, eccentric hole-in-the-wall bar and grill serves it up in total informal fashion. The minute you walk into the La Kiva cave should tell you all you need to know. But hey, the food and spirits are good! Even GQ magazine refers to La Kiva as “the #1 most bizarre bar you must visit before you die”.

(Note: La Kiva is currently closed due to the COVID Pandemic. Make sure to check out their Facebook page to see when they open.)

Other Eats in Terlingua (Source: Travelocity)

Where to Stay in Terlingua

Big Bend Holiday Hotel

LOCATION: 100 Ivey Rd, Terlingua, TX 79852
PHONE: (432) 203-6929

If you’re looking for an interesting place for rest, romance, and relaxation, you’ll want to look into staying at the Big Bend Holiday Hotel.

But, Holiday Hotel for short, is not your average Super 8 or Marriott. It’s old rustic west Texas charm clashing with modern conveniences that creates a lodging experience you’ll never forget. It has gorgeous rooms in a historical West Texas setting.

There’s several different venues that may suit your lodging fancy; Ghost Town Lodging, Casitas, Rio Grand Rock House, and the more sophisticated Perry Mansion.

So, whether you are looking to enjoy a romantic weekend, relaxing after a week of hiking Big Bend National Park or a weekend of celebrating, it’s the place to lay your heads.

But, you may want to sleep with one eye open as it is in Terlingua where rust never sleeps or the ghosts of miner’s past. It’s owned an operated by the same Ivey family that owns and operates the Terlingua Trading Company next to the Starlight.

Other Lodging in Terlingua (Source: Travelocity)

Terlingua - Big Bend Casitas
Big Bend Casitas

RV Parks and Campgrounds in Terlingua, Texas (Source: Travelocity)

Terlingua - Paisana Village RV Park
Paisano Village RV Park & Inn

Specialty Lodging in Terlingua, Texas (Source: Travelocity)

Basecamp Terlingua Bubble
Basecamp Terlingua

Viva Terlingua! Annual Chili Championship

Terlingua - Viva Terlingua Chili Championship

LOCATION: Mariposa Mine Rd, Terlingua, TX 79852
COORDINATES:  29.3150° N, 103.6715° W
PHONE: (214) 802-9618

Terlingua’s Annual Chili Championship of the year happens on the first Saturday in November. CASI (Chili Appreciation Society International) was the original host for the 1967 Terlingua  Chili Championship and continues the tradition. 

Terlingua Texas - Chili Cookoff Championship

The CASI calls it the granddaddy of all chili cookoffs worldwide! The four day event begins on the Wednesday prior to the big weekend event that crowns the International Chili Champion on Saturday. The annual celebration consists of three incredible nights of great music and five different mouthwatering contests; chili, traditional salsa, non-traditional salsa, buffalo hot wings and beans! 

The entire spicy celebration takes place at the Rancho CASI de los Chisos located on the north side of Highway 170 right in Terlingua. So, bring your sassy appetite for some tongue-tingling spicy samplings, song and dance!

Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead

Terlingua Texas - Dia de Los Muertos

If you’re going to visit Terlingua, Texas for their annual chili championship, plan on visiting the Terlingua Cemetery at sunset on November 2nd of each year to celebrate Dia de los Muertos, also known as “Day of the Dead”.

Costumed and face-painted residents of Terlingua light up the cemetery with thousands of candles while honoring their lost loved ones with offerings and meditations. Trust me when I say, this is one of the most unique traditional events you’ll ever experience!

Terlingua Texas - Dia de Los Muertos Candle Lighting

For an interesting perspective of Terlingua’s Dia de los Muertos, check out Ayasha Basu Photography’s collection of photos of the celebration.

About Terlingua, Texas

The name, Terlingua, derives from tres, and lenguas, two Spanish words meaning “three tongues” called such for one of two reasons. Some of the locals claim one of the reasons is reference to Terlingua Creek’s three forks. But others claim it’s because the three languages spoken there; English, Spanish and that of the Native American tribe in the area.

Those of the latter language were from the Chizo’s (Chiso) Indians. Also called the Taquitatome Indians, the Chizo Indians came from parts of the Chihauhua Desert, Chahuila and Trans-Pecos; thus bringing their communicative language to Terlingua.

The ghost town, Terlingua, is situated near the Rio Grand River between the small towns of Lajitas and Study Butte, and Mexico.

It wasn’t until the mid 1800’s that life began in Terlingua, Texas. Cinnabar, the raw ore that produces mercury or quicksilver (found in old thermometers) was discovered. By World War I, mining operations peaked. It didn’t take long for the town to grow to about 2000 miners and their families in the mining district.

However, post World War II, mining operations stopped when the Chisos Mining Company filed for bankruptcy. The miners and settlers left for better opportunities elsewhere thus, earning its’ distinction as a ghost town

When to Visit Terlingua, Texas?

We found the best time to visit Terlingua is late October to March when the outdoor temperatures are very mild. The days are comfortably warm while the nights draw in that cool desert air. We highly recommend not visiting during the late Spring, Summer and early Fall months. It will be hot and lots of places, especially lodging, may lack air conditioning or not have efficient electricity to operate air conditioners.

But, it’s not just about planning your visit around the temps, it’s also about the two big events in Terlingua. The annual Viva Terlingua annual chili championship (below) and Dia de los Muertos (below) celebrations.

Just be aware that holidays and school vacations may prove to be a little more crowded than those outside those windows. But when I say ‘crowded’, it’s nothing like Disney World or even Big Bend National Park. Most who visit here, like ourselves, come during the week when people are few.

Wrapping Up Our Visit to Terlingua

Of our many travels throughout the United States, Terlingua, Texas scaled its’ way up to be one of the most peculiar and favorite historic places we’ve ever visited. But what drew us to explore this living ghost town? Curiosity? Or were we searching for something odd and eclectic?

So many adjectives describe this once bustling pre-Civil War bustling mining town that now collects visitors like us to continue telling their story.

Always On Liberty - Terlingua, TexasC

While you’re visiting Terlingua…

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Our Excellent Mexican Adventure at Boquillas, Mexico

Making the Most of Your National Park Experience

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2 Replies to “Terlingua, Texas: Experience the “Other Side” of Big Bend National Park”

    1. Hi Kate and John, we are so elated that you enjoyed reading about Terlingua! We have come to the notion that to truly enjoy a destination, we have to visit it at least twice because we always seem to miss something. We hope you get to revisit again soon. Early November is an exciting time! Thank you for taking the time to read it.

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