Four-wheeling, camping, hiking, and running for the border with “Thelma and Louise” on adventures in Terlingua and Big Bend National Park.
By Jana Gamble
By the time we arrived in Terlingua, Texas, we had been on the road for 75 days—and our adventure had only just begun.
Last summer, we decided to sell our home in Charlottesville, Virginia, and became a “Full-Time Traveling RV Family”. We bought a well-worn 40-foot R.V. named Thelma, hitched up our Jeep “Louise,” and hit the road for 6-12 months. Our crew includes Grant (dad) and Jana (mom), and our two teens, 16 and 14. Completing the entourage are our three dogs, Mackie and Paigie, 8-year old Labradoodles, and Phoebe, a 3-year old Great Dane.
Makes for a full RV!
What prompted us to make this monumental shift was the fact that our teens were not exactly thriving under in a virtual school setting and there were no signs of this situation changing in the short or even mid-term. Their stability was already uprooted, the isolation was starting to take a toll. And if you are a parent, you know that it is absolutely crushing to watch helplessly while your kids suffer.
We quickly recognized a perfect, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make lemonade out of the COVID-19 lemons that bombarding us. We set out to safely travel the U.S. and Mexico, explore some natural wonders, make memories, and hopefully learn a lot about ourselves and this part of the world in the process.
We have traveled extensively with our kids since they were babies and much of this travel was overseas. Grant is originally from Australia and I grew up in the Czech Republic, so visiting family has always been an international affair. We lived in Australia between 2008 and 2012 and the kids have traveled to many countries, including Thailand, Mexico, Hungary, England, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, France, Czech Republic, and more.
Exposing the kids to as many different cultures and communities through travel has been an integral part of our parenting philosophy. It has helped the kids grow into empathetic, kind, worldly teenagers who understand that we are all equally human travelers on this spaceship called Earth.
Touchdown in Terlingua, Texas
We had a good system and a few thousand miles under our belts by the time we arrived In Texas. Our primary destination was Big Bend National Park. While most people who visit Big Bend in an RV stop in Alpine, we decided on the more remote township of Terlingua, another hour and a half south of Alpine. Terlingua offers very convenient access to Big Bend and its remoteness and Wild West charm promised to provide a unique experience for our family.
Much to our delight, you won’t find a Walmart, Starbucks, Dairy Queen or a Marriott Hotel in town. Like its lack of paved roads, this helps to preserve its Wild West charm.
The official population of Terlingua was reported as 110 in 2019. Around the turn of the 20th century, it had become the home of the historic Chisos Mining Company, one of the leading producers of quicksilver (mercury). Terlingua was also the site of the original championship chili cook-off in 1967, which continues today and draws over 10,000 “chili heads” from all over the world on the first Saturday of November each year.
Terlingua Ghost Town
One of Terlingua’s biggest tourist attractions is its Ghost Town. When the Chisos Mining Company closed in 1942, the miners had no choice but to walk away, leaving their homes behind. Today, there are decaying buildings, mine shafts, and ruins. It’s not a true ghost town anymore as some of it has been revitalized with rustic Texas lodgings, the previously mentioned Terlingua Trading Company, and the Starlight Theater Restaurant, a fully operational saloon/bar. If you visit, you’ll probably spend some time in the old jail, too, because that’s where the restrooms are.
Our favorite place in Terlingua Ghost Town was the authentic boot hill cemetery, which makes the history of the area come alive, no pun intended. The site is only about an acre and contains marked graves dating back to 1903, the year mercury mining production in this region began. With its modest filigree crosses, simple stonework, and small grottoes with hand-made embellishments, it has become one of the most photographed cemeteries in Texas.
We spent quite a bit of time absorbing this place and its essence, imagining the people buried here and ending their journey in Terlingua many years ago. Many of them were miners who succumbed to the highly toxic mercury they were excavating, as well as numerous victims of the 1918-19 influenza epidemic. With makeshift graves and folk art dominating the memorials, the Terlingua cemetery offers a compelling glance into the town’s past.
Big Bend’s Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive
The National Park Service introduces Big Bend National Park very aptly: “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone. Here, at the end of the road, hundreds of bird species take refuge in a solitary mountain range surrounded by weather-beaten desert. Tenacious cacti bloom in the sublime southwestern sun, and diversity of species is the best in the country. This magical place is Big Bend.”
The kids aren’t into hiking these days, so we planned a visual feast for them by driving the 30-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This turned out to be absolutely spectacular. We had a wonderful greeting at the park entrance from the Ranger and spent most of the day stopping to take in the amazing sights Big Bend has to offer.
We came back via the Old Maverick Road which was unsealed and our son Jack drove, taking full advantage of this fun off-roading opportunity.
South Rim Loop Hike in Big Bend
Grant and I could not leave Big Bend without going on at least one hike. We decided on the 15-mile South Rim Loop, and while it’s described as strenuous, we weren’t deterred as it’s been rated as one of the top 5 winter hikes in the U.S.
We left before sunrise to get to the trailhead by 8:00 a.m. and ended up completing the hike at around 3:00 p.m. There was a lot of uphill work on the way out with an overall elevation gain of 3,166 feet. In many sections the trail was covered with very slippery ice, making it pretty treacherous at times.
These sometimes harrowing segments and the physical nature of the hike were beyond worth it. The views were magnificent throughout the entire hike and peaked at a 2,000-foot cliff face we found ourselves standing atop in the middle of the hike.
The view of the Chihuahuan Desert was simply jaw-dropping and no photo or video can truly capture the sheer magnitude and magnificence of the views in almost every direction. With the frequent changes in the landscape, it felt like five hikes packed into one. A truly special experience that left us filled with gratitude and in absolute awe of Mother Nature.
Good to Know
RV Paradise We stayed in two RV parks while we were there, RoadRunner Travelers RV Park, a new park which is opposite the Far Flung Outdoor Center, and BJ’s RV Park, a long-established icon on the way to Terlingua Ghost Town.
Food & Drink Near the Terlingua Ghost Town, you will no doubt come across the Terlingua Trading Company, which was the original Chisos Mine Company store and now serves as a large gift shop. Our favorite restaurant in the area was the Starlight Theater Restaurant, where they serve great food in an authentic saloon setting. We opted for take-out during COVID, but under normal circumstances the dine-in experience would be well worth it. We got our groceries and essentials from the Cottonwood Market, a great example of a local grocery store that carries everything from water to a gas stove.
Help with Hikes While we planned our own hike, Far Flung Outfitters is an excellent resource in Terlingua for hikes, tours, and adventures if you are a novice or need an outfitter to fit you out, drop you off, or pick you up. There are endless options for all levels and we highly recommend exploring some of the Big Bend wilderness on foot. Far Flung also has a great gift shop with some awesome T-Shirts and a little coffee shop with WiFi.
Local Flavor A place like Terlingua definitely gets you away from the touristy hustle-and-bustle and provides a compelling glimpse into a simpler life. The Terlingua locals are quirky, very friendly, and tell the best stories.
Lots to Learn There are endless opportunities for learning. Experiential learning is the most effective way to learn and Terlingua provides an almost endless supply of unique experiences. From history to geology to personal growth, the learnings our family gained there were innumerable.
Cell & Wifi Good & Bad If you don’t have Verizon in Terlingua, be aware that you probably won’t have internet access. Check your provider for coverage in this area, especially if you will need to be online for work or school. Although this presents a challenge, it was a welcome screen break for our teens.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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