Saturday, June 5, 2010

Terlingua, TX: Experiencing a Texas Ghost Town

After Fort Davis, we headed south to Terlingua, a  "ghost town" near Big Bend National Park.  The drive to Terlingua through the Chihuahuan Desert region on 118 was unexpectedly gorgeous.  I'm so used to driving from point A to point B in Texas not bothering to look through the side windows because the view from the roads and highways connecting Austin to Houston or Austin to Dallas is so bland.  West Texas was surprisingly more beautiful than I ever imagined. 

Cathedral Mountain outside of Alpine, TX

When we were at the Star Party at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, the guide mentioned that they had a snowstorm in early May of this year.  We thought that was outrageous and didn't think twice about it until I suddenly had to hit the brakes in the middle of the desert because of the snow left over from the said storm!  This was mid-May! 

Snow in mid-May on 118 towards Terlingua!

We made reservations with Far Flung Outdoor Center for a 2-day river & overnight camping trip through Santa Elena Canyon for the following day. Terlingua was our very last hope for running water and a good night's rest in a comfy shelter. I originally planned on just staying at one of the handful of motels in town, but fortunately, I came upon the Ten Bits Ranch website through Tripadvisor. Believe me. You do not want to pass up a chance to stay at Ten Bits Ranch. It was a truly unique experience!  Jennifer, the owner, and I communicated by email prior to the trip.  Just to give you an idea, when I asked her for the address or concrete directions to Ten Bits prior to the trip, she said that neither GPS nor cell phones will work out there.  If I get lost, I would have to stop by a specific phone booth a couple miles before the signless and unpaved North County Road off of 118.  Thankfully, North County Road was easier to find than the lone phone booth (we saw a phone booth sign, but absolutely no phone booth in sight!).  Part of Ten Bits's beauty is in its seclusion. 

The car took a beating on the windy, rocky North County Road as we drove up to the property at 3,200 ft, but the view was worth it. 

View from North County Road on the Way Up to Ten Bits Ranch

Ten Bits Ranch just happens to be situated at what must be the most beautiful spot around Terlingua.  The mountain formations are all big and majestic in the Big Bend area, but the mountain scenery at Ten Bits is more varied.  I especially love the occasional skinny rock formations surrounding the property.

Ten Bits Ranch

Jennifer and Steve built the ranch with old Western movie sets in mind.  Each building contributes to the theme of an Old West town, "Chimney Rock."  There are 4 guest houses: the Bank, Gunsmith, Schoolhouse, and the General Store.  We were some lucky bandits in the Bank!

Chimney Rock

Ten Bits Ranch

Gunsmith; Schoolhouse and Sophie, the Great Dane

The Bank-Our Cabin in the Badlands!

We decided to drive into Terlingua in the early evening for dinner so that we would be able to return to our cabin before sunset.  Ten Bits is around 20 minutes outside of Terlingua.  There are no street lights in or outside of Terlingua, and North County Road is a rough ride in daylight and guarantees to be an even tougher drive by nightfall.

I read rave reviews about Starlight Theatre, and was intrigued by their menu posted online.  It's located right around the old ghost town area.  The one thing I wasn't able to do although it was in my itinerary was tour the ghost town.  You can get a $1 ghost town self-guided tour map right next door to Starlight and easily walk to all the abandoned buildings.  However, we were short on time and had to get back to Ten Bits before sunset and there were quite a few drunks around the abandoned buildings and even outside of Starlight. 
Starlight Theatre

Starlight is an absolutely charming joint with live music on scheduled days.  We were not dining on one of those days, but the waiter later informed us that a local musician was showing up anyways!  He wasn't bad at all, and I was able to request "Take Me Home, Country Road" for my mom! 

I really wanted to try the wild boar sausage with chipotle raspberry dipping sauce, but that was not on the summer menu.  We ordered chili con queso and the filet mignon.  The housemade chipotle vinaigrette dressing was divine!  I even saved some for my filet mignon!  The steak was a bit too charred, but it managed to remain moist and tender.  But that meal was memorable not for its food (what would you expect in a harsh and remote environment?) but rather for the atmosphere--the service, the music, the friendly diners, the feeling of days of yore. 
Salad with Chipotle Vinaigrette; Filet Mignon with Mushrooms in a Red and White Wine Sauce
After dinner we made a mad rush back to Ten Bits because the sun was setting super fast and we stayed at Starlight longer than planned!  We passed by an odd mushroom-like cloud that hovered ominously behind a mountain.  By the time the sun was about to set, we weren't even on North County Road!

Odd Mushroom Cloud

Race Against the Sun-Still Not on North County Road

By the way, Sophie, the Great Dane of Ten Bits Ranch, is one of the sweetest dogs I've ever encountered.  I miss you, Sophie! 
Sophie Eyeing my Bagel


  1. I'm a former resident of Alpine, and I thought you might want to know that the picture you have posted of "Elephant Mountain" is actually Cathedral Mountain. Googling some images of both mountains will confirm this. Otherwise everything in your review is spot on. Next time in Terlingua you might try La Kiva--a subterranean Flinstonesque steakhouse where the food is very good, and the atmosphere is extraordinary.

  2. Thanks for the heads up!

    -Food Dilettante