The Communities of Big Bend

ghost town with abandoned building

Brewster County is the largest county by area in Texas—it’s bigger than Connecticut, and three times larger than all of Delaware! Community plays a vital role in Brewster because even though the area is large, the population is still less than 10,000 people. Alpine is the only city in Brewster, making it a crucial hub yet not dimming how brightly the smaller towns and their unique histories shine. Terlingua is the nearest town to us at Far Flung Outdoor Center. Here at Far Flung, we’re crazy about our community and strive to serve it in every way possible. When I’m not working at Far Flung, I’m a first responder to our edge of Big Bend National Park. Over the years, I’ve developed a strong knowledge on wilderness medicine (and can teach you too!) as a trained paramedic for Terlingua Fire and EMS. We’ll start this article off with Terlingua, the community closest to our home and hearts.

Terlingua

You’ll see more than tumbleweeds in Terlingua ghost town. Thanks to the discovery of the mineral Terlinguaite around 1900 when mining became established in the area, the town was once a bustling mining community. Today, it hosts around a dozen people—much different than in the past! Before its resources were discovered, the area was home to three native communities—Apache, Shawnee and Comanche—that came together to share the Rio Grande’s water source. Since these communities spoke three different languages, that gave rise to Terlingua’s name, which comes from the Spanish phrase tres lenguas, or “three languages”.

After the discovery of mercury, the town quickly became the nation’s leading producer of quicksilver. After WWII, the mine closed and much of the population left, leaving behind many of the original buildings that remain empty today. But the end of the mine didn’t mean the end of the town! 1967 saw the inaugural Terlingua Chili Cook-Off, and more than fifty years later, it is now considered the “Superbowl of Chili Cook-Offs”. The event, hosting more than 10,000 chili-heads each year on the first weekend of November, is the biggest draw for the town. Terlingua is also featured in the renowned film Paris, Texas directed by Wim Wenders and winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This town is a popular and peculiar stop for tourists as well as an important landmark for Big Bend locals.

Study Butte

With a similar history to Terlingua, the town of Study Butte (pronounced “STOO-dee”) was named after Will Study, the original manager of the Study Butte Mercury Mine. Sitting only five miles from Terlingua, Study Butte’s mining boom during the 1900s is the reason for its growth. The mine itself was opened and closed various times throughout the 20th century, finding success during WWII. After that, the population shrunk to around 10 people at its smallest after the mine closed in the late 1940s. The mine was reopened in 1970 and, although it only stayed open for two years, the town of Study Butte had already become renowned as a tourist and retirement destination thanks to its location on the western edge of the Big Bend National Park. Today, the town is estimated to have a population of around 300 people, with a few general stores, outdoor activity outfitters, gift shops, galleries and restaurants, amongst others.

Lajitas

If you couldn’t already tell, Lajitas is another Texan town with a Spanish name. Literally translating to “small flat rock”, Lajitas gets its name from the layered Boquillas limestone within the area, which is what the town built its reputation on. The best hard bottom crossing of the Rio Grande between El Paso and Del Rio lies at Lajitas. This safe and key transportation point became known as early as 1588 by European settlers. With the mining boom in the region in the 1900s, the town soon grew as a substation port of entry for the surrounding communities. When the mining eventually stopped, Lajitas lost much of its population and growth. Today, it is home to the Lajitas Golf Resort, spanning around 27,000 acres and hosting luxury activities and lodging.

Alpine

Alpine, home to a bustling community of around 5,000 residents, is regarded as the hub of Brewster County. The city hosts the Brewster County Courthouse and Jail, both of which are sites on the National Register of Historic Places and definitely worth a detour to check out. Both landmarks were completed around 1888 and are open to visitors today. The city is also home to the Museum of the Big Bend, a comprehensive effort of folks at Sul Ross State University. The university was opened in 1920 as a teacher’s college but is now a member of the Texas State University System, with around 2,000 students of all disciplines currently enrolled. Interestingly enough, Sul Ross is also where the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association was founded in 1949. If you’re coming to Far Flung via train, you’ll likely stop at Alpine, which is definitely worth a tour if you have the time.

Simply walking through each of the unique communities of Brewster County and the Big Bend National Park offers a sneak peek into the history and people of this far-western Texan community. We love it so much that we decided to call it home and we have no doubt that you’ll find it an intriguing part of Texas. If you have any questions or you’re interested in getting to know more about the communities surrounding Far Flung, feel free to drop me a line. Just send me an email at greg@bigbendfarflung.com.

– Greg