Journeys Sout​h

Get way Off the beaten path in Latin America, the US Southwest, and beyond

Big Bend Texas

Big Bend Texas is a scarcely traveled area in far West Texas. The area consists of Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and the surrounding area. The National Park even is a gateway to the only official unmanned border crossing into Mexico.

The area shares a massive section of the border with Mexico, but crime and human trafficking is scarce in the area because of the rough desert terrain. In many places you can cross back and forth from Mexico freely, but it is not recommended.

Small towns like Terlingua, Alpine, Marathon, and Marfa make for interesting stays while you are in the area. 

Big Bend in a day

​Big Bend is a massive national park that most outside of Texas have heard little about. The whole West Texas area that bends into Mexico, between El Paso and San Antonio, is often called “Big Bend country.” The actual national park lies in the southeast corner of the bend, spread out over a massive 801,163 acres. It’s easy to spend multiple days or a whole week in the park, but it can also be briefly explored in a day.

Getting to the park

The night before entering the park we opted to stay in Alpine, 81 miles north of the park entrance on Highway 118. There’s not much on the road to the park, so be sure to load up on fuel and supplies before leaving.
Terlingua ghost town cemetery.

On a suggestion from locals, we made an early-morning stop at the Terlingua ghost town, just a few miles before the entrance. There are several sights surrounding the once–mining town, but our main stop was the ghost town cemetery. Founded around 1900, it holds a large number of 100-year-old tombs.

After spending a short time at the cemetery, we booked it into the park. The “booking it” came to a halt shortly, though: we realized the speed limit within the massive park was 45 mph and strictly enforced by park rangers.

Santa Elena Canyon and Boquillas

Our first stop within the park was the Santa Elena Canyon. The 1,500-foot canyon walls tower over the Rio Grande, one side of the canyon in Mexico, the other in the U.S. If you have enough time, you can take a short hike further into the canyon.

Our next stop was the Boquillas border crossing. It’s the only unmanned border crossing with Mexico, and allows you to travel to the small Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen. (The crossing had been shut down for over 10 years, but recently opened up with the addition of a customs building.)

After passing through the building and talking with the lone ranger on duty, you walk down to the riverfront where boats from the Mexican side can pick you up. For five dollars you can catch a short ride to Mexico. Or if the water is low enough, you can simply walk across.

Once in Mexico, either walk the path to the village or pay to ride a burro or horse. We opted to ride horses, which was $8 per person round-trip. Once in town, we made a stop for lunch and beers at Jose Falcon’s Restaurant. You can pick up a couple entrees and beers for under twenty bucks, and you’ll likely be greeted by the owner’s daughter, thanking you for visiting the town.

After lunch, it didn’t take long to explore the rest of Boquillas. There are a few shops and a bar on a lone dusty street. Residents sell handmade trinkets in front of their homes.

After crossing the river back into the U.S., you’ll need your passport to enter. The ranger will walk you through the steps on the kiosk inside the building, during which a Border Patrol agent conducts a short interview by phone before sending you on your way.

La Linda ghost town

Our last stop of the day was just outside of the park at the La Linda ghost town and closed international bridge. La Linda was once a Mexican mining town on the Rio Grande. A one-lane bridge, built by the mining company and manned by Mexico, still stands but is barricaded by the U.S.

You’ll have to exit the park headed north on Highway 385 to reach the bridge. Just a mile or so after leaving the park you will head southeast on FM 2627. This was the most desolate drive of the day; no cars passed and there was no cell phone service. A few miles into the drive you can stop at the Stillwell Store to fill up on fuel and snacks.
Closed bridge and cathedral at La Linda.

After another 24 miles you’ll reach the bridge. To the left of the blocked bridge you will see the ghost town, and to the right you will notice a pristine white cathedral, glowing in the Chihuahua Desert sun. The town’s supposed to be vacant, but during our visit we heard loud noises coming from one of the dilapidated buildings.

If you stay long enough, you are likely to encounter Fred, the only permanent resident of the area. Fred lives just uphill from the bridge and told us he’s lived there for 12 years. If you catch him on a good day he may even give you some history on the area.

Getting back

After knocking out our last stop of the day around 6 p.m., we decided to head north for the small town of Marathon. The 67-mile drive will likely only be slowed by the Border Patrol substation a few miles before town.

Making it to Marathon by dark, we opted to stay at the Marathon Motel and RV Park. You can get a room for under $80, and the property offers an amazing courtyard with fountains and fireplaces.

On the way out of town you must realize there is only one gas pump in town, and the antique unit does not offer pay at the pump. If you get to the station too early, you may just be waiting for Ernesto to open up before you can leave town.

La Linda - A barricaded bridge to a Mexican ghost town

The easiest take off point to travel to the old and remote La Linda Bridge in Texas is from Marathon, which lies north of Big Bend National Park. Keep in mind that Marathon, TX has one gas pump. That gas pump is run by Ernesto and pay at the pump is not available on this antique. We arrived at the store at 8am, quickly realizing the store had not opened up yet and that I was at the mercy of the owner to show up.

After Ernesto showed up 30 minutes later, we fueled and turned south at the nearby intersection of Highway 90 and 385. From here you have a decent little drive ahead to reach the bridge. You will pass a US Border Patrol sub-station in about 10 minutes, but only traffic headed north has to stop.

After 39 miles from the junction you will have your left hand turn on FM 2627, which takes you to the La Linda Bridge. Six miles into this road you will come across the Stillwell store, where you can buy food, beer, and get gas if needed.

Keep on the road headed southeast, not as if there are any real options to turn, and you will hit the La Linda Bridge in another 20 miles past the Stillwell store. The road abruptly ends into a small cul-de-sac type area that has the barricaded bridge and a drive into a private residence.

The old bridge is an interesting sight, with multiple cement barriers and a fence contraption to keep anyone from crossing it. Just on the Mexico side is a dilapidated Mexican border patrol station, where two agents allegedly were murdered by drug traffickers in the late 1990’s.

The one lane bridge was first opened in 1963, to support fluorspar from mines in the nearby towns to be imported to the United States. The bridge eventually closed down in 1997, after the mines shutdown and the Mexican agents were killed.

When the mines went out of business and the bridge closed, all the people left, turning La Linda into a ghost town.

Currently the bridge is supposed to be demolished, but no progress has been made in that direction for years. Some support exists to re-open the bridge, but opposition is just as strong.

Looking off to the right from the bridge is the most noticeable attraction, a pristine white cathedral, catching the hot sun of the Chihuahua Desert. From a distance the church looks in mint condition, but a Mexican Army unit pulled all the pews and doors off for firewood in the early 2000’s while stationed in the area to stop cartel activity.

To the left among the hills is the actual ghost town of La Linda, Coahuila. Buildings and homes scatter the hills in what appears to have once been a solid small town.

While the area seemed to be completely desolate from all man-kind, a heart stopping noise erupted from one of the buildings while we were shooting photos. It sounded like metal being smashed against metal repeatedly. We found no logic behind the noise, as it appeared empty, but something was definitely going on. The noise would take a break but then would start again.

After sometime we saw dust rising from a trail and the sound of a truck near the ghost town. A group was doing something in the town, possibly scrapping metal, or maybe something more sinister.

Off to the right of the bridge is a trail to what looked as a scatter of residences on the US side. After about 15 minutes at the bridge we heard an engine start from that area. Soon a man on a motorcycle rode from the residences to check us out at the bridge.

The man’s name was Fred, apparently the local protector and only resident in the area. Fred said he has lived at the bridge for 12 years. Some claim he is a former Marine, others say he was a hardcore biker.
After checking us out, he kindly recommend we back up the road a few meters to take photos from his lookout. He was heading to the Stillwell store and made sure to warn us not to enter his property.

After he noticed we were not leaving, he insisted we follow him up the road to the lookout, which we did.
The lookout is not far back up the road from the bridge and allows a higher vantage point to the town of La Linda and the Rio Grande River. Here you can look down on much of the town and the valley.

Fred’s lookout was more than a vantage point. It included an old school bus, a collection of bikes, a large fresh water tank, camp fire areas, and old mattresses. It was hard to tell if the area was for campers or a resting point for travelers on foot.

After spending a little time at the lookout, we decided it was time to scatter before Fred came back and was tired of us hanging around. We jumped on the highway and within a few miles we ran into Fred on his motorcycle. He stopped us to ask how we liked it.

I began to wonder if Fred really went to the store, or if he traveled uphill to spy on us spying on his area. Who knows, but it was an interesting and almost tense interaction for sure. At no time did Fred seem threatening or mean, it was only under the current conditions that the encounter seemed sketchy. All in all the guy seemed to be a really nice dude.

After more research, it turns out there is an old airplane runway right behind Fred’s place, which is an old ranch property consisting of a number of buildings. It appears he lives in a mobile home, while permanent structures stand nearby.

Even from Fred’s lookout point you cannot see the runway, nor are there any signs or resemblance that a small airport exists in the area. Without Google Earth and the airstrip actually being registered, it is likely that none of the general public would be able to detect the airstrip.

The mystery, what is the airstrip actually used for, is a question nobody had an answer for. Maybe big dollar hunters use the strip to reach the desolate area, but what is really worth hunting in this desert.

On the way out of the area and to Big Bend National Park we stopped in at the Stillwell store. We asked the man working, who had a similar biker look and of age as Fred, what his neighbor’s story was. He smirked and laughed off the question, almost as if he didn’t really know his closest neighbor. We found this character to be just as odd, so I deemed it time to stop lingering and asking questions and to hit the road. I pounded a dollar Tecate from the store and we proceeded to head for the Big Bend park.

After more research, it turns out Fred’s area on the Texas side is known as Health Canyon Ranch. The ranch was bought by geologist Andy Kurie after La Linda went under. Kurie turned the ranch into cabins and a café which would open for visitors. Those looking to kayak the river can pay a fee to park and unload here as well.

It is unclear if many ever utilized the cabins or café, but for the last few years Fred is the only occupant. Kurie moved to El Paso in 2009 due to health reasons. The café and cabins are now closed, but if you can get in touch with Fred you can camp out in the area.

I recommend stopping by La Linda Bridge for those visiting Big Bend National Park. It is a short side trip that is even more off the beaten path than the park is itself. There is no cell phone service in the area so be prepared. Unless it’s a busy weekend the only life you will see is the store and your likely encounter with Fred.