There are some three dozen mountain ranges west of the Pecos River, and on this drive you’ll pass through or near half of them. You’ll also cruise along one of the most picturesque stretches of the Rio Grande and through the wavy grasslands of former ranching empires. The drive is not only one of the prettiest in the state but also one of the oddest, with terrain that goes from serene to severe, sometimes within moments. You’ll see gorgeous vistas, strange shapes, and odd people living in the middle of it all, and you’ll wonder what was going on out here, both 40 million years ago and just last week.
Begin in the appropriately named Alpine, which sits at an altitude of 4,500 feet in the foothills of the Davis Mountains. Have a breakfast taco and a latte at La Tapatia (202 W. Holland Avenue), in the center of town, then drive to Texas Highway 118 and head south. The first few miles are scrubby, rolling hills, covered with yellow grass and the occasional cactus. About five miles out of town, you start a steep climb, and just after crossing Mile High Road, you’ll begin to see, peeking up over the hills, dark, looming forms that disappear when you round a bend. Do not be alarmed. The one on your right soon reveals itself as majestic Cathedral Mountain, 6,800 feet high. More immense figures approach, such as Elephant Mountain (6,206 feet), on your left, an amazing four miles long.
Much of the next hour is made up of short climbs over gradual rises in the road and then long declines toward the infinite horizon past more and more of these monstrous mountains. Most of them were birthed between 22 million and 47 million years ago, when molten magma, deep in the earth, began pushing toward the surface. Some of it blew sky high, spewing lava and ash hundreds of feet thick over tens of thousands of square miles. Much of it never made it above the surface, seeping between layers of rock, expanding and melding with dirt, limestone, and mud and creating all kinds of immense mountainous formations, which, millions of years later, were uncovered by erosion and then burnished by time to look like giant cathedrals and elephants.
The closer you get to the badlands of Study Butte, the weirder the rocks get. The entrance to Study Butte is guarded by two jagged cliffs: the 400-foot-high reddish-brown columns of Willow Mountain to the left and, just beyond that on the right, the 850-foot-high face of Bee Mountain. Then it’s downhill into civilization.
That is, if you consider Study Butte and Terlingua civilized. Turn right on Farm-to-Market Road 170, passing through the campers, yucca cactus, abandoned mercury mines, and washed-out riverbeds of this desert area. Four miles on, turn right at the sign for the Terlingua Ghost Town, where 2,000 people once walked the dusty streets. Now some 275 artists and other assorted desert rats and escapees from modern life live in trailers or the crumbling adobes of the long-gone miners. In truth, the individualistic and craggy locals mirror the terrain. The Terlingua Trading Company, at the end of the road, is a good place to meet some of them, as well as to buy local artifacts and beer and soft drinks. On any given weekend, you’ll