The vast expanse that is the Big Bend region of Texas is one of a kind. Soaring peaks, stretches of desert and the Rio Grande cutting its way through the region makes for one of the most incredible sites in the entire Lone Star State. In the middle of all this nothingness is the tiny town of Terlingua. With a population of 110 folks, it’s fascinating how many people are drawn to this desolation destination. But when you see a glamping destination like The Summit at Big Bend, you understand the draw.
“This is unlike any other place in Texas,” said Billy Bartko, creator of The Summit.
Billy and his wife, Jess, created The Summit in 2021 and in that short amount of time, they’ve built so many domes for folks to stay in, that their little corner of the desert looks like a space outpost. These domes have king-sized beds and beautiful views of Big Bend, but if you want to lay your head down on something as hard as a rock, the caves at the Summit have proven to be quite popular. “The two caves really are built for a romantic reconnecting trip,” said Billy.
Billy and Jess both used to be commercial pilots, but they came to Big Bend to start a new life on the ground. After one successful venture in glamping, they came to this piece of property looking to buy a jeep, but it turned into so much more. “For me, I was like, ‘Wow, I never knew this part of Texas existed!’ Born and raised Texan. Never knew it,” said Jess.
“So, this place has been special to me since the minute we got here. The previous owner just told us to drive up the hill and drive around the ranch, and it was just nothing but one spectacular view after another,” explained Billy. “Fifteen minutes into it, I very jokingly said, ‘I want to buy the ranch,’ and the next day we offered to buy the ranch, and about three weeks later we had a deal on it, and about two months later, we owned it.”
“I knew when I first met him, he was going to be a lifetime of adventure,” said Jess.
“You’re looking at Old Mexico to the south, directly behind you is the Lajitas Hills. And then off to the west is you’re totally looking into the state park. So, it’s just incredible,” said Billy.
Construction began and when Billy came across the caves, he knew exactly what to do with them. “The holes in the rock were already here. One of them was basically being used as a storage bunker and the other one is a garage,” he explained.
Complete with a shower, bed, a fridge, a fantastic view and even Wi-Fi, this cave is the kind of place where anyone would be happy to hibernate. “What we really did here was we wanted to bring the outside in,” said Jess.
“It was distorted as least as possible, so that we could really just kind of capture when you walk in, you’re not walking into a room, you’re literally walking into the earth,” explained Billy. “It’s either very comforting to you or it’s not your thing. We respect both, but for us, it’s just a very comforting place to be.”
“So, this is our crystal cave. We named it that. As you can see, the crystal is all through the top here over there,” explained Jess.
These caves date back nearly 100 years when mercury mining was still going strong here. “The entire 1,000 acres here has multiple old cinnabar mines on it. They were mined early 1900s all the way up through mid-1900s, ’50s and ’60s, somewhere in there they were closed down, but these are actually mining starts where they dug in about 100 feet, didn’t find any cinnabar, so they abandoned the holes,” said Billy.
“So, what they would do is they would come in and they would chisel out just enough to put the stick in there, and then it’d blow it, and then they would just take the pieces right on out of here,” said Jess.
“Hand drilled holes, packed with dynamite, blow off a chunk of rock, hole it all out by hand, mules. Several of the mines still have a narrow-gauge rail car. The tracks are still there, so they would haul it out on rail tracks. Just a crazy lifestyle,” explained Billy.
As you can imagine, building this in a place where the closest major retailers are two and half hours away, isn’t easy. “On one hand, it is the most friendly area to ever build anything in, and on one hand it is the hardest area to ever build anything in,” said Billy. “It’s the hardest place because you can’t get any materials. There’s one plumber in South Brewster County, there’s one electrician in South Brewster County. You may wait a year for the electrician to do anything for you. The plumber’s $300 an hour.”
What makes the stay in these caves so incredible is what makes this entire area so fantastic. The night sky. “The really crazy thing is the amount of stars that you can see at night. A lot of people, that’s really the whole reason why you come out here, right? Is the night sky. It’s the darkest sky in the lower 48,” said Jess.
“We believe in the power of the place and it’s certainly not us. And it’s not anything that we’ve built or anything like that. We have some cool stuff here, don’t get me wrong, but really and truthfully, if you come out here, it’s about the views. It’s about the stars,” said Billy.
“You lay in bed, you wake up in the middle of the night, and that Milky Way is just in your face. It’s pretty incredible,” said Jess.
Coming to Big Bend is one of my favorite stops in the Lone Star State and if you happen to be coming this way, caving in and booking a stay at The Summit is well worth a stop on The Texas Bucket List. “If you are a true Texan, you were born in Texas, you vacation in Texas and you die in Texas, why in the world would you not want to see all Texas has to offer?” asked Billy.
“You do it so people can come out here and make the memories,” said Jess.
“Take it in, breathe it, live it, relax with it. It’s just so fantastic to be out here.”