No matter how many photos you’ve seen, you really can’t prepare yourself for the landscape of Big Bend National Park. It’s enormous, raw, ancient, and (in a word) overwhelming.
This is the wild Texas of your imagination — a place where, for a $5 fee, you can still ride a mule across the Rio Grande into Mexico. The Chisos Mountain range looms over vast stretches of the Chihuahuan desert, and it’s there that the tiny village of Terlingua sits in the sun. (Population 58, at last count.) It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find a luxurious bed for the night, and that’s exactly what makes Willow House such a decadent treat.
If it sounds impossible to build a 12 casita boutique hotel in the middle of the desert by yourself, that’s because it basically is. But first time hotelier Lauren Werner has what can only be described as true grit, and she’s spent the last four years in a cloud of dusty determination. (After an unfortunate situation with her contractor, Lauren took control of the crew and oversaw the rest of construction herself.) The red haired twenty-something from Southern California is more Julienne Moore than John Wayne, but she stood her ground with the toughest characters in Terlingua to see her project through to completion.
We were lucky enough to be among the first guests invited to Willow House this summer, and I spent two dreamy days soaking up the desert in pure comfort. Every inch of the property, from the picture frame views to the soapstone showers, felt grounded in the landscape. I left Willow House feeling relaxed, inspired, and quite frankly amazed that it exists.
Like all things that thrive in the desert, it’s perfectly designed to defy all odds.
Terlingua has a reputation for being a wild area (both in landscape and culture). What drew you to create your first property in this place?
Terlingua is a wild place indeed. It’s one of the most remote areas in the United States and draws in an extremely eclectic group of individuals. It’s home to many people who choose not to live within the confines of cities. Artists, entrepreneurs, professionals, ex-hippies, river guides, retired ranchers, ex-military, nature enthusiasts… you can find every archetype imaginable in Terlingua, all sharing one common aspiration of true freedom in the desert.
When I first started coming out to the Big Bend region and conceptualizing this project, Terlingua was not at the forefront of my mind. It was Big Bend National Park that drew me out here for what would become the most impactful solo road trip of my life. I started looking for land to buy on day two of my first trip. I was called to the area and felt a true sense of purpose. I knew I was meant to build a place for others to stay and experience this landscape the way I had.
Tell us a little about the property’s relationship to the park.
Sitting roughly seven miles from the park’s entrance, Willow House was built as a place to compliment and guide people into Big Bend National Park.
Big Bend is an unruly beauty among the national park family. The park is a massive 800,000+ acres of dramatically diverse topography and is home to the Rio Grande River. I think the river has a lot to do with the individuality of Big Bend. The river is strong, striking, enclosed by massive canyon walls and entwines the energies of both Texas and Mexico.
At our property, you can wake up and drink a cup of coffee with unobstructed views of the Chisos Mountain Range (the only mountain range in the US to be fully contained within the boundary of a national park) and be driving through them soon after. Every Willow House casita has a view that inspires one to wake up early and explore and relax on their porch at sunset.
What inspired your vision for Willow House?
I was inspired to create something different. I want people to have the luxury of a retreat, the comforts of a home, the privacy of an individual casita, the interaction of a hotel lobby and space to roam as if you’re on a ranch.
After I decided that I wanted to fill that need, I eventually found the land that Willow House sits on. This land provided another layer of inspiration. I found a property with unobstructed views of the Chisos Mountain Range and Santa Elena Canyon. I wanted all of the above-mentioned elements to exist around what would now be the most important aspect of the project — the views.
Finding a place with unobstructed views of the Chisos range was a magical moment. It was then that I decided every building would be constructed entirely with the views in mind. Every window and patio would serve as a perfect frame of the landscape and no structure would impede upon another’s view.
How long did it take to create the property, from conception to completion? What were some of the biggest challenges?
The concept has taken roughly four and a half years to get to where it is now. I hesitate to call it ‘complete’ because I will never see Willow House as finished. I see it as a constant work in progress — continually growing and shifting. We will work ceaselessly on improving the property for as long as I am the owner… and I have no intention to sell. A classic tale of the forever unsatisfied artist, I guess.
The blessing of Terlingua’s remoteness comes with inherent challenges. It is difficult to get anything out to this area. Materials, labor, water, staff, etc. I look back and still cannot believe that we got Willow House built.
Are there certain hotel properties, destinations, or people who inspired your vision for the property?
Certainly. Many places and people inspired Willow House.
The Nihiwatu in Sumba, Indonesia is an eco-resort where I spent time in 2009. Everyone staying there would eat dinner together at two long dining tables, and the communal spaces served as gathering places to meet other guests. It was magical. It felt like an adult summer camp. The owner, Claude Graves, who lived on site most of the year, worked hard to see his vision come to fruition. Guests could tell that everything had a personal touch — such a contrast to large hotel chains. I took a lot of inspiration from that model.
I also looked to high desert cities in Morocco, Peru, Africa, Mexico, and the Southwestern United States to help guide some of the design decisions. I wanted to learn how these cities were built to exist symbiotically among the harsh elements common to high desert areas.
Georgia O’Keeffe has served as constant inspiration — as an artist, designer, and true desert matriarch. If Willow House has even an ounce of her spirit, it will stand the test of time.
We’re kind of obsessed with your interior design — did you hire a professional or do it yourself?
I did the design myself, but I’m by no means a trained interior designer or architect. I simply enjoy creating spaces that lend themselves to maximizing fun. I like those same spaces to be easy on the eyes and draw from the surrounding environment. Functionality and comfort were carefully considered while designing the communal Main House. There are things I would change if I did it all over again and I will take those learned lessons with me for any future projects. Overall, I’m pleased with the final product.
So you didn’t go to school for interior design?
I didn’t. It’s purely a passion. I think my first passion is entertaining. Great spaces and thoughtful interiors simply make entertaining easier. A great space can make guests feel both comfortable and excited before the party even starts.
You have a really cool artist incentive going at Willow House. Tell us about that. How does it work? Have you already had artists in residence at Willow House?
My friend, Helen Kohnke, helped spark the idea. She’s a talented artist living in New York City who came to Willow House for three weeks pre-opening. I saw her become enthralled with the landscape, and watched her work evolve in a very beautiful direction. Her enthusiasm reminded me how wonderful it was to be inspired by this land for the very first time. I want to share that feeling with other artists, so we’re starting an artist-in-residency summer program. Incorporating young, original artists has always been a focus during the development of this project. I have kept up with several artists for 4 or 5 years, hoping they would want to partner in creating pieces for Willow House when the time came. Several have pieces hanging in the Main House currently and a few are still completing works that will be added.
What should visitors know before making the drive to Terlingua?
Terlingua and Big Bend are extremely remote. Cell service is very limited, so it’s recommended that drivers plug in their destination address before getting on the road. Always keep a surplus of water in the car. There are 70 mile stretches of road that do not have a gas station, so fill up the gas tank more often than usual. Make sure the vehicle has a spare tire and all necessary tools to change a spare tire (AAA is hard to get a hold of when you have no cell service). And if possible, plan your route to include the river road (FM 170), the views are spectacular.
You’ve already had people reach out about collaborating on a retail space in Terlingua. Is that something you’re interested in?
I’ve had a few retailers reach out about adding a shop presence on the property (all three of which are hand-curated concepts.) Personally, I do not have interest in operating a retail store. It could be fun to provide a space to the right, experienced individual. I am open to exploring the idea within the next year after we get Willow House running efficiently.
Do you plan on developing more properties in future? If so where? Where is your next dream location?
Perhaps. There are a few places I’m drawn to and feel a special connection with. The Big Bend region took my breath away and gave me freedom. I chased that feeling and Willow House followed organically. Until I have that feeling again, I’ll be cautious to jump into another location. I find that when ideas are forced, they don’t develop into their full potential. Stay tuned.
Finish this sentence: “You know you’re in Terlingua when ___________.”
The night sky is filled with more stars than you thought possible.