Climbing and Crawling at Hueco Tanks State Park – West Texas

The Canyon Towhee serenaded us all day


Our final stop in Texas was 30 miles northeast of El Paso, at Hueco Tanks State Park.  We came here after being intrigued by Eric and Laurel’s repeat visits to the area.  We had to see it for ourselves!

So, what’s wonderfully unusual and appealing about this 850-acre park? Let’s ask a Cottontail Rabbit as he relaxes in the shade:

First – 3,000 or more impressive artistic legacies of various prehistoric people spanning 10,000 years can be found here.

Second – because of the above this park is protected and visitation is limited, regulated, and strictly enforced.

Third – anyone entering the park, whether to camp, bird watch, hike or rock climb must attend a video and ranger orientation.  Limited permits are issued for all activities and must be acquired on the day it is partaken.

Fourth – unlike other state parks, camping is limited to three days and you are locked in each night.  A gate prior to the campground deters any stragglers from cruising through – awesome!

Those reasons heightened our curiosity all the more.

Betsy is cozy at site #3 at the base of East Mountain

We reserved ranger-led tour #2 months in advance.  Our guide (Alex) had incredible knowledge to share, getting us caught up in his excitement and passion.  The 3-hour tour lasted almost five hours, likely because our group was small and enjoyed hiking, plus we were loving the gorgeous weather.

Alex delved into the ecology, geology and cultural significance of the area, sharing his thoughts about the meaning of the many petroglyphs and pictographs we viewed along the way.  He touched on their spiritual connection to ancient Mexico and southwestern Pueblo cultures in general, and gave some context as he weaved his own insights and life experiences growing up as a Navajo descendent.

Alex spent half an hour explaining just this one panel filled with hundreds of names, inscriptions and drawings

On the rock panel above is a drawing of a long white snake, several horses and a horse and rider almost obscured by graffiti and historic period inscriptions.  Alex peeled off layer after layer of drawings and inscriptions bearing evidence of the many different cultures that had made this area their home:

Behind the inscribed names and dates in black is a white horse and rider
In the mid 1800’s travelers would often inscribe their names and dates, overlapping Apache paintings.  Can you spot the red Jaguar in the background?

Most of the remarkable pictographs (ancient paintings or drawings) were hidden within shelters, crevices and caves that we explored.  That made the guided tour challenging and interesting.  We hiked, climbed, crawled and slid around to view these paintings that are rich in symbolism.  The artwork was left behind by different prehistoric peoples and accumulated over the course of thousands of years.  Amazing!

Here I am heading back down from one of the caves we explored

The drawings of the Jornada Mogollon people were found higher up in hard-to-find places, requiring us to be on our backs to view them while lying down:

We saw many pictographs from different periods, some faded and others remarkably clear.  After four hours we were wondering if we would see the most famous pictograph here, the starry-eyed man.  It’s unique in style, including the unusual use of green/blue pigment.  Thought to be the work of a Jornada Mogollon master artist, there’s nothing else similar to it at Hueco Tanks.

The starry-eyed mask had a wasp nest on its brow, started only the day before according to Alex

After five hours our tummies were empty but our brains were full!  It was a long and satisfying tour with our excellent guide.

Cave Kiva

Early the following morning we picked up our permit to hike North Mountain, where Cave Kiva is located.  We set out to find the eight masks there that represent a small fraction of the known inventory at Hueco Tanks.  Steve was a bit hesitant about leaving his drivers license in exchange for borrowing a detailed map to the cave, but we needed the map and he got over it 🙂

There’s the early morning climbers!

While climbing the boulders we noticed the many water-holding depressions (or hollows) that gave the mountain its name.  These hollows are called “huecos” in Spanish, hence the name Hueco Tanks.  They capture precious water during the rare rainy periods in the desert, making this place a stopping point and haven for people and wildlife over thousands of years.

A dried hollow, with mountains in New Mexico beyond

Finding Cave Kiva was like a treasure hunt, with markers being rocks that looked like a duck and then an alligator, along the route.  The duck was a bit tricky to spot, but the alligator was easier.  Following where its mouth pointed, we located the narrow opening that allowed us to see the eight striking painted faces:

Steve points out the alligator’s head

Once again we crawled and shimmied in on our butts and backs, while trying to avoid knocking our heads.  The “floor” was cool and worn slick by the countless human bodies that had crossed it over the years.

Backpacks and hats left at the opening to Cave Kiva

Once inside the small space, Steve used his phone flashlight to let us see and photograph the eight masks as we tried to imagine the painter/artist that had left their mark here.  We admired the unique style and sophistication of the drawings and wondered what had inspired them.

I called this unusual one the “aviator mask”
Getting back out on the smooth and slippery surface

After exiting the cave we continued climbing upward, scrambling and then wandering around the top of North Mountain.  We saw many more huecos, big and small, which at this time of year were mostly dry.

Pointing to where we had hiked to see the starry-eyed mask the day before
Desert plants thrive within the cracks and crevices in the rock
Bouldering is a popular activity at the park, with climbers carrying their “crash pads” on their backs

On the way back down we spotted Mark and Joodie’s motorhome parked in the shade.  We knew for sure they were watching the required orientation video so they could join their ranger-led tour for the day.

Going down on the Chain Trail, see Mark and Joodie’s “Essie” in the parking lot?

Later in the afternoon once Mark and Joodie were settled at their site, we had a happy hour in perfect weather.  Being neighbors now, we had a chance to get to know these fine folks that we’d met briefly at Guadalupe Mountains NP.  They capped off our wonderful time at the state park. And we hope to cross paths again and do some hiking together.

Hanging out at Betsy with Mark and Joodie

That wraps up our month-long meandering across the huge lone star state of Texas!

The greeter-Crissal Thrasher
The Crissal Thrasher pointed us west




  1. We have to wait for the Elegant Trogon?

    Thoroughly enjoyed your capture of this unusual but most excellent state park (thank you too Laurel & Eric). The huecos are fun to check out along the way to Cave Kiva. The route is like looking for lost treasure, and sliding on the slick rock in the cave is unnerving but a hoot.

    Thank you for spoiling us with the shrimp (not desert shrimp 😁), and the beer Steve served was superb. You made our time together memorable.

    Looking forward to our next get-together.

    • Thank you so much Mark, we too enjoyed your company and looking forward for more happy hours. We do have to thank Eric and Laurel for leading us here, otherwise we would have not a longer time to hang out.

  2. Love the lazing cottontail — they crack me up when they do that.

    Tour #2 was clearly the better one, and I am sad that they weren’t offering it during our three days. I guess we’ll just have to go back!

    The shadow pic is great; it captures your personalities perfectly.

    Thank you again for the hospitality, scrumptious food, and wonderful conversation. It wasn’t nearly enough time, and we have lots more to cover — Tucson 2020!!!

    I can’t wait to see if you spot the Elegant Trogon! We were unsuccessful, so hope you have better luck!

    • You are so welcome Joodie, it is always good getting to know like-minded people and eventually become great friends. So now we look forward to crossing our paths and a hike first week of 2020!

  3. That rabbit sure looked relaxed! Very cool scrambling area with all those cracks and crevices. The painted faces were very detailed!

  4. Ok, the 1000 year old paintings are cool and all, but can we talk more about the alligator? That thing is awesome!! It looks like a sculpture!! Wow!

    I keep reading all of our friends’ accounts of visiting this park and the more I read, the more I’m convinced that we absolutely have to visit next time we’re nearby. I love the idea of climbing and crawling around on a huge treasure hunt. So much fun!

    And I’m glad to hear you all hung out with Mark and Joodie more. Sounds like you had a great time!

    • Whoever wrote those instructions have a very vivid imagination, a duck and an alligator as markers! In case you come back this way again, Hueco Tanks is really worth a stop.
      Oh yes, Mark and Joodie are fun people and we got along fine. We are even thinking of hiking early next year!

  5. Very enjoyable post. Thanks for highlighting another place we should put on our bucket list. The the starry-eyed man is very impressive.

  6. Hueco Tanks is so much fun. We stayed in Site 3, as well! It was the perfect site. Glad the park takes such good care of the place and limits the use. I’m sorry we didn’t get to do a tour but our decision to stop was last minute. We did watch a tour group come out from an area so we crawled in after they left. We found lots of good stuff. It’s amazing how slippery the floor is when looking for the masks.

    • Now I know how you were able to see some of those pictographs that were shown only on tours. We really had lots of fun and we liked the park, so quiet and peaceful and lots of birds!

  7. We’re so glad you guys made it to Hueco Tanks and that you enjoyed it as much as we have! And I’m really, really glad that you were able to do Tour #2. That’s my favorite because of the Starry-Eyed Man. You guys had the extra special tour, with five hours of adventures!

    So much fun that you shared an evening with Joodie and Mark. I know that was a good time! 🙂

    • We followed all your tips and instruction and we had a blast, thank you. You know we are now copying most of your stops out west 🙂 We like our tour guide,he was so passionate and did not do any shortcuts.

  8. We stayed at Hueco Tanks a while back. Unfortunately we were not able to do any ranger tours. We did hike around the North Mountain area that was open to us, and found it be fun. The photos of your tour made me aware of how much we missed! Those were some amazing pictographs/petroglyphs. I appreciated the fact that the site was so protected, but I did not like the strictly enforced rule that you had to stay in your campsite after 6:00.

    • The park was so peaceful and quiet at night. We came prepared so we did not have to be out at night for any reason. They offer three tours and we booked ours months ahead.

  9. Wow! I remember seeing Hueco Tanks when we visited El Paso a few years ago. Never realized there was so much to see. I’ll add it to my list should we ever visit there again.

  10. It’s an amazing park isn’t it. I’m glad we were able to get a reservation to go in first thing in the morning for our DIY exploration, which included the Cave Kiva. It’s on our list of places to return to with the small motorhome so we can do the guided tours … the dates didn’t work out to do so when we visited for the first time a few years ago. The starry-eyed 🤩 picto is fantastic.

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