Climbing and Crawling at Hueco Tanks State Park – West Texas
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.
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.
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:
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!
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.
After five hours our tummies were empty but our brains were full! It was a long and satisfying tour with our excellent guide.
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 🙂
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
That wraps up our month-long meandering across the huge lone star state of Texas!