When we decided to stay in El Paso for a week, I knew I wanted to
return to Hueco Tanks since it is a unique site and only about 30 miles east of our
campground. We visited one sunny but chilly day this past week.
Because of all the photos, I'm dividing this entry into two pages
with about 25 pictures per page so they will load faster.
A LEGACY OF UNIQUE ROCK ART
Hueco Tanks is named for the natural rock basins in its granite
outcroppings that capture rainwater, which is a precious resource in the
arid Chihuahuan Desert. Desert dwellers and travelers have
long made good use of this water.
For how long?
Archaeologists believe that humans first visited Hueco
Tanks at least 10,000 years ago. All that remains of the Folsom culture of big
game hunters are a few stone tools, including a distinctive
projectile point they used to kill bison and other animals.
Subsequent Native American cultures from approximately 6,000 years
ago to more recent times left quite a legacy for us to enjoy in the
21st Century: numerous rock paintings that include
mythological designs, masks, human and animal figures, handprints, and
These prehistoric and historic pictographs are the main draw at Hueco Tanks today.
Here is one example:
Ranger-led tours highlight some of the 2,000+ pictographs from the
Desert Archaic culture, the Jornada Branch of the Mogollon, the
Mescalero Apache, the Comanche, and the Kiowa Indian tribes.
also a few petroglyphs (carved or chipped designs) in the park.
In addition, there are 19th Century signatures and dates drawn on
some of the rocks by emigrants heading to the California gold fields and
folks traveling on stage wagons operated by Butterfield Overland
Mail, which had a station here for one year in the late 1850s. Hueco
Tanks was a welcome respite on that 2,000-mile stretch of undeveloped
wilderness between St. Louis and San Francisco:
Above and below: remnants of the
Butterfield Overland stagecoach station
A year after the station was built, Butterfield re-routed
farther south and this station was no longer used.
Ruins of the mail station are visible next to the house that Silverio
Escontrias built for his family in the late 1890s. His family owned a
large ranch in the area until 1956. The adobe ranch residence now houses
the Interpretive Center at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site.
Hueco Tanks has been open to the public as a state park and historic
site since 1970.
GEOLOGICAL & NATURAL FEATURES
We noticed several large rock hills, named North, East, and West Mountain,
as we entered the park. This is one of them:
These rocks were formed beneath the earth's
surface about 34 million years ago as magma pushed up into an older
limestone formation and cooled. Over time, weather eroded the limestone
and sculpted the now-exposed igneous rock into its present form.
I enjoyed the interesting rock formations as I followed the guide on
our pictograph tour and took lots of pictures of them.
appeal to more than photographers -- the second-biggest draw (pun
this park is the rock climbing. You can see some climbers in these photos:
Hollows (huecos) and fracture patterns in the massive
granite-like formations capture what little rain falls in this desert
and establishes a relatively moist micro environment that supports a
diversity of plants and animals. Rock alcoves also provide shelter,
shade, and fertile soil. Moisture-dependent plants like relic oaks and
junipers live side-by-side with desert-adapted species such as creosote
bush and mesquite.
Animals are attracted to the tanks for many of the same reasons man
was attracted to this area. Numerous species of mammals, reptiles, and
birds live in the park -- from mountain lions to lizards to
The most unusual critters that live there, however, are the fairy,
tadpole, and clam shrimp that occur seasonally in large numbers in
temporary ponds and huecos. We were there the wrong season to see them,
ACTIVITIES AT THE PARK
I've already mentioned the two most popular activities at Hueco Tanks
-- pictograph tours and rock climbing. Visitors also enjoy
picnicking, hiking, birding, camping, and special events.
The site continues to be used for traditional Native American
cultural activities and performances.
There are three sites in the campground with water only and seventeen
sites with water and electricity (30 or 50 amp service). You can check the
fees page on the website for more
information about camping at Hueco Tanks.
Because of the potential harm that could (and has) come to the
priceless artifacts in this park, Hueco Tanks has some serious
restrictions regarding access and what you can do once you're admitted.
If you're considering visiting the park, be sure to read the "notes"
section on the fees page of the park website so you understand how to
reserve a spot for anything you want to do there, even if
it's just taking a self-guided tour around North Mountain, the only area
you can go without a guide. For example, the total number of visitors
allowed in the park is 230 per day. Only 70 people are allowed on
several miles of trail and at the picnic and rock climbing areas on
North Mountain, and only 160 people can be admitted for guided tours.
It's a good little drive out to the park and if you aren't on their
list of folks who've been approved to visit North Mountain or be on a
tour, you will either be turned away or you can sit outside the gate until it's
determined that the daily limits haven't been exceeded.
This is what it looked like in the morning when we arrived at Hueco
A ranger (above) stood at the first gate with a list of names of
people who had made reservations for various activities like pictograph
tours, educational tours, self-guided tours, rock climbing, and camping.
I had read that reservations were required for the pictograph tours,
so we were already on the list and allowed to enter the park and proceed
to headquarters. Several other cars had apparently just shown up and
chose to wait to see if they could eventually get in.
Pictographs are sometimes found
in small, protected alcoves like this.
Things soon got weird for us when we checked in at
First, the woman who was assisting us ran our Texas state parks pass
and said it was valid but didn't know when it expired. We were still
under the impression that it had expired in December but hey, we weren't
going to pay $5 each for day use fees or buy a new pass if it wasn't necessary.
That was the good news. Now we just had to pay the new $1 fee for
everyone going on a guided tour. I was advised of that when I called to
make our tour reservations but I don't see it mentioned on the
While the woman was printing out our receipt, I saw a sign that says
visitors must let the staff know if they have a pet with them. Since it
was a cold, overcast morning and we planned to be gone most of the day
visiting the park and running errands, we took Cody with us. We knew he
wasn't allowed on any of the trails in the park but we assumed he could stay in the
truck while we took our two-hour tour. Been there, done that many times
before when it's not too warm. No problemo.
So I opened my big mouth and said we had a dog with us and he'd be in
the truck while we were taking our tour . . .
Well, you'd think we were criminals to even consider such a thing at
Hueco Tanks! The woman informed us rather brusquely that we could not
leave a dog in a vehicle even on a chilly day in the winter. It's
against state park rules, she insisted. That meant we could 1) get our
$2 back and leave, or 2) get $1 back and only one of us could go on the
pictograph tour while the other dog-sat.
At that point we couldn't just leave Cody in the truck and both
go on the tour because the woman wouldn't give both of us a receipt for
Yes, we both had reservations -- but we also had a dog and now
she knew about him. We figured she'd have a ranger check our truck later
to be sure we didn't leave Cody there alone.
If Jim had been by himself, he would have left. He was pretty irritated
at this point. I really wanted to do
the pictograph tour so we stayed.
[Thank you, Sweetie.]
We parked near the
interpretive center and remnants of the old stagecoach station (below). This
also the starting point for guided tours and one of the trailheads for the
self-guided North Mountain trails.
Then we inadvertently violated two other park rules we
didn't know about until after the fact -- but got
away with those.
Who knew it could be so complicated to visit a state park??
Guess we'll read all the fine print next time.
Since we were about an hour early for the pictograph tour, Jim decided
to climb the trails on North Mountain by himself while I waited in the
truck with Cody and wandered nearby to take pictures. We could see about twenty other folks walking around on
the mountain, mostly rock climbers carrying large rectangular pads they
use for cushioning in case they fall while bouldering. I was glad Jim
would at least be able to see some of the pictographs.
What we didn't realize until later was that anyone going out for the
self-guided hike is required to watch a video in the interpretive
center first (it wasn't open that early) -- and they must have
a prior reservation and be one of those maximum of 70 people allowed in
the North Mountain area that day.
Oops. We didn't have a reservation for that.
< sigh > Long story short, Jim had a good walk, saw some
pictographs, returned a little happier than when he left, and got back
in time so Cody wasn't left alone in the truck
when I began my pictograph tour at 10:30.
My two-hour tour turned into a three-hour tour. I definitely got my
Our experienced guide was named George. There were only two other people on my tour,
a young couple who live in their RV and sell rocks and gems at shows all
over the country.
George had lots of stories to tell about the cultures that left
paintings and petroglyphs in the park. He encouraged our questions and
elicited our thoughts regarding what the artists might have been trying
to convey to others through their paintings.
I have two minor complaints about the tour.
Sometimes George lost focus and got off on tangents. That's the main
reason the tour lasted an hour longer than advertised, not because we
visitors had tons of questions (we had very few). Most of the information was
very interesting but I was getting antsy by the end. It's probably good that Jim
the tour; I think he would have left it prematurely (and that's probably
verboten, too, since visitors are supposed to be with a guide in that
Although we saw paintings that are representative of the various
cultures who lived here
I was also disappointed that we didn't see more than seven pictograph sites on the tour. As
small as this park is, even in a two-hour tour we could have seen
a lot more rock art. I don't know if this is the standard route all the guides take
or if there's even a choice of routes.
The pictographs and petroglyphs at Hueco Tanks can be found in a
rather compact area consisting of three small, rocky mountains (see map above and
a more detailed version
online). East and West
Mountains are off-limits to visitors unless they are on a guided tour;
that's the shaded area in the map above. North Mountain is open for
self-guided tours (if you have a reservation
. . .).
My tour began behind the interpretive center. The first pictograph
site we saw was on North Mountain. It can be accessed without being on
It was easy to see the paintings on the rock wall of this open cave.
The oldest pictograph here is the white serpent running mostly horizontally through the
center of this photo:
Each culture added its own paintings on top of the older
The names and dates are mostly from the 1850s:
Unfortunately, some of the writing is more recent 20th
Century graffiti -- one reason why there are so many rules and
restrictions at this park!
The remaining sites we visited on the tour were at East and West
Mountains in the guide-only areas.
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil