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Hueco Tanks State Historic Site

Ancient rock art and world-class climbing make this site a West Texas favorite.

By Katie Armstrong

Austin Ramos gazes at granite giants that surge up from the Chihuahuan Desert, baring their pockmarked, red-brown backs to the sun. Though these unusual mountains are only 32 miles northeast of his home in El Paso, the 12-year-old has never seen them before.

Ramos isn’t the first to be awestruck by the unique landscape that makes up Hueco Tanks State Historic Site. The mountains are riddled with pits — huecos — that retain rainwater. Huecos can be as small as a fist or as large as a backyard swimming pool, and the water they hold cultivates life in this desert environment.

“Hueco Tanks is an amazing oasis of nature and culture,” says site superintendent Wanda Olszewski.

Humans have lived in the area for 10,000 years, and different American Indian cultures have left about 3,000 paintings on the rock walls. Guided tours to rock art sites put visitors up close and personal with art created by the Jornada Mogollon, Mescalero Apache, Comanche, Kiowa and Tigua cultures. Visitors can see handprints, dancing scenes, people on horseback and other symbols. Hueco Tanks also has more than 200 paintings of masks, which look similar to Pueblo Indian kachina masks. The 860-acre site has the largest concentration of mask paintings in North America.

“The face is the gateway to the secret thoughts of people, and I think that is part of what the masks represent,” says volunteer guide Heinz Duerkop. His favorite rock art site is the Cave of the Masks on West Mountain, which features art from different cultures, including nine or 10 masks and a tiny jaguar figure.

From 1858 to 1859, Hueco Tanks was a stop on the Butterfield Overland stagecoach trail, where wagons stopped for food and water. The company built a stone and adobe station there, and ruins near the site’s interpretive center may belong to that stage stop, though there is some uncertainty as to the precise location.

“It’s amazing how much history there is in this park,” says Ramos.

More recently, the site has become a mecca for rock climbers from all over the world. Hueco Tanks has hundreds of unique and challenging routes for bouldering — climbing without ropes. Climbers should bring a crash pad, a thirst for adventure and respect for the land. The routes at Hueco Tanks promise to leave you exhausted but hungry for more at the end of the day.

Sadly, Hueco Tanks’ remarkable history and environment have not always been appreciated. Unchecked recreational use during most of the 20th century led to graffiti, rock art abuse, littering and landscape deterioration. But in 1992 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department enacted a public use plan that focuses on educating visitors about the site. As a result, there has been extremely little damage to rock art since 1998 and plant and animal life have revived faster than expected, says Olszewski.

“We’re sharing our rock art with people and banking on their stewardship,” she says. “To the extent that people are aware, there is a payoff seeing a lizard, a cactus flowering, a bird.”

Hueco Tanks has 20 campsites with water and electricity, as well as hiking trails and an interpretive center. Visitors can enjoy free guided climbing, rock art and birding tours, but reservations are required. To be guaranteed access, visitors must make reservations to access the self-guided North Mountain, as the number of people allowed on the mountain at one time is limited. For more information, call Hueco Tanks headquarters at (915) 857-1135 or visit <www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huecotanks>.

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