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Climb, hike and explore ancient rock paintings at desert oasis near El Paso

Jen Fleming at Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, one of North America's most popular spots for rock climbing and for viewing ancient rock paintings. It's 32 miles from El Paso.
Jen Fleming at Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, one of North America's most popular spots for rock climbing and for viewing ancient rock paintings. It's 32 miles from El Paso.
Jen Fleming climbing at Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site. Photo by Andrew Mann.

Rock climbers, hikers, anthropology and wildlife enthusiasts from around the world flock to boulders of West Texas' Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, one of the largest and oldest concentrations of Indian rock paintings in North America.

"It's like an outdoor museum," Texas State Park Ranger Wanda Olszewski told journalists during a recent visit to Hueco Tanks. Sounds like "Waco", but it's 32 miles northeast of El Paso.

More than 3,000 paintings (pictographs) -- dating back almost 11,000 years -- depict masks, faces, complex geometric designs, animals, birds, dancers, symbols for rain, lightning, and corn, and more.

The intriguing paintings include:

  • A six-foot-long black and white figure of the Aztec rain god Tlaloc is on the ceiling of a low shelter within a boulder -- climb in and lie down to see it. The complex artwork is one continuous line.
  • Mescalero Apaches, about 1800 A.D., painted many of the works. One panel depicts a probable victory dance with snakes, horses, musical instruments -- and sexual behavior.
  • Many of the works are similar to Katchina designs by the Hopi. A red and green mask with star eyes is a forerunner of Star Katchina works.
  • Eight masks in red and orange hues are arranged in an undulating pattern along a wall at "Cave Kiva". It's a ceremonial cave similar to underground kivas of present-day Pueblos.

The Hueco Tanks area has the largest (more than 200) amount of Native American painted masks in North America. The masks are especially significant because they influenced the rest of Southwestern art.

The first to explore and study the mask pictographs were Forrest and Lula Kirkland in 1939. "...(T)he designs themselves reflect considerable artistic ability," wrote Forrest Kirkland, a commercial artist who copied the works while his wife photographed them, and searched for others.

Colors came from ground minerals, with binders including human urine, egg yolks, or animal fats. Green and blue pigments came from copper oxides; red from hematite; white from gypsum...

They were created by people as far back as prehistoric and historic Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, and others making the passage from Mesoamerica northward (El Paso del Norte, as Spain's King Philip II termed it in 1598).

Hueco ("hollows") Tanks was their life-saving oasis in the Chihuahua Desert.

"This became the 'Journey of Death' after the Ice Age ended," ranger Olszewski explained. "The boulders' hollows caught rainwater, and this oasis meant the difference between life and death."

Its life-saving shelter made the area "critical to Native American cultures. It's still an active sacred site," the ranger stressed.

A Native American "Interpretive Fair" is held there on the third weekend in October. And every fourth year, Apaches perform their "Dance of the Spirits".

The sacred and the profane? Hueco Tanks is "probably the biggest mecca for rock climbing in North America. We can't always balance the needs of all stakeholders, and please everyone," Olszewski pointed out. "At times I'm unpopular ... I've been cussed at in several languages."

The state park protects the sanctity of the site in several ways.

  • Access is limited to 70 people at a time (see reservation info below).
  • Two-thirds of the Hueco Tanks area is accessible only through guided tours, and most visitors go on guided tours.
  • Visitors who go it alone are required to watch an orientation video regarding the site's sacred heritage.

Guides carefully instruct, and watch over the guests. "Don't pick up anything -- it may be an arrowhead or a pottery sherd (real term for shard)," Ranger Wanda warned. "Don't touch the pictographs. Some are more than a thousand years old."

The park also protects its animals as a wildlife preserve.

A "whole bunch of critters" (or their tracks) are seen regularly, including mountain lion, bobcat, gray fox, coyote, javelina, badger, ringtail. Three types of rabbits forage in the park; several kinds of rodents and bats are in the rock hills; and 25 species of snakes include five types of rattlers.

"The only snakebite happened when a man from a religious sect in Tennessee picked it up," Olszewski noted. (The star of a reality show "Snake Salvation" died early this year after the Kentucky pastor was bitten by snake and refused treatment.)

On a more pleasant note, more than 200 species of birds visit Hueco Tanks, and birding tours are offered.

When you visit this "veritable oasis in the desert," as Lula Kirkland described it 75 years ago, remember to bring and drink plenty of water.

For more info and reservations: Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, 6900 Hueco Tanks Road No. 1, El Paso, Texas. Access is limited to 70 people at a time, and the limit is reached often on weekends and holidays, and from March through November. So reserve in advance by calling 512-389-8900. Tours must be booked in advance, and depend on availability of trained guides, so reserve by calling 915-849-6684. The closest hotels are around El Paso Airport, about a half-hour drive from Hueco Tanks. The park has 20 campsites. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. Destination El Paso.

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