Hueco Tanks State Historical Park
by Jay W. Sharp
Born of molten rock from the earth’s interior more than 30 million years ago and stripped bare by the ebb and flow of subsequent weathering and erosion, the three massive granitic hills that we now call Hueco Tanks rise like an island more than 400 feet above the Chihuahuan Desert floor in far West Texas.
You can see and feel the evidence of the primal creative forces in Hueco Tanks’ labyrinthine chambers, secluded alcoves, rocky overhangs, and natural basins and cisterns, all rendered gloomy and a little spooky by the formation’s darkened stone. It seems frozen in time, now rendered almost impervious to wind and water by a varnish-like coating called “patina.”
Over the millennia, Hueco Tanks has drawn desert plant and wildlife communities and prehistoric and historic man into its folds primarily because its huecos (a Spanish word for “hollows”) especially the deep ones that lie beneath sheltering rock ceilings trap and hold drinkable water, that most valuable desert commodity. Indeed, as Robert Miles and Ron Ralph said in an article in The Handbook of Texas Online, Hueco Tanks held virtually the only dependable source of water between the Pecos River, roughly 120 miles to the east, and El Paso, some 30 miles to the west.
Around Hueco Tanks’ margins and in its canyons and arroyos, you will find plants that don’t grow in the surrounding intermontane basin. You will see mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and even aquatic life that almost seem to vanish into rocky hideaways. You will see the fingerprints of man’s passage in imagery, artifacts, carbon-stained soils, fire-cracked rocks and crumbling rock walls.
Saved from development in the 1960’s, Hueco Tanks evolved from a county park to a state park to the present 860-acre state historic site, which is administered and protected by Texas Parks & Wildlife. It bears a 1936 Texas Centennial marker. It holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places (1971). It beckons now to enthusiasts for native plants and wildlife, rock climbing, prehistory and history.
The Natural History
Like an island, Hueco Tanks harbors distinctive plant and wildlife communities. Its sheltered pockets of fertile soil and the proximity of water serve as what biologists call “microclimates,” which nurture life.
Like the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert, the site supports shrubs such as creosote, honey mesquite, acacia, Mormon tea and four-wing saltbush; cacti such as various prickly pears, chollas, hedgehogs and pincushions; yuccas such as the soaptree, datil, Torrey and lechuguilla; desert grasses such as tobosa, side-oats gramma and fluffgrass; and some mavericks such as the ocotillo and the sotol. In protected areas with sufficient moisture, it nourishes trees such as the desert willow and the Rio Grande cottonwood.
Unlike the surrounding desert, however, Hueco Tanks sustains a remnant oak-juniper woodland, with Arizona white oak, one-seed juniper and other plants that have descended from those that grew widely in the area at the end of the Ice Ages, 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. Within the site’s plant assemblage, you can even find unusual and even unique desert plants such as comal snakewood , a three- to 10-foot high shrub with exceptionally high heat tolerance, or the Texas hummingbird mint, a semi-woody and multiple branched perennial with dark pink blooms.
Hueco Tanks’ congregation of wildlife much more populous and diverse than that of the immediately surrounding desert includes a host of mammals, birds and reptiles as well as several snails, two toad species and even a salamander. It even has three aquatic species.
The mammals include at least 13 species of bats, two dozen species of rodents and three species of skunks. With good luck, you may see a coyote, a gray or kit fox, a raccoon, a badger or a mule deer, and with extraordinary luck you might even see a bobcat or, possibly, a mountain lion. Two centuries ago, you would likely have seen a black bear or a bighorn sheep. Hueco Tanks’ archaeological sites have yielded not only the bones of the predecessors of today’s desert-basin and mountain-range species, but also those of bison (which could suggest trade with plains Indians) and of mammoth (which certainly indicate the antiquity of human occupation).
The Hueco Tanks bird checklist says that the site’s “combination of trees, water and sheltering rocks act as a powerful magnet drawing birds to the park... Besides concentrating the regular birds of the area, the trees and seasonal ponds in the park stand out as a beacon to migrants looking for a resting place. This oasis effect has made the park one of the best traps for migrant avifauna in West Texas, as evidenced by the number of rare birds found here. A total of 197 species (plus 6 subspecies) have been documented as occurring in the park...” At just about any time, you may see birds such as the red-tailed hawk, scaled quail, mocking bird, mourning dove, white-throated swift, ladder-backed woodpecker, western kingbird, verdin, Say’s phoebe, ruby-crowned kinglet, several wrens and the turkey vulture. Seasonally, you will come upon a changeable mix of migratory raptors, water birds, hummers, warblers, finches and others.
Hueco Tanks’ reptile community comprises at least 15 species of lizards, including the increasingly rare Texas horned lizard, and 11 species of snakes, including five different rattlers. You have to watch carefully for the rattlers. I’ve seen several blacktail rattlesnakes at the site, and I know of one youngster who got bitten by a blacktail while hiking through some of the creosote bush in the heart of Hueco Tanks some years ago.
While Hueco Tanks supports a few snails, toads and the barred tiger salamander, its tadpole, clam and fairy shrimp translucent, delicate aquatic creatures in the middle of a desert seem the most incongruous, the least expected. Superbly adapted to the desert environment, the shrimps, called “branchiopods” by biologists, may live for more than a decade in a semi-developed, embryonic state in the site’s huecos. They survive prolonged drought, desiccation and temperature extremes, according to Dyanne Fry Cortez, “Life in a Puddle,” Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, July 1006. After a rainfall, when the huecos trap water, the shrimp “bloom” promptly, feed voraciously, mature and mate swiftly and produce a new generationall a race to propagate the species before the water evaporates into the desert sky. A few days after a late summer rain, you can observe tadpole shrimp half-inch-long, horse-shoe-shaped creatures gliding across the bottom of a water-filled hueco near the top of the site’s northernmost hill. It overlooks a desert basin that receives perhaps eight inches of rain in an average year.
The Human History
Roughly 10 millennia ago, near the end of the Ice Ages, Hueco Tanks received its first human visitors, small nomadic bands of big-game hunters, who preyed on the mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, horses and camels of the era. Called “Paleo hunters,” they left spear points as evidence of their passing. Although it is far from certain, they could have painted the first images rock art on the stone surfaces at Hueco Tanks.
Between ten and two millennia ago, with the Ice Ages ended, the big game extinct and the climate hotter and dryer, Hueco Tanks became a site for the comings and goings of hunters and gatherers “Desert Archaic peoples” who took the smaller game and harvested ripening wild plants. More culturally diverse than their Paleo predecessors, they lived in rock alcoves or in the open desert, leaving behind grinding stones, plant fiber weavings, and bone and lithic artifacts. They experimented with the new phenomenon of agriculture. They painted stylized human figures, hunting scenes and geometric designs on the stone surfaces, leaving the earliest sure evidence of rock art at the site.
From early in the first millennium A. D. to late prehistoric times, Hueco Tanks was home for a more sedentary people, called the Jornada Mogollon, who still hunted wild game and gathered wild plants but who also lived in small hamlets; built a few “pit” houses and possibly small Puebloan-style structures; cultivated corn, beans and squash; manufactured pottery; adapted the bow and arrow; and developed extensive trade networks. Apparently profoundly spiritual, they produced one of America’s great galleries of paintings on stone, including ritual scenes, mythical figures, ceremonial masks, human and animal figures and geometrical designsall rich in a mysterious symbolism. Some of their paintings point to religious and cultural influences from the great city-states of Mesoamerica, far to the south. In the 15th century, the Jornada Mogollon people abandoned the greater region, with some possibly heading to the upper Rio Grande to join new Puebloan settlements and others apparently reverting to the life style of the Desert Archaic peoples.
Hueco Tanks, although located on an ancient trail that ran from the Guadalupe Mountains to the El Paso region, evidently lay essentially deserted from the abandonment until the 17th century. At some point, it became the setting for encampments, ceremonies and rituals for Tigua Puebloans, Mescalero Apaches, Kiowas and probably Comanches. The Tiguas likely came on pilgrimages, and the other peoples raiders all probably came primarily for refuge and celebration. Hueco Tanks bears the marks of them all on its stone surfaces in images depicting sacred symbols, fertility, dance and violence.
With the coming of Spanish-speaking people from the south and English-speaking people from the east, Hueco Tanks became a stopover for emigrants, adventurers and John Butterfield’s Overland Mail coaches. In 1898, it became the center of a major ranch established by Silverio Escontrias, whose descendants still live in western Texas.
While Hueco Tanks was apparently seldom visited by Spanish- or English-speaking people in the early days, it did become the scene of a battle between Kiowas and Mexicans in 1839, when a Kiowa raiding party of about 20 warriors found itself under ambush by a Mexican militia of several hundred soldiers. After a torturous 10-day siege in a labyrinthine cave at the end of a box canyon in the easternmost hill, the Kiowas escaped under the leadership of their principal chief Dohasan, a celebrated figure in the tribe’s history. Today, in the box canyon, you can still follow the course of the battle, which the Kiowas laid out quite clearly in their oral history (recorded by James Mooney in his “Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians,” Seventeenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1895-96). Near the mouth of the canyon, you can see what may be a Kiowa depiction of the battle in a panoramic painting on a large rock exposure, although much of the imagery has been damaged by vandals.
Exploring Hueco Tanks
Hueco Tanks’ extraordinary natural history, pre-history and history have led to a swelling of potential visitors and inevitable acts of vandalism, forcing the Texas Parks & Wildlife to assert stringent regulations to protect the site. By making prior arrangements, however, you can secure a permit to explore the northernmost hill on your own, and you can join guided hiking, birding, rock climbing and rock art tours throughout Hueco Tanks. You can also get reservations for the limited camping and picnic facilities.
In exploring the northern hill, you will depending on the route you choose have to negotiate loose rock, moderately steep slopes and several crevices. Along the foot of the hill and in the canyons and washes, you will find the mix of Chihuahuan Desert and Ice Age remnant plants, the various communities of wildlife, and sites with Archaic or Jornada Mogollon rock art. With good luck, a few days after a decent rain, you may find shrimp in water-filled huecos, which range from a couple of feet to perhaps 15 feet or so in diameter. Near the top of the north hill, you can visit Kiva Cave, a prehistoric spiritual grotto with a gallery of haunting images of Jornada Mogollon ceremonial masks.
If you join a guided hiking tour, you can choose between lower or upper-level trails, which will lead you to different rock formations, plant and wildlife, rock art and desert vistas. You will have the benefit of a knowledgeable guide, who can take you directly to the most rewarding locations.
If you opt for a guided birding tour, you might consider taking one during the migratory seasons spring or fall when the mix of birds changes unpredictably from year to year and day to day. With good luck, you may see birds as small as the Rufous hummingbird or a large as the golden eagle; as dull as the brown-headed cowbird or as colorful as the American goldfinch; or as plebian as the great-tailed grackle or as regal as the prairie falcon. Most likely you will find the white-throated swift, the black-chinned hummer, the yellow-rumped warbler and various wrens. Following decent rains, you may see a variety of waterbirds, unexpected visitors in the middle of the desert.
If hills and mountains stimulate your passions, you likely already know that Hueco Tanks ranks among the top rock climbing, or bouldering, sites in the world. (Others include, for instance, Fontainebleau, near Paris; Stanage, in the United Kingdom; and Castle Hill, in New Zealand.) In climbing independently on the northern hill or with guided tours on the other two hills, you will find, say climbers, a rock type ideally suited to the sport, with unparalleled concentrations of climbing “problems.” You may find yourself climbing next to enthusiasts from Europe, Asia or Australia.
In exploring Hueco Tanks rock art, either on the north hill or in guided tours, you will run the risk of becoming obsessed with the medium. You will see, in the symbolic images painted in rocky recesses, niches, overhangs, fissures and caves, mystifying expressions of the spiritual life of long-past peoples. You may be drawn into the works of Southwest desert rock art researchers like Polly Schaafsma, Ekkehart Malotki, Dennis Slifer, James Duffield, F. A. Barnes, Stephen W. Hill and Kay Sutherland. You may feel compelled to explore other rock art sites. You will certainly hear again the siren call of Hueco Tanks.
Visiting Hueco Tanks
The Hueco Tanks State Historical Site lies some 32 miles northeast of El Paso, Texas, off U. S. 62 and 180, on Ranch Road 2775. Unfortunately, it lies only a few miles east of an area of urban blight. Fortunately, however, the 860-acre site itself has benefited from the care and regulation by Texas Parks & Wildlife, so it remains an engaging experience.
In a recent conversation I had with Texas Parks & Wildlife site superintendent Wanda Olszewski, she strongly recommends that you call ahead to make arrangements for your visit to Hueco Tanks. She and her staff will show you an informative video to acquaint you with the site and the regulations. They will then issue you a backcountry permit, which allow you access to the northern hill. They will assign you a guide and a time for a tour, or tours, for the remainder of the park.
You can contact the site at:
Hueco Tanks State Historic Site
6900 Hueco Tanks Road #1
El Paso, Texas 79938
Web site http://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/hueco-tanks
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