Day Trips

Hueco Tanks State Historic Site is sacred ground to many Southwestern Native American tribes

Day Trips
by Gerald E. McLeod

Hueco Tanks State Historic Site is sacred ground to many Southwestern Native American tribes. After climbing through the rock shelters, one comes away with the feeling they have been to a cathedral.

More than 3,000 paintings have been found at the pile of volcanic rocks in the desert valley outside of El Paso. The hard igneous rock was exposed when the softer rock around it eroded, leaving a granite extrusion that looks similar to Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg. Instead of being dome-shaped like the Hill Country outcropping, Hueco Tanks is more like three piles, each as high as 400 feet, of red boulders.

The park's name comes from the Spanish word for hallow. The natural basins in the rock catch what little water falls in the arid region. Travelers have relied on it as a water source for 10,000 years. The Butterfield Overland Mail Route even built a stage station at the base of the mountain in 1859.

The lack of respect for the mountain by recent generations has been appalling. The worst damage was with spray paint and the uneducated efforts to remove the graffiti. Fortunately, much of the ancient art was copied in 1939. Despite vandalism, there are still 1,000-year-old paintings that look almost fresh at the oasis that became a state park in 1970.

As a park, the site quickly became a favorite of rock climbers' as well as hiding the largest collection of pre-Puebloan painted masks in North America. As the popularity increased, so did the wear on the natural treasure.

Since 1998, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has restricted access to much of the 860-acre park to tours. The North Mountain is still open to the public. Rock climbers must go with commercial or volunteer guides. Only 20 tent sites are available in the campground.

There is so much art in the caves and crevices that the park offers three different rock art tours, and they cover only about 75% of the painted figures. A three-hour guided tour unveils more paintings than the average person could find in years of searching.

The red, white, black, and yellow paintings are often in unlikely places. Found on cave walls and ceilings, they tell stories or issue warnings. Symbols and spirit figures in hidden niches were likely religious shrines to a personal protector.

Comanche Cave in Apache Canyon (named for two more recent visitors) was a fertility altar, among other uses. The symbols on the cave walls range from crude white figures to black letters painted with wagon-wheel grease and charcoal saying, "Watter Hear."

Hueco Tanks State Historic Site is 34 miles northeast of El Paso off U.S. 62/180. Rock art tours are on Wednesday through Sunday and cost $1 in addition to the $5 entrance fee, and reservations are required. For information on the park, call 915/857-1135 or go to

1,034th in a series. Collect them all. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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Enchanted Rock, Butterfield Overland Mail Route, Comanche Cave

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