Religious masks, geometric designs, animals, and people wearing intricate headdresses are painted are the rocks. You have to slide under rock overhangs, climb up to shelters and squeeze between boulders to see them. Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site is unique in how its rock paintings tell the stories of ancient people. The pictographs and petroglyphs are clues to their lives in the Chihuahuan Desert. It has the largest number of ceremonial mask paintings in North America.
It takes about 50 minutes to get there from downtown El Paso. Huge hills of jumbled boulders rising out of the desert floor. Perhaps ancient people saw them as a sacred trinity and the rocky cathedrals beckoned them to seek shelter here. About 35 million years ago, hot magma for an underground volcano didn’t quite make it to the surface and cooled under a layer of limestone. Erosion and weathering on the massive formations caused hollows, called huecos in Spanish, to form. The rock basins capture and retain water. The natural oasis is filled with lush vegetation.
Hueco Tanks is one of the premiere places in the world for rock-climbing, in particular bouldering. It’s also a mecca for archeological research since this island in the desert once sheltered the Jornada Mogollan People, Mescalero Apaches and Tigua Indians. There are more than 3,000 pictographs (rock paintings) hidden in crevices, shelters and caves. The best way to see them is on a guided tour, which are offered Wednesday through Sunday. You need to make a reservation in advance. I was thrilled when I found out I was the only one on the morning tour. My guide Bob has been guiding at Hueco Tanks for over fifteen years and has lived in El Paso since 1963. As we started walking along the trail, he said with the water pools, Mesquite trees with edible berries and prickly pear made the area “like Walmart of 1000s years ago.” As the stories of the pictographs reveal, Hueco Tanks was a place of spiritual and religious ceremonies from prehistoric times until the late 19th century.
As we walked the flat trail, Bob gave me some background on the pictographs and people who lived here. He told me available materials were used for the paint colors. Carbon and manganese were used for black. Hematite and limonite made the red hues. Limonite and ochre made yellow. White clay and gypsum made white. Paint brushes were made from yucca and human hair. Finger painting was also done. Spearheads, called Folsom Points, have been found in Hueco Tanks that date back to Paleo-Indians between 8,000-9,000 B.C. Nomadic Indians called Arcahaic Indians were here 6,000 B.C. to 450 A.D. They paintings were mostly red abstract polychrome designs in the early Archaic style and shaman figures and animals in yellow in the middle and late Archaic style. From 450 A.D. to 1400 A.D, the Jornada Mogollon People grew corn, beans and squash at the base of the hills. Around 450 A.D., a strong religious influence from Mesoamerica flourished in the area. Their paintings are of animals, birds and big-eyed faces, which likely represented weather gods like Tlaloc, a rain diety. As Spaniards arrived, Plains Warrior Indians like the Apaches and Comanches were here from around 1500 A.D. to 1879 A.D. Their pictographs depict contact with Spaniards through drawings of horses, churches and people in European dress. The youngest Indian painted date at Hueco Tanks is 1849. On or near some of the Indian rock art, I saw names and dates written by people dating back to the 1800s. Hueco Tanks was a stopping place on what was called the “Upper Immigrant Road.” That road was used between 1858 and 1860 as part of the Butterfield Overland Mail route. In 1898, rancher Silverio Escontrias bought a large ranch containing Hueco Tanks. The cattle ranch became a tourist attraction by the 1940s. Fort Bliss army units trained at Hueco Tanks in the 1940s and 1950s. El Paso County bought Hueco Tanks in 1965. In May 1970, Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site officially opened as state-run public lands.
At our first stop called Lower Site 17, I had to look beneath the graffiti of names written in the 1800s to see pictographs of horses created by Mescalero Apaches. Those likely date back to the 1500s or 1600s as Spaniards explored the region. Because of the graffiti, it’s also called Shame Cave.
We walked the trail for a short piece then quickly hiked up some slick rock to what’s called the umbrella shelter. Bob told me to slide on my back headfirst into the open niche in the rock. Knowing that rattlesnakes are common, I was skittish to stick my head up under a rock. I had Bob checked it out first. The paintings were rudimentary, but I couldn’t help but wonder what story they told. Bob said most likely because they’re hidden away, the meaning is something very personally to the artist. Perhaps an ancient diary of sorts? Maybe.
General consensus of anthropologists and archaeologists is that rock art was part of a ritual or ceremony. As we climbed and crawled, Bob was as agile as a mountain goat as he easily traversed the rocky and steep terrain. I watched my footing carefully and was thankful I was wearing shoes with good traction as we bouldered up to see some mask pictographs painted in Mescalero Canyon.
Bob takes me through a triangle crevasse and into what I’d call a cavern in the boulders. highlights a pictograph for me. It’s a mask. There are more than 200 mask painting in Hueco Tanks. That’s more than anywhere else in the United States, and even North America.
In Comanche Cave, I felt like we had hit a history jackpot. There was so much in this cave. I was fascinated by white paintings done by Apache Indians, name carvings by the Tiguas and how a water hole was marked. Just inside the cave’s entrance is W-A-T-T-E-R painted on the wall. Closer to the water hole that’s hidden behind the boulders is the word “watter” painted again with “here” spelled “hear.” We scrambled back farther in the cave and found the water hole with water still in it.
In the cave is a painting of the sun by the Tigua Indians. In their interpretation, the outside ring represents the sun. Inside is the three-sided sun pueblo with an arrow point up inside of it. That symbolizes their hope to one day return to their home place, which is south of Albuquerque.
There’s also a pictograph of a man holding a spear and a decorative shield that to me looks like a sun shield. There are also some handprints in white.
We had to work our way through some thick brush between boulders to see a big red rectangle mask pictograph.
We climbed through a small tunnel to see more pictographs, then climbed up to rock shelter filled with grinding holes that would have been used to grind beans or corn for food or grind rocks for paint. People would have spent a lot of time there grinding and from that shelter, they had a great view.
As we climbed down from the shelter, we had to scoot on our booties through a steep section.
As we traverse back across the rock, I looked up into a shelter and spotted more pictographs. The rock art is everywhere in Hueco Tanks.
Our final stop was a big pictograph telling multiple stories. It depicts the 1841 Hueco Tanks Battle Scene of when Tigua warriors surprised some Kiowa Indians at Hueco Tanks. On the right side painted in white is a warrior with a Kiowa by the neck signifying they were trapped in this camp. On the left side is a figure with a narrow waist, likely indicating the Kiowa were starving with little food or water during the 10-day battle. From that figure there’s a snake, which would signify water. But there is no contact between the figure and snake which likely means there was no water in a drought. The Kiowa were able to creep out of their cave one night. Two Kiowa men were killed, and one wounded warrior was captured. The Kiowa thought their attackers were Mexican soldiers. The Tigua thought they were fighting either Comanche or Apache Indians.
If you are heading to Hueco Tanks State Park and Historic Site, I highly recommend reserving a slot in advance for one of the guided tours. It is the best way to see the pictographs and learn the history of the area and people. For the tour, make sure you have plenty of water along with wearing closed toe shoes with good traction for the up and down climbing you’ll be doing in Mescalero Canyon.
Author Jennifer Broome spent three days exploring El Paso including a morning at Hueco Tanks. Check out that blog and hiking McKittrick Canyon in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. For other blogs in West Texas, read One Night in Marfa and Girls Weekend in Big Bend National Park and Terlingua.