The Deserts of the Southwestern United States are vast and wonderful. Parts of California, much of Arizona & New Mexico and parts of Texas, Utah and Colorado are covered by these deserts. These areas have many unique plants, animals, and geography.
There are those who complain there is nothing in the desert and dread traveling through it. Maybe they have never picked up a travel brochure or book. Maybe they only think of getting from point A to point B.
As someone who has spent months exploring the great American Southwest I have always found something interesting and scenic in the desert so I was very interested in the recommendation of two of my friends on this email list, Sam & Dan. They suggested I visit Hueco Tanks State Park. Hueco Tanks is definitely one of those unique places in the Desert that deserves a visit, and more.
Hueco Tanks is a Texas State Park about 30 miles east of El Paso, Tx and not too far south of the New Mexico Stateline. Hueco is ‘hollows’ in Spanish so the park name is somewhat redundant.
The park itself consists of an area enclosing 4 large granite rock formations rising above the surrounding alluvium of the desert. The park covers over 800 acres of land. The granite is syenite, which is a softer or weaker form of granite. The rocks erode over time, but they don’t erode evenly. As a result of the erosion there are literally thousands of small to large pockmarks or depressions in the various rock faces. Some of the holes are vertical. The ones on flatter surfaces are the water holding Huecos.
Because the area holds water in drier & hotter times it has been a central meeting place for animals and humans since time immemorial. For thousands of years American Indians visited the area leaving pictographs and other artifacts behind. In historical times the land had a Butterfield Overland Stage stop and a cattle ranch on it. In the 1960’s or 1970’s it was briefly held by private developers. Their plan was to develop the area like a Scottsdale, Arizona with upscale golf courses, hotels, & homes.
That plan fell through. The few earthen dams built to hold water for that project are still extant, but the developers have moved on. The park is currently held and protected by the Texas State Park system. Hueco Tanks is a magnet for campers, tourists, and rock climbers so the State Park System has a instituted a limited access system for visitors. The northern quarter or so of the area is open to campers, climbers, and day hikers. The southern ¾ is off limits except to guided tours.
The park opens at 8:00 am and closes at 6:00 pm. If you and your vehicle are inside the park at 6 you better have a permit because you can’t get out, the gates are locked. I arrived and 8:10 am and already there was a line of people trying to get an overnight camping permit. By 8:30 I got through the line to buy a day pass. I had to give them my name and address, then go to the original ranch house about 100 yards away to watch an orientation video before I was allowed to visit the public areas. After the video I got a card stating the next time I visit I don’t have to see the orientation video again.
Obviously the historic and pre historic artifacts in this park are fragile and under pressure by its visitors. This will be demonstrated later.
Despite the ranger’s best efforts to monitor & keep track of the visitors they haven’t been able to keep the mosquitos out of the park. Fortunately, it was a cool & windy day. I kept a hat on along with an expedition weight jacket. Only my face & hands showed, and those are the sites of my what I thought was 3 mosquito bites, but now seems like 6!
I spent about 90 minutes walking around before I got on a guided tour of some of the pictograph sites. I would suggest any of you who visit take a guided tour.
Here are the photos. This first one is an historical marker in front of the old ranch house. The marker says (in typical abbreviated marker fashion):
ONE OF THE MOST HISTORIC SPOTS IN THE SOUTHWEST. FAMOUS WATERING PLACE FOR INDIANS, EMMIGRANTS, AND TRAVELERS. NEAR HERE ON MANY OCCASIONS THE APACHE CHALLENGED THE RIGHT OF WHITE MAN TO PASS THROUGH AND DISTURB HIS COUNTRY. HERE WAS A STATION OF THE SOUTHERN OVERLAND MAIL LINE WHICH LINKED ST. LOUIS WITH SAN FRANCISCO, 1858-1861.
ERECTED BY THE STATE OF TEXAS, 1956”
From behind the old ranch house is a pond area, currently with no water, but showing signs of the recent wet season. This photo faces west. The old ranch house is some 40+ yards to the right on the other side of the small berm or rise that barely begins to show at the far right frame.
Here is a quick & dirty scenic from the same general area along with a panoramic view looking north back to the ranger station & park headquarters. Its not art by any stretch, but helps one to get a feel of the area.
From here I got in my truck and drove a short way to a parking area where access to the open northern quarter of the park is. At the parking lot (4 spaces in front of a rest room) you see these rocks.
Walking south into the rocks a number of scenics became apparent, even though the light was no longer warm with the rising sun. The 1st two are of some Yucca plants near the end of their blooming season. I’m quite pleased with both shots. The first one is 55mm focal length on the 24-105mm lens, f/16, my standard ISO of 640, and 1/500th of a second exposure. A 55 mm focal length is about a normal size focal length or about 1x. As always the lens carries a B+W 77mm UV-Haze filter. As always the filter gets dirty, but the front of the lens doesn’t.
The second one is 24mm on the same lens. This is a very wide angle or about 1/2x of normal. It is shot at f/22 for the maximum depth of field. The exposure is 1/250th of a second. Again ISO is 640.
Farther up the trail is a pond. This is not one of the Huecos! It is only a pond. As I approached the ground got soft, muddy, then completely covered with water. There is a duck swimming in the water in this shot, but it is barely visible.
It was getting close to my tour time so I began to walk back to the truck. This scenic and a portrait of a Zebra Tail Lizard are the result. The lizard watched me as I walked by. It had its idea of a comfort space and wouldn’t let me get any nearer than about 15 feet. I had the zoom out to 105mm which is only about 2x normal. I then cropped the photo to make it look like it is about a 500mm shot. If it looks too pixelated then that is the result of trying to get too much detail out of too little information.
From here I drove back to the ranch house where I picked up the walking pictograph tour.
The rock art in the park covers over 3,000 known drawings, and lots of graffiti. Most of the drawings are pictographs, or drawings painted or chalked onto the rock. Some of these actually seem to be fading. The rest of the drawings are petroglyphs, or drawings etched into the rock. Examples of both are below.
After lots of walking we arrived at a place called Umbrella Rock. Underneath the rock is a small cave and crawl space. On the roof of the cave are some pictographs. The most practical access was to lie flat on my back, and shimmy through the crawl space. I went head first and pushed myself with my legs & feet. The vertical clearance was maybe 24 inches. I constantly had to worry about banging my head because that’s what went first. After that I had to worry about banging up the camera. Neither one got banged up, but both got dusty. The crawl distance was only 6 feet or so, but getting in and out was still an effort.
The roof of the cave has these pictographs. Once in the cave there is barely enough room to sit up so I shot these while lying on my back. I had to twist this way and that to frame the photos. All of these are shot at 24mm (very wide angle) focal length, with a flash. The camera was in Program mode, which meant the depth of field was about nil at f/4 and the shutter speed was always 1/60th of a second.
I almost never use a flash. In Program mode the camera will almost always yield an acceptable ‘vanilla’ flash photo, and that is exactly what I got. My son Aaron and my nephew Keith are much better with flash than I am. I expect they could and would do a whole lot better. The photos are not art, but they are illustrative of what was inside.
Once out from under Umbrella Rock we walked a short way to another cave that had a bit easier access. Although we entered stooped over, we left standing up from a different side of the cave. This is a shot of the area with the 15mm fish eye. That small triangular spot of light at the bottom center is about 5 feet tall. We came in that way. Remember this is with a fish eye. The roof is some 20+ feet above. This cave may be a recess under a lot of fallen boulders. It wouldn’t surprise me. There are balancing rocks throughout the park that look like they could fall with the slightest effort.
Inside are pictographs, and marks of visitors past. There are many sites throughout the American West and Southwest where people have etched their marks. Some of these go back to the 17th century. This fellow had the poor judgment to partially cover some of the older Indian pictographs. In his defense there was a different ethic in 1898 and leaving your name behind was common.
These are older pictographs. The fading out cartoon like face at lower right is considered to be Native American in origin.
This next one seems to be a flower. The bluish marks to its right are graffiti.
This one shows what seems to be a grass or corn stalk. It was painted lying over on its sited in exactly the attitude that you see here.
Again, all these pictographs are shot with flash in program mode with all that implies. That also explains why the light & the focus sometimes seems to fall off or soften.
Stepping out of the cave area I looked up and saw this eroded face granite cliff. This was not in the public area otherwise we may have seen some rock climbers on this rock face. Hueco Tanks is a mecca for rock climbers. It has routes and climbs of all difficulties ranging from the very easy to the almost impossible.
Nearby under an overhang is this frog pictograph. The area beneath it has filled with sand and debris so the frog is just a few inches away from being covered up. I had to hold the camera in front of me to get some photos. Complicating the shot is the drawing is on an overhanging diagonal rock face so the pictograph is receding from you as you look at it. The top is closer, the bottom is a few inches farther away. Complicating it more is the terrible depth of field at f/4 in the Program mode. In person I have seen thousands of petroglyphs and pictographs. I don’t recall many or any frogs among them except this one, but that is only my recollection, not a fact.
The guide mentioned another interesting fact about this little frog. He said (assuming I get the term correct) the rangers consider this pictograph to be “arco astronomica”. Short definition – that means once a year the sun supposedly shines on this spot.
Nearby are these two pictographs, a corn stalk and what looks like a canoe with two humans. Of course it could be a field with two plants sprouting, or something else entirely. You choose.
Along the way back to the ranch house we stopped at what is called Area 17. Area 17 has two parts, the lower part where we visited, and the upper part which we didn’t have time to visit. Our guide, Charlie, thought the upper part was more spectacular, but that will have to wait for another visit.
Here are some photos of Area 17.
This one is called the spacemen.
A visitor’s mark.
And lots of visitor’s marks, many covering older pictographs. Charlie told us the story of a person, not too many years ago, who arrived at the park with a photo from a magazine of this spot below. Never having visited before, she asked to be taken to see the place for herself. It turned out she was the grand-niece of Mr. Wayland whose mark shows so prominently.
Here is a canine or coyote pictograph still showing through more recent marks.
This next one is the largest pictograph in the park. It is named the White Snake. It is some 19 feet in total length. Its head with orange eyes are at the upper right of the frame. It is covered in lots of graffiti.
One of the many residents of the park is this particular variety of blister beetle. At times that day they seemed to be quite abundant. They secrete a chemical, cantharidin, that will blister your skin as bad as a terrible sun burn. This is sometimes referred to as a football blister beetle because of the “shoulder pads”. They are happy to ignore you, and its best to ignore them. A much better photo than mine of either the same species or a closely related one can be found at http://www.cirrusimage.com/beetles_blister_Megetra.htm. Many blister beetles have warning colors.
My tour, scheduled for 2 hours actually ran about 2 ½. From there I drove back to the rock site I visited earlier that morning. I was hoping to find another cave in the rocks that the rangers said had some spectacular pictographs. I climbed among the rocks for an hour with no success, but I did get a few photos of some dried out Huecos, and a great cardio workout.
This post brings me current. I am in El Paso with one more weekend, Oct. 20-21. I hope to have some photos of the Santa Theresa, NM War Eagles Air Museum and White Sands, NM. Or maybe I’ll be back at Hueco Tanks braving the mosquitos and looking for that cave I missed. We’ll see.