EL PASO, Texas – All over Texas there are some magnificent state parks, but some of them get a lot more attention than others. Thirty miles northeast of Sun City you’ll find a fine getaway from the hustle and bustle of El Paso. It’s a site that not many know about, but the spectacular beauty and history of the Hueco Tanks State Park make it well worth a stop.
Ted Pick is a park ranger at Hueco Tanks and it doesn’t take long to figure out why Pick is so over the top about this pretty piece of Texas that has taken millions of years to form. Turns out, it’s got more to offer than just remarkable views.
“If you’re going with the recreation side, we’ve got some of the best hiking and climbing in this region of Texas, and actually some of the best climbing in the world,” said Pick. “If you’re looking for animals, we’ve got some crazy wildlife out here you usually never find in this region in Texas due to the fact that we are an oasis. Now into the history side, we’ve got stuff that goes back almost 11-12000 years back here. Most of it though, they average about 1000 years old.”
The state only allows 70 visitors into the park each day, so reservations are recommended. Of course, with so much to offer, it’s hard to pick a place to start. First things first, how did the name Hueco Tanks come to be?
“So, hueco, Spanish word for hollow, and you had all these hollows in the rock. Tanks being all of the water holders or water catchers. So, those hollows in the rocks, it rains, fills up the hollows with water, they become tanks. So we’ve had people been coming out here for thousands of years to drink that pooled rainwater,” Pick said.
This piece of peculiar rock that sits in the trans-pecos almost looks like it dropped out of the sky and landed in El Paso county. It’s been a haven for travelers for a very long time and they’ve got the cave drawings to prove it, as well as some more modern pieces of graffiti and vandalism that have accumulated over the years.
“You’ve got this 20 foot long white rattlesnake painted on the walls that most people, they completely miss it because they’re just don’t look past the graffiti,” said Pick. “Now, one cool thing about it, is rattlesnakes usually in cave art represent water, and if you follow where this guy points, we’re actually going to be going up into these caves, up in the rocks here, and up there is a natural deposit of water. It’s a natural reservoir or water collection spot, which is pretty cool.”
We headed to just one of the many locations in the park that’s been quenching mankind’s thirst for thousands of years – the Santiago Cooper cave. Once you climb inside, the temperature of the sweltering summer heat drops between 15 to 20 degrees.
The cave also happened to be filled with some unique Native American art, and for a really interesting look at some of the old cave paintings, you have to get up close and personal with a few rocks.
We took a beginner’s approach, sliding over a slab of stone that’s had years of bodies sliding over its surface to create a smooth polish. Once you get to the end, it’s all up from there.
“You can get the nice cool rock against your back and you’ve got that breeze blowing through. On a hot summer day, this is an amazing spot just to hang out,” Pick said. “Up above us here, we actually have three different paintings that we believe they’re of the same figure, but there’s some debate over who this figure is.”
Pick informed us that the leading theory is that the image is of Tlaloc, the Aztec thunder and rain deity. In times of drought when water is life or death in the desert, the rectangular body of Tlaloc was drawn to conjure up a storm.
“It’d have some sort of intricate design on the inside, like checkerboard patterns, zigzags, labyrinthian mazes, and for the top you’d have a head that was usually an upside-down triangle or some sort of square,” said Pick. “He’d have big, wide-open eyes and he’d also have a huge, smiling or grinning mouth like he’s laughing at something.”
The cave art that people come from all over the world to see is masks like this. With more than 200 painted throughout the park, it’s hard to believe how long they’ve been telling their mysterious story.
Even though getting to some of the cave paintings can be a bit precarious, the payoff is always worth it. While standing in the cave, Pick pointed out a painting just over our shoulder.
“That is desert archaic, which means it’s anywhere between 1000 to 3000. We call it a blanket pattern design,” Pick explained.
While no one knows for sure what some of these drawings mean or what story they tell, they still move us and keep us connected to a people that vanished long ago but still have a voice in this world.
“You come out here, you can walk in the places that people have been walking for thousands of years. You can see paintings that are five, six thousand years old. You can see artifacts and pot shards and arrowheads out here. We have them on display, you can sometimes see them when you’re out walking around, that you get that sense of history and that people were here and it’s a really amazing place, and it kind of just makes you realize how much things have changed and how much we’re missing these days,” said Pick.