Hueco Tanks State Historic Site
Ancient cultures have left their mark on the region through pictographs and artifacts.
Among its many attractions, El Paso boasts one of the most significant archeological sites in North America and the state’s only aerial tramway open to the public. Both Hueco Tanks State Historic Site 32 miles east of downtown and Franklin Mountains State Park’s Wyler Aerial Tramway in the heart of El Paso are must-sees.
Travelers with only an hour or two to spare in El Paso should take the time to soar like a red-tailed hawk on the Wyler Aerial Tramway to the top of Ranger Peak. A four-minute ascent in a Swiss-made cable car takes riders almost 1,000 feet up, over a yawning Franklin Mountains canyon, to an observation deck affording a 360-degree view of 7,000 square miles of El Paso-Juarez (Mexico), New Mexico and West Texas.
Hueco Tanks, which derives its name from the Spanish word hueco or hollow, and the Anglo word for a pond, is a Chihuahuan Desert oasis that has attracted humans for 10,000 years.
Opened as a state park in 1970, the 860-acre site encompasses several clusters of 400-foot mountains of granite-like rock that resemble enormous jumbled mounds of stacked cow chips. Rock basins serve as a natural rain collection system that for millennia, even in times of drought, has sustained people, plants and animals. One guided rock art tour leads visitors to a place in Mescalero Canyon, where the words “Watter Hear” and downward-pointing arrow painted on a rock in the late 1800s denote a large cache of rainwater below a crevice in the rocks.
Today, the historic site represents both a natural and cultural oasis, where prehistoric peoples left a treasure trove of more than 2,000 pictographs and petroglyphs, some believed to date back several thousand years. More than 200 painted masks attributed to the Jornada Mogollon culture have been discovered at Hueco Tanks — the largest collection of painted masks in North America — believed by some archeologists to be the precursor to the Southwestern pueblo kachina cult.
Because of graffiti and other past damage to some of Hueco Tanks’ invaluable archeological treasures and its fragile desert ecosystem, park users’ access to the park has been limited in recent years. Park visitors must watch a 20-minute video that explains the history of Hueco Tanks, the importance of conserving its natural and cultural resources and the park’s self-guided and guided-only areas. The video airs in the Interpretive Center, a ranch house built in 1898 by the Escontrias Family, near the place where 40 years earlier a stone and adobe building had served as the Butterfield stage way station on the Overland Trail.
Wanda Olszewski, the park’s exhibit technician, says access restrictions and visitor orientation procedures implemented several years ago have eliminated 98 percent of the incidents of vandalism and graffiti.
— Rob McCorkle
The park is located on Ranch Road 2775, about 9 miles north of U.S. Highway 62/180. Wyler Aerial Tramway is in central El Paso on McKinley Avenue not far off I-10. For more information, contact Hueco Tanks at (915) 857-1135 and Wyler Aerial Tramway at (915) 566-6622.