“Hike about one-quarter mile, take a right at the duck, and head for the alligator on the horizon. Scramble another quarter mile, and walk straight from the alligator’s mouth into the cave. It’s a tight squeeze to get into the cave, but it’s worth it.”
These were the directions the ranger gave us to Cave Kiva, hidden high in the boulders of Hueco Tanks State Park. Evidently, they don’t tell everyone about this special cave, but because we had been so enthusiastic about our guided hike the previous day, he thought we would appreciate it. Cave Kiva isn’t easy to find, even with directions; fortunately, another ranger offered to accompany us partway on our journey to make certain we would recognize the duck and alligator rock formations. (It was a beautiful morning, and I think he was in the mood to get out for a hike.) Hector was great company—he grew up here, playing hide-and-seek among the rocks as a child and partying among the boulders as a teenager. He knows this territory like the back of his hand, and he’s happy that the land, sacred to Native Americans for centuries, is now protected.
Located about 30 miles northeast of El Paso, Hueco Tanks keeps visitors on a short leash. There are a small and lovely gated campground and four distinct hiking areas. Three of the areas are accessible only with a guide. The fourth, North Mountain, is open for hiking, but only by permit, and limited to 75 people each day. We knew that Hueco Tanks is well known for its spectacular collection of primitive rock art, but we didn’t know that it’s also a premier bouldering mecca for climbers.
Although we were there for only one night (wish we could have stayed longer) we managed to schedule a three-hour guided hike the first afternoon and obtained permits for the next morning for exploring on our own. Our guide—who is actually a bouldering guide—had us scrambling up boulders and along ledges to find a handful of the more than 3,000 pictographs for which the park is known. Honestly, I was surprised that we didn’t have to sign accident waivers for the tour. I guess the only thing they’re concerned about is that if you fall, you don’t mess up the pictographs on your way down.
We’ve seen quite a bit of rock art in our many travels throughout the Southwest, but we’ve never seen anything quite like the art at Hueco Tanks. There are many layers, from the pictographs of early hunter-gatherers to the graffiti-like names engraved by those passing through on the Butterfield Stagecoach in the mid-1800s. The rock art that most intrigued us was that of the Jornada Mogollon, a farming and foraging culture who inhabited the area almost 900 years ago. Hollows in the boulders (called “huecos” in Spanish) capture rainwater, creating an oasis in the arid west Texas desert that enabled them to live here.
It’s amazing that this collection of outdoor art has survived the centuries with such vibrancy. The materials were primitive: paints were made from ground minerals (ochre, carbon, and gypsum), bound together with animal fats and plant juices. Brushes were created from yucca fibers and human hair; reeds were sometimes used in an airbrush technique. The Jornada Mogollon left behind a unique legacy of painted masks that represented their ancestral spirits, acting as a bridge between the human and the spirit worlds. With more than 200 painted masks, Hueco Tanks possesses the largest collection in North America.
Cave Kiva was much more than we expected. We had to slither in on our bellies to enter the cave; once inside, we searched in darkness until our eyes adjusted and we finally located the masks. And then, we simply sat in silence.