Here, the three stops we made in early May as we blasted our way out of Texas:
South Llano River State Park
At a mere 65 miles from Fredericksburg, a couple of days at South Llano River State Park ease us into the upcoming desolation of West Texas. This beautiful and peaceful park has a lovely river running through it, plenty of oaks for shade, miles of hiking and biking trails, and a very pretty campground with spacious sites. It’s also a birder’s paradise, with numerous elaborate bird blinds set up throughout the park.
This was our first time here during spring migration, and we delighted in finding dozens of species, including beautiful painted buntings, bright red cardinals, comical black-capped titmice, and brilliant summer tanagers feeding and bathing. In the backcountry, we enjoyed hearing and watching a variety of warblers and other songbirds in the enormous oaks and junipers.
Balmorhea State Park
About 200 miles of barren landscape along US 290 brought us to Balmorhea State Park, a true oasis in the middle of pretty much nothing. The park is built around a natural spring-fed huge swimming pool created by the CCC in the early 1930s. The water is a comfortable 72 degrees year-round, and you swim with whatever happens to live in the spring—tadpoles, fish, and assorted ducks. The campground is a barren desert landscape, with attractive CCC-built picnic shelters in Spanish Colonial style with stucco exteriors and red tile roofs. And the sunsets here are generally stunning.
Hueco Tanks State Park
The desolation of West Texas increases in the 200-mile stretch along I-10 to El Paso. Staying in El Paso is not high on our list of desires, so we were delighted a couple of years ago to discover Hueco Tanks State Park, located just 30 miles northeast of the city, but hundreds of years away in history and culture. Hueco Tanks is known for fabulous rock art—more than 3,000 pictographs have been documented in this ancient outdoor art gallery, including 200 unique masks scattered throughout the boulders in caves, under overhangs, and on rock faces.
The state is serious about protecting the treasures found here. Before you can set foot in the park, you’re required to attend an orientation and watch a short video; you’re then issued a permit that’s good for a year. Although there are four distinct hiking areas, three are accessible only with a guide (a couple of years ago, we were lucky enough to be there to do a guided tour). The fourth, North Mountain, is open to the public—but only by permit, and limited to 75 people per day.
The rock art is mostly hidden and you have to work to find it. Sometimes it’s a relatively easy hike, other times finding the art requires an adventure—the Kiva Caves, for example. This spectacular hike is within the North Mountain area, which means no guide is required, but with no signage, you need directions from the rangers, which go something like this: “Hike toward the boulders that look like a duck, then hike toward the rock formation that looks like an alligator. The alligator is pointing directly to the mouth of the cave.”
The rangers leave out the part about scrambling over the boulders, climbing up the rock face, and figuring out how to navigate the last steep rocky area and chasm that lies just before the alligator. The first time we hiked to Kiva Cave a couple of years ago, I turned to Eric and said, “You have got to be kidding me.” The entrance to the cave is about 18 inches high, which means to enter you have to slide in on your belly. From the outside, the cave simply looks like a yawning black hole. Eric went first, and then lured me in with, “I found them!”
The cave opens up immediately into a beautiful sunlit cathedral of rock. As your eyes adjust, the first two masks appear, colored red with ochre; the other five take a bit more searching. The masks were painted 900 years ago by the Jornada Mogollon, a farming and foraging culture that made this area home; the huecos (hollows in the boulders) captured enough rainwater to make life in this arid land possible. To the Jornada Mogollon, the painted masks represented their ancestral spirits and acted as a bridge between the human and the spirit worlds.
We saw only a handful of other people hiking the two days that we were there. The campground is beautiful, with 20 sites nestled into the red rocks. The tight restrictions extend to campers—you must return to your campsite by 5:00, and you’re not allowed to wander outside of the campground after that time. I admit to feeling a bit shackled by the curfew; we would have liked to hike up the mountain at sunset. But it’s worth it to know that these gorgeous pictographs are so diligently protected.