Located in a remote canyon 30 miles northeast of El Paso, the park contains a unique assortment of pictographs left behind by the ancient peoples who called this desert oasis home. Most pictographs are painted with red, brown, or black pigments. But the Starry-Eyed Man includes rare green pigments. Not only is it a cool image, the colors are remarkable. I had to see it for myself.
A Very Special—And Strictly Managed—Place
Hueco Tanks State Park protects one of the largest concentrations of Native American rock paintings in North America, as well as the largest number of painted masks. Once a stagecoach stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, the park also contains thousands of inscriptions carved into rocks by visitors who passed this way in the mid-1800s and early 1900s.
This is the most tightly supervised park we’ve ever visited. And for good reason. There are apparently a number of people with poor impulse control who feel the need to add their names to the rocks, including scratching graffiti into the ancient art.
Visitors are required to view a 15-minute video about the ancient peoples and the pictographs, in hopes that they will be inspired to protect the artwork.
Reserve Your Permit Early
Only 70 people at a time can enter Hueco Tanks without a guide. Only North Mountain, one of the park’s three peaks, is open to self-guided exploration. But before you set foot on the trails, you need a permit, even if you’re camping within the park.
A word to the wise: Reserve a permit for North Mountain when you make your camping reservation. Otherwise, you’ll need to show up each morning before 8 a.m. at the ranger station to try for one of the 10 first-come, first-served permits.
Hueco Tanks is a renowned bouldering site, and people come from all over the world to practice clawing their way up the boulders with no equipment other than their hands and feet. Most of the people who come here are interested in bouldering, which leaves the trails wonderfully uncrowded.
Cave Kiva: Follow The Alligator To A Hidden Cave With Ancient Masks
If you’re up for a an adventure, ask for a map to Cave Kiva. (You’ll have to leave your driver’s license hostage.) The hike takes you up North Mountain to a hidden cave, where eight beautifully painted and remarkably well-preserved masks await. For the Jornada Mogollon, an agricultural people who lived here from 200 to 1450 A.D., the masks represented their ancestral spirits and acted as a bridge between the human and the spirit worlds.
The masks are magnificent, and we’ve made the journey to Cave Kiva all three times we’ve visited the park.
Finding The Starry-Eyed Man
And now, the whole reason we returned to Hueco Tanks: Finding the Starry-Eyed Man. This pictograph, along with many others, can only be visited on a guided tour. Reservations for guided hikes must be made at least one week in advance. Tours are given Wednesday through Sunday, the cost is two dollars, and they’re excellent.
If you’re interested in this particular pictograph, be sure to request Tour Number Two. Tour Number One is the default tour, and while it’s interesting (we signed up for this tour on our first visit to the park), it won’t take you to what we think are far more unique pictographs.
In our three-hour tour of rock shelters and caves, we found some of the most memorable pictographs we’ve seen in our travels.
The dry climate and location of the masks help to preserve them. Most are located in caves, or beneath rock overhangs, which protects them from the sun. The Mogollon used paints made from ground minerals such as ochre, carbon, and gypsum, bound together with animal fats and plant juices. They created brushes from yucca fibers and human hair, and used reeds in a primitive airbrush technique.
Gazing down at us from an eight-foot-high rock overhang, the Starry-Eyed Man was just as extraordinary as I had imagined.
About The Campground:
Twenty sites are tucked into red rock boulders at Hueco Tanks Campground, with spectacular sunsets just about guaranteed. The campground offers water and 50-amp electric hookups, showers, restrooms, and a dump station. Verizon coverage is mostly good, but a bit bumpy. Reservations must be made by phone and are limited to three days.
If you’re camping at Hueco Tanks, be prepared to be locked in at night (you can leave in case of emergency). You must be back in the campground by 5 p.m. (might be a bit later in summer). I wasn’t kidding when I said this park is tightly controlled. But it’s worth it!
I wonder why green wasn’t used more often, do you know? The Starry Eyed Man is incredible, almost modern looking isn’t he?
Sue, that’s a good question, and I didn’t get a good answer from our tour guide (nor have I found anything by searching on my own). The green was probably made from ground turquoise or malachite. It would be interesting to know more about this!
There is one green sheild bearing warrior in Montana. As there is no turquoise or malchite located here. I wonder what else would work. Great articles, I enjoy reading them.
Diane, that is so interesting! I wonder if the minerals were trade items? Thanks for commenting—I just looked at your photography website and your work is gorgeous.
Great post, we did some bouldering at the tanks in the early 80’s but haven’t been back since. After reading your words and seeing you great photos I realize its now time to return….thank you!
Thanks, Tim—so glad you enjoyed the post and are inspired to return to the park. How fun that you were there in the 80’s doing some bouldering! I look at the people bouldering and think about trying it…
What unique pictographs! I can see why you love this park so much.
Lisa, the pictographs here really are unique. It’s a lovely, interesting park, and it happens to be conveniently located as we make our way cross-country in the winter. We were happily surprised the first time we visited!
Spectacular stuff! I will put this park on our “must do” list. Thanks for sharing all the information.
I’m so glad this might be helpful for you, Denise. Definitely, put it on your “must do” list. It’s a very special place. Thanks for your comment!
We are so very glad you visited this area prior to our travels across TX. We LOVED finding the masks in Cave Kiva. Your photos of sliding into the cave look just like ours. Luckily, we saw a tour heading into a hidden area as we were returning. After they left, we explored where we saw them go in. How exciting to find another area of beautiful art work. All the tours were full so now we need to return to find the Starry Eyed Man!! We really enjoyed the campground, as well. Smart people to hide the work so well!! Thanks for taking us back!
Pam, you would love the tours and the search for more masks! Every time I think we’ve seen and done everything at Hueco Tanks I realize there’s so much more to discover. The tours are great and so inexpensive. The trick is to make sure to call ahead for reservations and to visit Wednesday through Sunday. I’m glad you enjoyed visiting again with us. :-)
One definitely needs directions to find these hidden gems. It is amazing that anyone ever located these masks. We need to return on tour days with reservations!!
I’m counting on you to find ALL the masks! :-))
I always appreciate a brave soul that will checkout the cave for inhabitants before I enter. Can’t beat having a good man watching out for you.
Haha, no kidding, Debbie! It puts my mind at ease knowing that Eric is watching out for me. I watch out for him, too—but I don’t go into caves first. :-)
Another wonderful find I had never heard of. 30 miles from El Paso sounds like a place we travel through quickly rather than doing much exploring. Will have to change that next time around.
Sue, the next time you’re passing by El Paso, consider making a stop at Hueco Tanks. We were very happily surprised to realize that such a treasure lies so close to the big city. You would enjoy the hiking and the geology!
Good place to highlight on our map. Love the pictographs
Oh good, glad we could add another place to your map, Pam. You put that yellow highlighter to good use! Now make sure you blog about it! :-)
I love the idea that visitors are required to watch the movie. I think that should be in all our state and national parks!
Thanks for the tip about getting our pass when we register. We are up early, but I don’t want to take the chance that we won’t get a pass.
That stone alligator is pretty cool.The masks in Cave Kiva are wonderful. Starry-Eyed Man and all the other masks are amazing. It was another Pinterest crazy post for me. Thanks so much for showing us what we have missed and hopefully will see next trip out West.
You captured one of most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. Excellent job!
Marsha, I’m so glad we could share with you another place for you to add to your Pinterest wish list :-)). You’re going to love it—definitely, make reservations for your hiking passes and for the tours ahead of time. The sunsets are an extra bonus at Hueco Tanks—they’ve been gorgeous every time we’ve been there.
Why have I never heard of this? This was a fascinating read. I love the pictographs, especially the Starry-Eyed Man. I’m not sure when we will be in that part of the country, but when we are, this will be a must. Love your photos!!
Thanks, LuAnn! I’m glad we could show you something new! We enjoyed all of the pictographs, but the Starry-Eyed Man is really special. So are the masks in Cave Kiva. This is a place I know you would love.
Wow another place I’d never know about if it weren’t for you. I am thrilled to hear how tightly controlled this is. I’d like to hear about some of the defacing folks who were fined thousands of dollars for doing so. I can’t get over the colors in this drawings. Simply amazing. Fantastic pictures of them and the birds. No wonder you have been here repeatedly. How long did you stay this time and how far in advance did you make your campground reservation? Will they take Winnona? I just can’t stop dreaming about the things you two do.
Sherry, you would have no problem fitting Winnona into the campground—there are at least several campsites that are plenty long and wide enough for any size rig. I made reservations a couple of months in advance, but the campground has never been full when we’ve been there.
We’re happy the park is tightly controlled, too, especially because it has made a difference in preserving the pictographs.
Wow, Déjà vu all over again. I felt like we should have been on those hikes with you especially the part about ‘finding your way back down can be tricky.’ Did you have to hike through any painful sticker bushes?
Hahaha, we’re never gonna forget that adventure on Cedar Mesa!! No, this was nowhere near as bad as that hike…no sticker bushes at all. It’s time for you guys to meet up with us somewhere again. We promise to not get lost! :-))
I’m glad to see from the comments that I’m not the only one who’s never heard of this place. Very interesting stuff – and I like that it can be a bit of a challenge and a process to really see the good stuff. Makes for a more memorable experience! And it’s absurd that so many people have to be reminded not to wreck stuff, but I’m glad to see they’ve found a balance between preserving the sites and allowing visitors to access them.
Laura, it definitely makes it a more memorable adventure when we have to work for it! The hikes are fun and the rewards (in the form of pictographs) are unique. The park seems to be doing a good job of protecting the ancient art, but they have to be ever vigilant.
I have yet to visit Hueco Tanks but it has always been on my list to visit – thanks for the insider tips!
John, Hueco Tanks is well worth a visit! You’re very welcome for the insider tips. This is a place where planning ahead comes in handy.
Those are some incredible imagery! Looking at the entrance and exit through that narrow though rather claustrophobic gap I am hoping I would persevere as the reward at the end is clearly worth it..,but yikes! Love the bird photos too! Incredible.
Peta, I believe you would be fine—Cave Kiva looks scarier than it is. It’s bright and spacious once you’re inside the cave. (But I’m happy Eric is always there to go first!)
The trails on tour #2 don’t require going into deep caves, so that’s another option. :-)
We have to do a first visit, considering that this is your third time. When we return from the east in 2019, a stop here is required. I will refer back to your tips in getting in to the tours. As always great photos of the pictographs and your body sliding adventures.
Thanks, MonaLiza. You and Steve will have a blast exploring here! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos—be sure to sign up for one of the tours.
Not sure how I almost missed this amazing post!! The pictographs are beautiful, and so unique. Not sure I could manage the necessary self-talk to get myself inside that narrow cave, but luckily I have a friend who took pics inside :-)
Jodee, this is a place that you and Bill would love. And there are plenty of amazing pictographs to see without having to do the cave. :-)