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Hueco Tanks


Hueco Tanks State Historic Site, northeast of El Paso


Hueco Tanks didn’t serve as a permanent habitation for any group. However, its seasonal water supplies attracted many people, who stayed for days or weeks at a time. The earliest confirmed visitors were Archaic hunter-gatherers, who inhabited western Texas at least 6,000 years ago. However, evidence of even earlier cultures -- dating as early as 11,000 years ago -- shows up in sites not far from Hueco Tanks, so it’s likely that people visited the site at least that far in the past. Later, the Jornada Mogollon built pueblos in the area and visited Hueco Tanks, followed by the Apache and other Plains tribes.

The Site

Hueco Tanks consists of several small, mounded granite outcrops surrounding a large central basin. The site is surrounded by flat desert lands to the west and the Hueco Mountains to the east.

Hollows in the rock (known in Spanish as “huecos”) capture precious rainwater, making the site an important attraction for many cultures over thousands of years.

Over the centuries, many of these visitors drew pictures in caves and rock shelters -- about 5,000 pictures in all. They depict animals, crops, and people. Some rock-art panels tell complete stories, but most are isolated images. The most impressive paintings are the hundreds of stylized faces known as masks.

Astronomical Significance

Astronomical connections at Hueco Tanks are a bit speculative. A few of the pictographs show stars, sunbursts, or crescent Moons.

Many of the masks at the site depict versions of Mesoamerican gods, including the rain god Tlaloc, and Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent.

Quetzalcoatl was one of the most important gods in Mesoamerica, and was worshipped by most major Mesoamerican cultures, from the Olmecs and Maya to the Aztecs. Quetzalcoatl was associated with the planet Venus in both its “morning-star” and “evening-star” forms. One particular mask at Hueco Tanks depicts Quetzalcoatl with stars for eyes. The stars may indicate a connection to the sky, which in turn may suggest that the mask is showing Quetzalcoatl in his Venus form. The mask was painted on the underside of a low-hanging ledge, at a site with an open view of part of the western horizon. Venus would have been visible along this part of the horizon during much of its evening-star appearance.

Public Access

Hueco Tanks State Historic Site is open to the public seven days a week. Access is limited, however, so it’s best to call ahead. Rock art tours are offered by reservation only. The park is located off US 62/180 24 miles east of El Paso, then 8 miles north on FM 2775. Hours: May 1-September 30, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7-7 Friday-Sunday; October 1-April 30, 8-6 daily. 6900 Hueco Tanks Rd. #1, El Paso, 79938, 915-857-1135. For reservations, 915-849-6684

Exhibits on local Indian cultures are available at the El Paso Museum of Archaeology at Wilderness Park, 4301 Transmountain Rd., El Paso, 79924, 915-755-4332. Hours: 9-5 Tuesday-Saturday. Free admission (donations welcome).

References, Resources

A Rock Art Inventory at Hueco Tanks State Park, by John Davis and Kay Sutherland Toness; El Paso Archaeological Society, 1974. Available at the El Paso Museum of Archaeology.

Rock Art of Texas Indians, by Forrest Kirkland and W.W. Newcomb; University of Texas Press, 1967, reprinted 1996. Contains hundreds of Kirkland’s watercolor paintings of rock art at Hueco Tanks and throughout Texas.

Rock Paintings at Hueco Tanks State Historical Park, by Kay Sutherland; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, 1991. A small booklet providing an introduction to the area’s rock art, sold at Hueco Tanks.

Learn about...Texas Indians, by Georg Zappler; Texas Parks & Wildlife Press, 1996.
A learning and activity book for children.

The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times, by W.W. Newcomb Jr.; the University of Texas Press, 1961, reprinted 2002.

Handbook of Texas Online: Hueco Tanks

Handbook of Texas Online: Indian Rock Art

Texas Beyond History: Firecracker Pueblo
Information on an ancient Jornada Mogollon pueblo near El Paso.


Star-eyed Quetzalcoatl mask

Desert flora at Hueco Tanks

Possible Quetzalcoatl mask

Tlaloc, the storm god

Geometric patterns

Geometric patterns

Diamond patterns

The harsh West Texas landscape

A small hueco

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