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Home > Features > Texas Stories > Hueco Tanks Oasis

Hueco Tanks an Oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert
By Greg Fieg

Passengers such as famed author Mark Twain described traveling aboard the Butterfield Overland Stagecoach as being enclosed in a "swinging and swaying ... cage on wheels" whose team flew down one side of a gully and scrambled, clawed and scratched its way up the other, the riders choking and sneezing in the plumes of white caliche dust.

In the mid-19th century respites from their ordeal were rare, but those who chose the southern route found one at the "Hueco Tanks," a series of natural stone basins that collect rainwater in the ancient, hardened magma 32 miles northeast of El Paso.

This is the remote fringe of the Chihuahuan Desert, and though the land is otherwise a forbidding wasteland of parched sand, cacti, rocks and hostile wildlife, the tanks have provided a natural watershed for thousands of years. The ruins of an old-time stage stop can be observed, and a historic, frontier hacienda has been restored as an interpretive center.

Well over a century ago, stagecoach passengers used charred sticks from their campfires to write their names beneath the pitted rock ledges, and their scrawls still appear as fresh as though they were written yesterday. Indian pictographs harken back to much earlier times when the tanks provided sustenance not only to primitive humans, but to foxes, wildcats, falcons, eagles, lizards, snakes and other creatures who still inhabit the area.

During brief wet periods each spring, the tanks are alive with tiny, transluscent fresh-water shrimp unique to the region. Picnicking, hiking, climbing and touring are recommended, but only the most foolish would dare to swim. For more info about Hueco Tanks, check out the TPWD's page on the Hueco Tanks State Historic Site.

Pictograph tours, bouldering and hiking tours, and birding tours are regularly scheduled. Note that because of the cultural importance of the pictographs, visitation to this historic site is limited and tightly controlled. Special reservations and entry restrictions are required. Call the park (1-800-792-1112-Option 3) to plan a visit.

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