climbing

The Fascinating History of Hueco Tanks, the Birthplace of Modern Bouldering

For anyone who loves to boulder, a pilgrimage to Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site is inevitable. And it’s no wonder: This beloved Texas landmark is considered the mecca of modern bouldering, with a style of climbing found nowhere else in the world, all set against the backdrop of stark desert and reddish-brown rock. It’s the birthplace of the V-grades, the national bouldering standard, and the first place where climbers flocked purely for the boulders rather than roped routes.

This ancient place also has a 10,000-year-old legacy, where prehistoric people hunted now-extinct bison, sought shelter, and performed sacred ceremonies commemorated on the rock through paintings. From early inhabitants to rock climbers, Hueco Tanks, which is located about 32 miles northeast of El Paso, is indeed a sacred space, one that every climber should visit to experience some of the best bouldering in the world.

Why Hueco?

Any climber will tell you that the rock at Hueco Tanks feels like it was made for climbing. Hueco’s boulders are bullet-hard, with features found nowhere else in the bouldering world, like the surfboard hold on the Moonshine Roof or the impressive Martini Cave. This ancient igneous rock provides a place for complex movement that’s gymnastic-like and physical, yet delicate and technical. It’s one of the best places in the world to climb complex roof problems and helps climbers develop a combination of technique and strength in their climbing.

The rocks at Hueco Tanks are actually a remnant of uplifted domes of molten rock that were weathered and eroded over millennia and now contain “huecos,” or “hollows.” The hollows refer to the depressions in the rock that are perfect for holding water, providing an oasis for plants, wildlife, and humans—and now for the hands, feet, and knees of rock climbers.

A Snapshot in Time

People of the Jornada Mogollon culture left a rich and distinctive legacy on the rocks during the roughly 1000 years that they occupied Hueco Tanks. Based on the large numbers of pictographs attributed to these people, it also appears that painting-as a ritual or artistic expression-played a large role in the lives of these foraging farmers. Among more sedentary people, the need for rain and favorable growing conditions for crops likely were critical concerns, expressed in rituals and conveyed through the painting of sacred symbols. Many of these symbols, thought to refer to water, lightning, clouds, and other natural elements, appear to hark back to more ancient times and far away places, where older cultures had similar concerns. At Hueco Tanks, these depictions, along with hundreds of masks, faces, dancing figures, animals, and other images, provide glimpses of the spiritual world of the Jornada Mogollon. #huecotanks #txstateparks #tpwd

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But Hueco hasn’t always been a rock climbing destination—humans have inhabited Hueco Tanks for millennia, leaving their mark on the area in the form of rock art paintings, or pictographs. The collection of rock art in Hueco is remarkable, with thousands of paintings by multiple groups over the course of 10,000 years.

Painted masks with almond eyes and square faces stare out from the rock, along with ancient Mexican gods resembling serpents or jaguars. Hunting scenes abound, with horned humans and tiny, delicate deer and mountain sheep. Mysterious wavy lines and abstract symbols from ancient humans still stump archaeologists.

More recently, modern nomadic Native Americans like the Kiowa and Apaches have left their mark, too, drawing pictures of elaborate victory dances and hunts. As European and Spanish traders entered the scene a few hundred years ago, Native Americans drew pictures of cattle, churches, horse riding, and people dressed in European clothing.

From Rock Art to Rock Climbing

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Today, the only new marks on the rock you’ll see in Hueco Tanks are chalk ones on bouldering holds. But Hueco wasn’t always a bouldering destination. Early climbers boldly tackled the surrounding cliffs using ropes, minimal trad protection, and the occasional bolt.

But over decades, climbers began exploring the bouldering potential of Hueco, and the results were impressive. In the 1970’s, Mike Head established the Mushroom Roof in Hueco, comparable in grade to Yosemite’s bouldering test piece of the time, Midnight Lightning. This was unprecedented—until that point, Hueco was just a local crag, and besides, bouldering was usually done to train for big-wall summits, not for its own sake.

But over the next decade, climbers headed in increasing numbers to Hueco, attracted to the pure joy of working and finessing moves on a small-scale environment, pushing their limits of strength, technique, and power as they topped out the boulders.

It wasn’t until climber John “Vermin” Sherman came to the scene in the 1980’s that the story of these desert boulders was forever changed. Sherman established more than 500 bouldering routes of varying difficulty, and soon, Hueco Tanks became the first major place in America where people gathered to boulder rather than to climb tall walls.

As the sport became more popular, the need for a bouldering guidebook began to emerge, and Sherman rose to the challenge, publishing Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America in 1994. His original manuscript didn’t include a grading system, because according to Sherman, “Numbers got no soul. People need to get over that stuff.” But his publishers required it, so he set about creating a grading system using the “V for Vermin” grades that he and his climber buddies had jokingly used to grade their first ascents. Joke or not, it was the first time in the U.S. that an open-ended grading system had been used for boulders, and it established Hueco as the standard setting area across the nation. Now, the V-grades are used throughout North America, at every climbing gym and in every outdoor bouldering area.

Red Tape and Playing by the Rules

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After Sherman’s guide came out, bouldering in Hueco blew up. Visitors swelled in the 1990’s as Hueco Tanks was featured in climbing magazines and established climbers came from around the world. But all that popularity came with a downside, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department became concerned with the impact that visitors were having on the vegetation, wildlife, and the potential harm to archaeological sites and pictographs. In 1998, park officials created the “Public Use Plan,” closing two-thirds of the park (East Mountain, East Spur, or West Mountain), unless visitors enter with a park-approved tour guide, and limiting access to the North Mountain to only 70 people a day.

To visit Hueco, it’s essential to plan ahead as early as possible. Call Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Hueco Tanks reservation line up to 90 days in advance to snag a spot. Once you have a reservation, show up at the park gate before 10 am to claim your spot, or call the parks to hold your reservation if you’re late. This will allow you to enter the North Mountain area, the only area open to self-guided visitors.

If you don’t have reservations for the North Mountain, there are two options for access: Show up at the gate before 8 am to wait in line for any open reservations (the park saves 10 spots a day for walk-ins), or come after 10 am, when all unclaimed spots open up. Tours meet at the front gate, and sometimes they’ll have open space and you can join.

The other way that people get into the park, and the only way in to East mountain, East Spur, or West Mountain is with a guide. The park’s guides take groups out bouldering or to see rock art, making sure that leave no trace ethics are followed and that park rules are closely observed.

There are two types of guides in the park: volunteer and commercial. Volunteer guides cost about $3 a person, but availability depends on the guide’s schedule. Call or check in at the park entrance to request a volunteer guide, and the park will let you know if a guide picks up the tour. Book a commercial tour if you need to guarantee availability, prefer to communicate with your guide regarding your ideal agenda for the day, and don’t mind shelling out up to $25 a person.

All visitors must pay the $7 entrance fee or purchase the annual Texas State Parks Pass for $70, which allows access to the park for everyone in the car.

Where to Stay and When to Go

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The most popular place to stay is the Hueco Rock Ranch, where climbers gather to hang out, share tips on boulders, and soak up the desert scenery. It’s $10 a night to camp ($5 for American Alpine Club members), or you can rent a bunk or private room. There are showers, a barn, sheltered communal cooking area, and fire pits for campers to enjoy.

Quieter camping can be found at Gleatherland, with great views, showers, a fire pit, and WiFi, all for $5 a night, but you’ll need advance reservations. Rent a private room or a bunk room at the Hueco Hacienda, and take advantage of the full kitchen, dining room and living room, as well as crash pad rentals, WiFi, and showers.

The best time to boulder in Hueco Tanks is November through April, and the most popular time is during January and February. It will be sunny during the day and chilly at night, so don’t forget your puffy jacket and slippers!

The Hueco Rock Rodeo bouldering competition hosted by the American Alpine Club, usually in February, is a lot of fun to attend, but you’ll want to book lodging and park reservations in advance.

Written by Jacqui Levy for RootsRated.

Featured image provided by Alan Cressler

The Ultimate Weekend Getaway in Durango (No Matter What Kind of Traveler You Are)

There’s only one question you need to answer to determine whether Durango should be your next weekend getaway destination, and that’s whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway, period. While Durango is a year-round destination, winter is a particularly good time to visit. Whether you enjoy skiing, snowmobiling—or even ice climbing—the region is filled with scenic options for enjoying the winter weather. It’s also got great restaurants, breweries, cultural and historic sites, and family attractions for those who want to enjoy a view of the snow from inside.

Founded when the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in the late 19th century, Durango was once a mining boomtown, with the hills chock-full of silver and gold. More than a century later, many of the mines are played out, but the area still has many finds—you just have to know where to look. Here’s where to go and what to do on a winter trip to Durango—regardless of what kind of traveler you are.

If You Like the Outdoors

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The frozen waterfall at Cascade Canyon near Durango is a popular spot for ice climbing.

Marcus Garcia

Looking for an action-packed winter weekend in the great outdoors? Start with Purgatory Resort, which has been drawing skiers for more than 50 years. Located just 25 miles north of Durango, the resort offers a unique blend of steep tree skiing and wide-open cruisers, both of which provide stunning views for lucky visitors who will enjoy fewer crowds and cheaper prices than at many other Colorado resorts (it’s been named North America’s Best Ski Value by TripAdvisor for three years straight). The runs at Purgatory are known for their character, with a high fun-factor as they twist down the mountain. Snowboarders will get a kick out of the seven terrain parks, and the state’s largest Snowcat skiing operation gives advanced skiers access to 35,000 acres of the San Juan backcountry.

At Purgatory, you can explore the backcountry another way by taking a snowmobile tour withSnowmobile Adventures. Professional guides will teach you how to ride and take you through more than 75 miles of trails, where you can play in vast meadows and take in the incredible views.Ice Pirates out of Silverton features snowmobile tours and rentals on its trail system that covers 55,000 acres in the San Juan Mountains, with a high point over 12,000 feet. Either choice will give you the ride of a lifetime, with unmatched views to enjoy.

For a quieter way to enjoy the outdoors, theVallecito Nordic Ski Club provides a groomed trail system for cross-country skiers about 20 miles northeast of Durango near the Vallecito Reservoir. You can rent equipment in town and take it to the trails, which offer plenty of terrain for any level of skier. Snowshoeing is another option to escape into the winter wonderland. Just about any hiking trail takes on a whole new life in the winter with a pair of snowshoes, and some of the more popular options in the region are the Colorado Trail, the Hermosa Creek Trail and the Falls Creek Trail.

For the truly adventurous, the frozen waterfall at Cascade Canyon is an excellent spot for ice climbing.Kling Mountain Guides offers beginner and intermediate ice climbing courses to get you started.

If You’re a Foodie

Believe it or not, Durango is home to more restaurants per capita than San Francisco. Durango’s no big city, but when it comes to having cultural experiences, it will give any larger city a run for its money. On your first night, stroll down Main Avenue, the town’s quaint main drag, to scope out your weekend’s must-eats. Spend the night at the historic Strater Hotel, where you can enjoy a range of award-winning dining, including two classic saloons. Durango dining includes French, Italian, Japanese, Thai, and, thanks to Durango’s proximity to New Mexico, phenomenal Mexican restaurants. The best breakfast of your trip will be at Oscar’s Cafe, and you don’t want to miss Seasons, the first farm-to-table restaurant in Durango, or the contemporary flair of Mutu’s Italian Kitchen.

If You Like Cocktails and Craft Beer

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Spend the evening at Ska Brewing, where you’ll have plenty of beer to choose from.

Visit Durango

Durango has a number of breweries, so don’t be intimidated if you’re not sure where to begin. If you’re staying at the Victorian-era General Palmer Hotel, you’re within walking distance of Carver Brewing Co., a brewpub with an extensive menu and beer list. The Colorado Trail Nut Brown Ale is a nice option on a winter night. Another option is Ska Brewing, which is known for its signature True Blonde or Pinstripe beers. On day two make for Durango Craft Spirits Distillery & Tasting Room, the first post-Prohibition distillery in the area. There’s also El Moro Spirits & Tavern, the site of Durango’s strangest shoot-out (ask your bartender about it). Or stop in at the Ore House for a handcrafted cocktail nightcap.

If You’re Traveling with Kids

The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is great for families—not only do kids tend to jump at the chance to check out a train, but coaches also have bathrooms and concessions are available on the train, so you won’t be stranded with hungry, cranky kiddos. (Cars are also heated during the winter, so this is an option year-round.) After the train ride, head to Steamworks, known for its great food and family-friendly atmosphere and conveniently located just three blocks from the train depot and museum. On day two, sign on for snowmobile tour with a reputable local outfitter. This activity is great for families because it gives you a chance to get out farther than you otherwise might with little ones or grandparents.

Other options kids will also love include tubing at Purgatory Resort or exploring the Powerhouse Science Center, a museum located in an historic coal-fired, alternating current (AC) electric plant on the Animas River. You’ll find enough hands-on, interactive exhibits to keep kids entertained for hours.

If you’re looking for some relaxation, Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs is just seven miles north of town. It features two mineral-rich hot pools, plus a heated Olympic-sized swimming pool that’s open year-round. You’ll also find lodging options and spa treatments on the property, when you need that massage after a day of adventure.

If You’re a History Buff

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Head to Mesa Verde National Park to learn about and see first-hand the incredible cliff dwellings created by Ancestral Puebloans.

Ken Lund

For a dose of ancient history, head to Mesa Verde National Park, where you’ll learn about and see first-hand the incredible cliff dwellings created by Ancestral Puebloans. It’s believed that Mesa Verde (or “green table”) was seasonally inhabited by Paleo-Indians as early as 7500 B.C., likely because of its position 8,500 feet above sea level. The mesa was an ideal place for the Native Americans, providing an abundance of food and shelter (despite the barren-looking landscape, they were able to grow corn, beans and squash). While tribes and cultures inhabited the area off and on, the last known inhabitants were the Ancestral Pueblo people, from A.D. 600 to 1300. The cliff dwelling area is the main attraction in the park, and you are actually allowed to get up close and go inside some of the structures. There are hiking trails and the park is also popular for bird watching and stargazing. In the winter, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing is also available in the park, weather permitting. Plus, a guided Winter Ecology Hike helps you look for the park’s winter inhabitants. Check the park’s website for winter trail conditions to see what’s available.

Written by Emma Walker for RootsRated Media in partnership with Durango Area Tourism Office.

Featured image provided by Visit Durango