Trip Beta - Hueco Tanks, Texas
Hueco Tanks is without a doubt a world class bouldering destination. After all, it was in Hueco where John “Verm” Sherman invented the V grading scale for bouldering. But the history within Hueco goes well beyond these early day climbers. Hueco, which means ‘hole’ in Spanish, was a sanctuary in the sprawling desert for early inhabitants of the land. This is clear by the surprising amount of rock art, arrowheads and other artifacts still visible within the park today.
This rich history combined with its premier bouldering put Hueco Tanks at huge risk for overuse and irreversible human impact to its fragile desert ecosystem. In order to limit the effects of human presence, the Texas State Parks Commission has implemented strict guidelines limiting the use of the land. As such, bouldering in Hueco is much more complicated than road tripping to the Red River Gorge or rolling into your local crag.
Hueco Tanks is a mountain of boulders -- more specifically, 4 mountains; North, West, East, and East Spur. North Mountain is the only section where self-guided access is permitted. Fortunately, there is a seemingly endless amount of boulders for all levels of difficulty on North Mountain - so much so that you won’t even be able to see them all in one trip. The park only allows 70 people on North Mountain at a time. Sixty of these spots can be reserved by phone in advance - but they fill up fast so you have to call months ahead of time. For those that don’t plan that far ahead, the remaining 10 spaces are saved for walk-ins. As you can imagine, these 10 spaces go fast on a first come, first served basis. It is pretty standard to see lineups of vans and other vehicles waiting at the gate long before it opens at 8AM. If you’re not one of the lucky few to be granted early access as one of the first 10 walk-ins, you’ll have to wait until 10AM when the rangers start letting people in for any reservations that did not show up. All in all, everyone tends to eventually get into the park to enjoy a day of climbing, it typically just means waiting a few hours first. As far as cost goes, it’s $7*/person to enter the park, so if you’re staying for an extended climbing trip grab a Texas State Parks Pass. A pass is $70 for the year and is good for one vehicle full of people.
West Mountain, East Mountain, and East Spur are strictly guided access only. This means you need to hire a guide to take you on tour which costs $25/person. Alternatively, there are volunteer guide tours which are only $2/person; however, before you get your hopes up, these are hard to reserve without knowing the right people. The other issue with guided tours is that if you’re not careful, you may end up sharing the tour with non-climbers who prioritize hiking to vistas, studying the rock art or searching for wildlife. Even other climbers will often have different objectives or goals for the day. It is the tour guide’s responsibility to try and facilitate a day in the park where everyone is somewhat satisfied, so you most likely won’t get as much time on your project as you would have liked. Being on tour certainly feels different than the regular “freedom” of outdoor climbing on your own; however, the tradeoff is being able to explore the more remote areas of the park. East Mountain and East Spur are filled with classic boulders. West Mountain seems to be the new frontier where lines are being actively discovered and developed. It should be noted however that the development of new boulders is not permitted by the general public. Boulders need to be carefully evaluated as even the faintest rock art is important to preserve. When you visit Hueco, stick to established climbs, they’re great anyways.
When To Go
Hueco is in the desert, which means you want to visit in the winter. The Hueco Rock Rodeo occurs every February, so keep that in mind to either attend or avoid depending on whether crowds, competitions and partying is your thing! The summer heat is no joke and although you can find refuge in some of the caves, it’s best to avoid Hueco in the summer altogether. The desert makes rain a rarity, which is great for any climbing destination; however, if it does rain, be sure to give the rock a full day to dry out. Even if the surface seems dry to touch, the porous rock is weakened by water and can break easily if climbed on too soon. Finally, don’t be fooled by the desert - when the sun goes down, temperatures can easily drop below freezing! Combine low temps with strong winds and you better be sure to dress warm. Be careful with your puffy as cacti and other plants will rip a hole in you clothes with little effort. Save your puffy for the city, or better yet, bring it, tear a hole in it, and patch it up with tape - embrace the look of a real adventurer!
As complicated as it is entering Hueco Tanks State Park, getting there is pretty easy. It’s a short drive from El Paso which has an airport and constant flights to major hubs.
Hueco is best experienced with a vehicle you can sleep in. However, if you’re not lucky enough to be living out of your van or SUV, then camping works just fine. The Hueco Rock Ranch and the Hueco Mountain Hut are the go-to spots for camping or parking your vehicle. El Paso is certainly close enough to make Airbnb or hotels a great option as well. There are also limited campsites within Hueco park itself - this would be the best option if you’re trying to do Hueco without a vehicle. Another advantage is park campers get first dibs on the daily walk-in quota.
The climbing in Hueco is varied, plentiful, and completely amazing. With an emphasis on overhangs and roofs, it’s best to train for steep climbing and power endurance. Heel hooks, toe hooks, and knee bars are always part of the beta - in fact you might want to consider buying a knee pad while you’re there. Crimps are plentiful, so get your fingers ready!
Nobody Here Gets Out Alive is possibly one of the most fun V2s in the world, and a great climb to put on your tick list even if it’s just a warm up for you. Other North Mountain classics include Baby Martini (V6), Stegasaur (V7), and See Spot Run (V6) - each of which are very different styles, and a great showcase of all Hueco has to offer!
Throughout your climbing trip, respect the rules and the land. It is very evident in Hueco that climbing is a privilege and not a right. Be kind to the rangers. The rules and restrictions are in place so that climbing can be enjoyed for years to come. The goal of any climbing trip should be to end your trip leaving no evidence you were there, except fond memories of projects sent and others left unsent! Hueco Tanks is a magical place that every boulderer should visit at least once in their lifetime.
*Prices are in USD.
Photos courtesty of Jessica Best and Rob Miron.