It’s no secret that Hueco Tanks State Park is home to one of the best bouldering areas in the United States (and arguably the world) – which means that a lot of people want to come and climb. The evidence of past overuse is abundant throughout the park, and to combat the influx of visitors, Hueco Tanks designed something called the Public Use Plan.
Only 70 climbers are allowed into the park each day.
Of those spots, 60 are available through pre-registration. During the peak climbing season, these spots fill up fast – so what’s a climber to do?
The remaining 10 spots may seem like a long shot, but Niko and I didn’t have a single reservation during our trip to Hueco Tanks, and were able to get in every single day we were there.
The park opens up the 10 walk-on spots at 8:00 on a first-come, first-served basis – with a twist. If you’re camping inside the park, you can line up directly at the headquarters, but if you’re camping at the ranch, you line up at the entrance gate 2 miles away. And the folks inside the park get first dibs. Another issue is that if the climbing reservations are full, the campground likely is too. But you can still get in!
There’s a fairly simple sequence of events you have to unlock to get in, and it goes a little something like this:
1. Wake up EARLY.
Whether you’re camping inside the park or at the Hueco Rock Ranch, the most crucial part of snagging one of those elusive 10 walk-on spots is getting yer ass up, and I mean early.
Niko and I woke up every day at 5:45 to make the 10-minute drive from the ranch to the front gates. On the first two days, we were first in line, but as the weekend drew closer, we found ourselves beat by one or two cars on the final days.
NOTE: Depending on who you ask, some rangers may tell you that folks get in the line at the gate the night before – but this is NOT allowed. There’s a cop who lives in the area, and is not so thrilled with all the climbers, so he’ll gladly issue you a ticket. Do not sleep at the gate overnight!
2. Bring breakfast.
Once you roll into the queue at the gate (or at headquarters), you’ve got a couple hours to kill before the rangers open the gates and let you know the status. We went back to sleep in the van a few mornings, but the best days where when we cooked breakfast and brewed coffee in line. If you’re lined up directly at headquarters, bring a laptop and take advantage of the free wi-fi.
3. Consider buying a Texas State Parks pass.
We calculated the costs, and if you’re staying at the park for more than five days with two or more people in your car, or 10 days by yourself, you are better off buying a park pass than paying the 7$ entry fee each day. And you make the process a bit easier on the rangers each morning.
4. Be patience and think positive.
If you don’t get one of the initial 10 spots during the morning, don’t worry. You’ll be put on a waitlist, and at 10:00, the park releases any reservations for people who haven’t shown up. While you’re waiting, don’t hover around inside the park office – go hang out in your car, make some coffee, and wait for the rangers to let you know the status.
If all else fails, you can hop on a paid tour to get you to one of the other mountains. Some are professional guide services, and some are held by volunteers – but they all cost a pretty penny. You can pay up to $25 per person to get on these tours, so it’s really a last resort for the true dirtbag.
If you want to climb anywhere beside North Mountain, you’ll need to book a tour – but there is more than enough climbing on the main mountain to keep anyone occupied for weeks.
Additional advice on Hueco Tanks:
– If you can, visit the park on weekdays. You have a much higher chance of getting reservations and walk-ons.
– Keep calling the park to check for reservations (in a kind and respectful manner, of course). Niko and I called every day leading up to our visit to check for spots, and a few randomly opened up through cancellations.
– For a tasty and cheap taco dinner, head to El Pasito’s on Montana. The burritos cost us $2.69 each, and tacos are equally inexpensive. You can get everything from menudo to carnitas – and beer.
– The nearest grocery store to Hueco Tanks is Vista Mercado on Montana, but on the way in through El Paso off I-10, you can stock up on the cheapest produce I’ve ever purchased at Pro’s Ranch Market. It’s huge, loaded with Mexican food (both grocery and ready-to-eat), and outrageously affordable. Get a churro and some freshly squeezed orange juice!