Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is north of Fredericksburg in the heart of the Hill Country where there are sharp rock formations and steep hills covered with live oaks, but none that compare to this granite monolith. The park is a favorite playground for rock climbers, backpackers, and even sedentary tourists who don't mind a lung-expanding walk up the dome for a look at mile after mile of rural Texas. You'll be startled by the bird's-eye view as you head up Enchanted Rock. Miles away from the sights of civilization, you're seeing Central Texas almost as it was hundreds of years ago.
There are no steps or guardrails to aid your climb and you'll want your best walking shoes for this trek. If you're in basically good health, there's no cause for concern, though, because the gentle slope that most visitors take is safe, except when wet or icy. Those ready to try their rock-climbing skills will find plenty of challenge in formations surrounding the main dome.
The area became a public park in 1927, but it was not state-owned until 1978. Now it boasts 45 picnic sites, as well as camping areas, restrooms, showers and a visitors' center.
A Legendary History
Over the years, rumors about the rock have been plentiful: It glows in the dark; human sacrifices were held on its smooth granite surface; it moans at night; it hides veins of gold and diamonds; it is haunted. Everything about the rock, from its name to its legends, is enchanted.
Today's guests are far from the first to enjoy Enchanted Rock's attractions. Ancient Native American tribes were said to hunt mastodon, mammoth and the great bison there more than 12,000 years ago.
Native American lore makes up much of the history of Enchanted Rock. As the hunters evolved, they traded in their stone spears for bows and arrows, the points of which were made from flint found in the area. More than 114 archaeological sites, often up to an acre in size, have been found. Tools, animal remains and hearthstones have been unearthed.
But most fascinating are the legends that surround the Native American occupation of the rock. Typical of these stories is one concerning a young woman who was brought to the apex of the stone by her father, an ambitious chieftain. Eager to win the favor of his gods, he sacrificed his daughter. Too late he learned that the offering was condemned. As punishment, the gods commanded his unhappy spirit to wander forever the surface of Enchanted Rock.
Not all the tales of Enchanted Rock are fiction, however. Near the summit, a bronze plaque recounts the escape of Texas Ranger Capt. Jack Hays from the Comanches in 1841. Surprised and cut off from his companions, Hays fled up the rock and hid in one of the cracks in its surface, pursued by angry Comanches, who were convinced that Hays had violated the sanctity of their sacred mountain. The ranger managed to avoid capture and, because of his superior weapons, killed so many Comanches that the rest abandoned the chase when Hays' companions arrived on the scene.
You can begin to understand why Native Americans considered this mountain enchanted when you begin your ascent from the base at the edge of the parking lot. Crossing a small creek, you can choose any route up the smooth surface of the rock.
The entire park is of interest to biologists, botanists and geologists who now know that Enchanted Rock is composed of granite. Years ago, however, speculators had different ideas about the rock.
The promise of precious metals and gems lured the earliest Europeans to the the area. The Spanish began organizing explorations there in 1753 after hearing reports of "a red mountain." Small samples of silver-bearing ore were sent back to San Antonio for analysis, but the silver found was of inferior quality. Rumors of vast gold and silver treasures hoarded by Native Americans continued to attract the Spaniards' attention.
By the time settlers from the United States arrived in Texas, the folklore concerning Enchanted Rock dictated that the entire rock was a giant, gold nugget. Later, Texas pioneer Stephen F. Austin said that experiments had proven that the hill was made of pure iron.
Noises in the Night
Although at first look the granite appears to be barren of any plant life, scattered shallow pools of rainwater grow wild onion and lichen. Several small trees grow near the summit.
Wildlife also is found on the rock. The collared lizard, a green, yellow and red iguana cousin with a black-and-white collar, calls Enchanted Rock home. Many species of birds circle the rock, and most days you'll be able to see buzzards. Keep an eye out for mockingbirds, as well as hawks, doves and bobwhites.
The history behind the formation of Enchanted Rock dates back more than a billion years. At that time the Earth was in a great upheaval, and moving underground masses created the rock. When it was first formed, the giant formation was covered by dirt. The actual face of the rock appeared on the scene about 600 million years ago, when erosion removed all the sediment and left the bald mountain exposed.
Over the years, the rock has been heated and cooled so many times that giant cracks have been left in the surface, giving the appearance of giant sheets of rock that look like they're ready to flake off and slide down the mountain. This heating and cooling process continues every day, and it's said to be accountable for the noises that come from the rock in the dark, cool hours of the night.
Learning the Ropes
We arrived at Enchanted Rock before the sun or the park ranger and hiked to the far side of the granite dome where the terrain isn't so dome-like. In fact, I'd say it belonged more to the cliff family. I put on a pair of tight-fitting rubber-soled shoes, slipped into a harness -- a sort of diaper with leg loops -- and grabbed some rope, while Allen Halbrook started his ascent.
A short distance up the rock, Allen hooked a carabiner to a bolt in the granite, then threaded the rope through the 'biner. Then he "fell." It was a test, and this time I was ready. I stopped his downward plunge immediately.
Two nights earlier, Allen had come over to show me the basics of rock climbing. He taught me how to tie a figure-eight knot and the proper method of flaking a rope. He pointed to metal rings and called them "carabiners;" he referred to other fasteners as "friends."
While he was teaching me to belay (anchoring a climber by means of the rope), he suddenly shouted "falling'' and dragged me halfway across my living-room floor.
It was a valuable lesson. At the end of that evening, after seeing how much Allen stressed safety and learning that he had been climbing since 1978, I stopped worrying about my own well-being and wondered if maybe he was crazy for putting his life in my hands. But on the real rock, I pulled my brake hand out just like he taught me.
Securing a knot to his harness, Allen's cousin remarks, "If you're worried about your equipment, you shouldn't be on the wall."
After Allen made it to the top and back down again, it was my turn. A few last tips: "This," he said, "is a great foothold."
I followed his finger to a pebble-sized bump in the rock. I tried to believe him and started my climb.
"On belay?" I called. "Belay on.''
I took my first step. Before I could hoist my other leg up, a hand landed on my shoulder and yanked me to the ground.
"What do you say?" Allen asked. "Pretty please" crossed my mind before I remembered the correct command.
"Climbing," I said.
"Climb," came the reply. And I did. Surprisingly, I could stand on those bits of granite relief.
Allen directed me up the rock, reminding me that a good handhold makes a good foothold. Before long, I reached the top, then headed back to Earth, leaning out perpendicular to the rock and "walking'' backward down the mountain.
I was mighty impressed with myself. After all, I had climbed straight up a cliff.
What my inexperienced eye had not noticed were the different levels of "straight up." A rating system exists for rock climbing, and I merely had reached the top of Prok, one of the easiest climbs in the park (the first person to successfully negotiate the route comes up with the name for it).
Next we attacked Edge of Night. A fraction of the way up, I found myself glued to the granite, unable -- perhaps unwilling -- to go higher. I grew tentative, ignoring Allen's advice to make confident moves. My left foot lost contact with the rock.
"Falling!" I yelled. I didn't even have time to imagine my untimely death before I felt the tension on the rope. I knew then I was secure enough to try a bolder move. I fell anyway. And fell and fell again. Finally, I made it past that spot, though I'm not sure how (I do know that three weeks later, my fingertips still are peeling).
A Climber's Perspective
By the time I reached the top, my calves and ankles felt tight enough to pop. I turned around and rested a minute. The view, my accomplishment and the 180-foot drop all impressed me. By that time, several ropes were draped down the rock with people attached who otherwise were hanging on by only their fingertips and a few centimeters of rubber.
One of those people was Allen's cousin, Jim Halbrook. Allen took Jim climbing when Jim moved to Austin in 1989. Since then -- like Allen -- Jim not only has climbed local spots including Enchanted Rock and the Barton Creek Greenbelt but also ventured to popular climbing destinations such as Yosemite National Park and the Black Hills in South Dakota.
Talking to me a few weeks after my climb, Jim mentioned something that described my experience perfectly. He suggested that instead of us climbing the mountain, sometimes the mountain lets us up.
My first day, Enchanted Rock also let me up M.D., 20-20, T.J. Swann and Ripple. I improved at finding the little bumps, chips, cracks and dents that made good footholds. Allen called me a very deliberate climber -- a good thing, he assured me, though I suspect he also was hinting that I'm painfully slow.
We crested our last climb and walked down the dome side of Enchanted Rock back to the car. As Allen told me about getting caught in darkness and freezing weather at the top of El Capitan, I hoped he didn't notice my tired legs wobbling with each step.
Where to Learn: Not usually a fan of disclaimers, let me say this: Rock climbing is not the kind of activity you want to try with some guy who saw a documentary once. Not to worry -- if you don't have a friend named Allen with 18 years' experience, there are other ways to learn the ropes. Several guide services in the Central Texas area offer full-day instruction. Two of the larger operations in Austin are Texas Mountain Guides (512-482-9208) and Mountain Madness (512-443-5854).
Also, the Central Texas Mountaineers meet the first Thursday of every month at about 7:30 p.m. at Pseudo Rock (512-474-4376), an indoor climbing gym in downtown Austin. President Rick Watson says these meetings are the place to meet other local climbers and get active in the community by maintaining and improving access for rock climbing. Watson's advice for beginners: "If you don't know someone who is experienced, take the time and be guided."
Trip planner: Enchanted Rock is open to day visitors from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. There is a per vehicle entry fee and one for tent camping. Reservations are recommended. The park offers a developed tent site as well as remote camping for backpackers. Call (915) 247-3903 for fee and reservation information. To reach the park, drive west from Austin on U.S. 290. In Fredericksburg, turn north on RM 965. Don't worry, there's no way to miss it -- it's the first pink mountain on the left.