Enchanted Rock, Texas is a fascinating place. It is rich in history, anthropology, and life science. It is mostly a solid piece of granite. It is a place of discovery, because you can witness how life takes hold on this solid rock and breaks it down, however slowly, into something suitable for itself. No place can resist such a force, if this mountain of granite can’t.
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Enchanted Rock may be so named because the local Indians believed that spirits inhabited it. They were convinced they saw fires up there, and could hear creaking and groaning noises during the night. These sounds really do occur, not because of ancestral spirits, but because the granite cools off at night, popping and cracking. Ira Kennedy, who has made numerous contributions about his studies of the area, believes that the place was sacred—or enchanted—because it is different and captures the eye, like a work of art might, and not because of any other particular reason. It certainly is a distinct landmark.
Enchanted Rock is the barren surface at the edge of a much larger granite batholith: geologists call it an exfoliation dome. In simple terms, this means that the granite is shearing off in layers from the solid batholith below it. It is the second largest one in the United States, after Stone Mountain in Georgia. About two-thirds of the state of Texas rests on the batholith it is a part of. Local geologists will point here if you ask them where the geologic center of Texas is. Robert Reed, a geologist with the University of Texas, points out that granite with the exact same composition has been found as far away as Alaska. How this stuff gets around! Most of Enchanted Rock is made of porphyritic granite, a type of granite with large crystals that has a lot of red and blue coloration. It was formed during the Precambrian age, or in other words, before the dinosaurs roamed the earth. It is located near Marble Falls, which was a supply for marble and granite for several buildings in the area, as one could infer from the name.
If you go there, the first thing you may realize is that calling this thing a rock is almost an injustice. It may be more suitable to call it the top of a subterranean mountain, but saying “Enchanted Top of Subterranean Mountain” takes much too long, and has no poetic quality. The next thing you may realize is that exfoliation in geologic terms can be quite impressive, with hunks of granite the size and shape of cars and busses—and other things— strewn all over the big rock: like a surreal landscape in a Picasso painting, with hues of pink, blue and purple. When one considers that these large rocks have separated themselves somehow through the action of weather and geologic movement, the word “enchanted” becomes quite adequate—although the true origin of the name remains shrouded from antiquity. If a person could take pictures over thousands of years of the same scenery, they might find that the odd-sized boulders break loose from the parent rock and gradually make a descent until coming to rest at the base. The rock is old, but the action on it has just begun.
One hundred centuries ago, a mere blink of geologic time, the first Texans crossed Sandy Creek at Enchanted Rock while hunting mammoths and mastodons. It was part of a major migration and hunting route that extended all the way to Canada, and into central Mexico. Flint spear tips have been found in Sandy Creek dating between 10,000 and 12,000 years old. Along Sandy Creek, there remains some evidence of metates, or depressions in the bedrock, where Indian women used manos, a type of pestle, to ground up mesquite pods to bake a crude form of bread.
From that time until European immigrants took over, various Indian tribes inhabited the area, and several stories developed about the magical place. Sometime in the 1700’s the Tonkawa Indians chased a Spanish Conquistador into this area, where he disappeared, only to resurface later with the same appearance as one of them. It is likely that he was able to crawl beneath the boulders that rest all over the South side and make his way out below, or perhaps he hid in one of the small caves there. The Tonkawa told legends of an older tribe that lived at the sacred place, keeping their enemies at bay for many years. Eventually, they were all killed, but their ghosts remain there forever, haunting anyone who comes near. These tales only lead to more speculation, but another more recent tale is easy to verify—or is it? In 1841, the legendary Texas Ranger and surveyor Jack Hayes wandered away from the rest of his party to take some readings there. According to him, he turned to mount his horse when he saw a score of Comanche warriors trying to sneak up on him from some distance away. He had only two Patterson revolvers and a rifle, with no spare ammunition. They trifled with him for a time, trying to get him to waste his shots, but he was careful. Eventually, the Comanche grew tired of the wait, and decided to rush him. From his superior position, he killed two of them with gunfire, clubbed two more, and was ready to “sell my life dearly” with his remaining knife when his party began shooting at the Indians that surrounded him. The warriors would later declare that “Devil Jack” had called up spirits for assistance, for they were sure that evil spirits inhabited this place. Later historians have been skeptical about the finer points of this story, pointing out that the rangers weren’t issued Patterson pistols until 1843, for instance. (Knowles, 85-87)
The view from the top is worth many miles of sight, and is 360 degrees. It is no wonder Jack Hayes held out. The rounded top is one of the best parts of this place, because here is where geology and nature meet in a way that is rare in any part of the earth. Over the years rain and weathering, along with impurities in the formation itself, have made barely perceptible depressions on this giant smooth marble. The depressions allow water to stand. With an average rainfall of 28 inches per year, and where temperatures exceed 100 degrees from May to September, the steady action of erosion makes the depressions a little deeper, and they begin to retain a bit of soil. These cradles hold water at first, and later they contain fairy shrimp.
What are fairy shrimp? They are a member of the branchiopod family and are one of the oldest life forms on the planet. They are soft-shelled crustaceans, and may have been dominant in all water masses until fish and birds arrived on the scene. From that time on, fairy shrimp were remained only where fish and birds could not live because of lack of an adequate water supply; the same habitat it holds today. For this reason, exobiologists are very interested in the life cycle of this tenacious creature.
Experts believe the eggs from which they hatch are airborne. Almost always, only one species (out of several) exists in any given pool at a time. Fairy shrimp produce two types of eggs. The softer type egg hatches almost immediately in the presence of water. The harder egg that they lay, which is called a cyst, can remain dormant for at least fifty years, and survive a total absence of water and cycles of freezing conditions. Experts are speculating whether a species like the fairy shrimp could survive on Mars or the Jupiter moon Europa, and intense studies are being done on this endangered species.
They feed on algae and other unicellular organisms, and researchers believe their excrement and skeletons help to supply a medium that retains moisture and fosters the growth of algae. This minute activity on the solid granite sets the stage for more development later. Depending on the time of year, some pools will contain water, others will not. The ones that contain water will have fairy shrimp in them. The ones that have no water will be filled with cysts, with the appearance of a dirt-filled hollow. It is better not to walk on them, because they are easily damaged. Over the course of many years, even centuries, the pools become larger, and slowly fill with excrement from the fairy shrimp, dead algae and occasional mineral deposits from the decomposing granite—a rich soup for plant life.
Now these pools are finally ready for the next stage of development, which might begin as a clump of grass, or a prickly pear cactus. Eventually, the fairy shrimp will disappear, and up to twenty-six different forms of vegetation will take hold of the scant dirt, most of them rare and endangered species. At this point the grasses and plants provide mulch, adding even more soil to the solid rock, which in turn will wear it away in greater degrees.
Although it is not entirely the case, the general progression of these pools is from top to bottom, so the depressions and smaller pools will be higher and the vegetation will be further down. Finally, further down still, the small trees take root. You can watch them grow—almost— as you trace the roots on their path along solid rock, seemingly in search of a crevice or crack that may hold an ounce of sustaining soil. Often, these trees have roots that extend far beyond the upper branches they support. Naturally, this helps in the break-up of the magnificent hunk of granite, as the roots increase in girth, pushing crevasses ever wider.
At the base of the rock there are black oak, scrub oak, mesquite trees, and an abundant variety of wildlife, flora, and fauna. In a wet spring, bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes will softly blanket the area for miles around.
Enchanted Rock really is enchanted, although not necessarily with the spirits of the ancient Indian tribes, as the Tonkawa believed. It is actually imbued with something far greater, and more precious: the opportunity of life. It gives we humans a chance to observe the strata and diversification of life, past and present, firsthand. I recall some years ago, in 1983, camping there with some friends. As we walked past one of the vernal pools, I asked one of them if he thought the water would be fit to drink. He replied without hesitation, “Sure it is. There’re things living in it.” The same could be said for the whole place—there are things living in it—if you ask me, this is the real enchantment.
(If you go there, remember to leave only footprints, take only pictures, and Stay Out of the Pools!)
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. < http://www.llanotx.com/EnchantedRock.html>.
Kennedy, Ira. The Enchanted Rock. 1999.
Knowles, Thomas W. They Rode for the Lone Star. Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company. 1999.
Mullen, Leslie. “A Pothole in the Road of Life.” Astrobiology Magazine. 8 June. 2002.
Reed, Rob. E-Rock.
"We sit here stranded though we're all doing our best to deny it." (Visions of Johanna) Bob Dylan