2010 RUNNING & TRAVEL ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  CAPROCK CANYONS STATE PARK & TRAILWAY:
A NATURAL AND CULTURAL JEWEL

WEDNESDAY, MAY 12

 
"Imagine a place where marbled redrock canyons slice through a vast
landscape dominated by table top-flat plains, where miniature mountains pierce
an azure sky, where historic railroad bridges seem to float in space, and the
descendants of ancient bison herds graze native grasses. Welcome to
one of Texas' best kept secrets -- Caprock Canyons State Park."
 
~ Texas Parks & Wildlife website, park of the month November, 2007
 
 
I mentioned in an earlier entry about the great state park system in Texas that I'd like to explore more of the parks.

Two that captured my attention in the colorful state park guide just happened to be near our route to Los Alamos later this month for the Jemez Mountain 50K raceCaprock Canyons and Palo Duro Canyon, both in the Panhandle Region of northern Texas. It didn't take much effort to persuade Jim to leave Virginia a few days early so we could visit those parks on our way out West.

What we found reminded us of some of the gorgeous red rock areas we've seen in New Mexico, Arizona (think Sedona), Colorado, and Utah. Discovering them in Texas was a nice surprise!

We've really enjoyed the last three days in this park. It's not as well known or as heavily visited as Palo Duro Canyon but in my opinion the Caprock Canyons are a worthy destination, too.

In this entry I'll share some highlights about the history, topography, geology, flora and fauna, and special bison herd at Caprock Canyons. [Note: There are a lot of photos in this entry.]

I'll cover activities, camping facilities, and fees in the next entry and describe the trails in a third entry. There is a lot more information online, starting here; I'll provide other relevant links so you can read more, if you're interested.

To watch a three-minute introductory video of the park, click here.

INTRODUCTION TO CAPROCK CANYONS

Caprock Canyons State Park includes over 15,000 acres of land that was purchased by the state in the mid-1970s to preserve and protect a large area of scenic, rugged canyons in the Texas Panhandle Region about 100 miles southeast of Amarillo. It was opened to the public for educational and recreational purposes in 1982.

This is a tiny version of the park map. To see one you can read, click on the link.

Park property also includes the nearby Caprock Canyons Trailway, a 64+-mile long multi-use Rails-to-Trails Conservancy path that was donated to the state and opened in the early 1990s. There are an additional twenty-five miles of trails for pedestrian, bicycle, and equestrian use within the state park.


Upper Canyon Trail (Trail C)

The park's main attraction is its unusual topography, a startling contrast to the flat plains that make up most of the Panhandle. Natural features draw hardy adventurers deep into the rocky canyons and up onto high ridges, while less athletic visitors can enjoy the views from the paved road winding five miles through the upper elevations of the park near the visitor center, campground, and Lake Theo, then down into the red rock canyon area and bottomlands.

Elevations range from 2,180 to 3,180 feet in the park. Because of steep grades of 10-16% in the last three miles of the park road, no large RVs or horse trailers are permitted to drive down into the canyon. The Honey Flats RV campground and an equestrian campground are located along the first two miles of the park road. Folks may drive down into the canyon in 2-wheel drive passenger vehicles to access the trailheads, camp in two tent campgrounds, or backpack to primitive campsites in the backcountry. I'll talk more about park facilities in the next entry.

The views along the entire park road are very scenic, with several pull-offs and interpretive exhibits. Although our preferred way to explore a park like this is to get out and walk, run, or bike, you don't have to be an athlete to enjoy Caprock Canyons.

THE BEAUTY OF EROSION

Often the word "erosion" carries with it a negative connotation but erosion can also create some awesome landscapes. A good example is Caprock Canyons.

The park's interpretive guide and exhibits describe how the rugged beauty of the canyons was created over millions of years by the erosion of water and wind through the Caprock Escarpment, a long, narrow rocky formation as high as 1,000 feet that forms a natural transition between the flat, high plains of the Texas Panhandle and the lower rolling plains to the east.


Display in the visitor center that explains how the canyons were formed over millions of years.

Numerous tributaries draining into the Little Red River have exposed geologic layers in the park down to the Permian age Quartermaster Formation that was formed approximately 250-280 million years ago when the Texas Panhandle was part of an inland tropical sea surrounded by higher land. Much of the exposed rock in the Caprock Canyons is from this era.

The first time Jim and I drove from our campground on the prairie bluff down into the canyon lands on the park road my main thought was how scenic erosion can be! Caprock isn't as grand as the Grand Canyon in Arizona but it's almost as colorful. I loved the contrast of the vivid red rocks and ground, the numerous shades of green grasses, shrubs, and trees, the bright blue sky, and billowy white clouds.

Just gorgeous!

It's fascinating to see all of the geologic layers of rock that have been exposed in the steep canyon walls. The predominant colors are shades of red, punctuated by orange and white. I stopped several times during walks to examine the layers up close:

 
Distinctive layers of the Quartermaster Formation

The red colors of the Quartermaster Formation were caused by oxidation of iron in the sediments at the edges of the ancient sea. White layers of alabaster gypsum and satin spar gypsum represent periods of evaporation of the sea water and solidification of the minerals left behind.

Most of the layers of gypsum are horizontal, as above. Some were more interesting, such as this "wishbone" formation:

The gypsum I walked next to (or on) was crystalline and sparkled like pretty geodes. It was also very crumbly, disintegrating into dust on the trails:

The middle layers of rock in the canyon are called the Dockum Formation. About 210 million years ago freshwater streams flowed through the area, leaving behind these rocks, gravel, sand, and fossils.

Topping the canyon walls are the Ogallala Formation, sediments that washed down into the Plains and hardened when the Rocky Mountains were formed about 10 million years ago -- relatively recent history, in comparison to the Quartermaster Formation! Light-colored "caprock" tops the Ogallala Formation.

Although the caprock is quite hard, several million years of erosion by wind and water has carved the numerous canyons we see today.

Wind and water have also played a hand through the ages in creating interesting pinnacles and hoodoos at Caprock Canyons:

Both wind and water continue to play a role in shaping the canyon today. In fact, the terrain is fragile enough that various park rules such as staying on official trails, not climbing cliffs, and not disturbing the rocks or vegetation are enforced by the rangers to help prevent unnecessary erosion caused by humans.

SPRINGTIME AT CAPROCK

I think spring is just about the best time of year to visit Caprock. The temperatures are relatively mild, the leaves are out, and wildflowers are at their peak. Autumn is probably nice, too. This area of Texas can get plenty of snow in the winter and high heat in the summer.


Caprock Canyons in the winter (photo by someone else that is in the park's interpretive center)

This week has been warmer than normal for early May, however, with sunny days in the upper 80s and lower 90s F. and clear nights in the 60s. It has been dry. Very dry. The humidity on Monday was only 7%.

That was an interesting day weather-wise as we got to experience the power of the wind first-hand.

We knew it was supposed to get very windy in the afternoon so we ran and hiked down in the canyon and on the rim for a couple hours in the morning. Before we returned to our campground at 11 AM the breeze had already turned to a 20-25 MPH wind. It was too windy by then to take pictures of flowers -- the photos would be too blurry. At that point, the sky was still clear.

By 1 PM the sky was brown from blowing dust. Gusts up to 60 MPH rocked the Cameo back and forth for about five hours. We were glad the mesquite trees surrounding our campsite were relatively small, not like the huge pine trees we camped under for much of the time on our winter trip.

We learned a new meteorological term while visiting the Texas Panhandle: the "dry line." We'd hear the weather folks mention it all week. High winds coming from the west blew over the dry, hot Panhandle Region and collided violently to the east with moist air coming up from the south. There was considerable tornado damage that day in Kansas and Oklahoma, including Kansas City and Norman. We were so thankful that all we experienced was high winds and nothing worse.

The sky cleared up a little bit after suppertime and Cody and I went back out for another walk on the Canyon Rim Trail near our campground:

That evening the winds died down completely as the temperatures dropped from 90 F. to the upper 50s. The next morning there was hardly any breeze as we set out on the trails again. The sun was intense despite temperatures in the 60s and 70s while we ran and walked. That afternoon Jim washed the truck and camper, which were covered in silt from the wind the previous day.

After that experience, it was even easier to understand the impact of wind erosion on the surrounding terrain. And I imagine the park rangers are kept pretty busy removing all the silt and sand from the roadways, trails, and facilities after these wind events, which are all too common here.

FLORA AND FAUNA

As you'd imagine, Caprock's geological diversity translates into a diversity of plants and animals that live there.

Areas in the high plains support short-grass prairie vegetation such as buffalo grass, spiny aster, blue and hairy grama, and mesquite:

Juniper, scrub oak, and cacti are common in the badlands:

The bottomlands along the Little Red River and its tributaries support taller grasses like switch grass, Indian grass, and little bluestem, cottonwood trees, wild plum thickets, and hackberries.

I loved all the wildflowers that were blooming on the bluffs and down in the canyons. Flower species included at least two types of gaillardia, daisies, and vetch, as well as blue spidorwort, Missouri evening primrose, and some other species unknown to me. [My thanks to a reader who advised me on the identity of several of these flowers four years after I wrote this. Thanks, Steve!]

Here are photos of some of the flowers I saw:


A type of gaillardia


Indian blanket is another type of gaillardia.


Engelmann's daisies


Blackfoot daisies


Missouri evening primrose

 


Cream milk vetch


Missouri milk vetch

We saw these large reddish pink flowers along the Canyon Loop Trail; I don't know what they are but they were striking:

 

Shrubs currently flowering are pink catclaw mimosa:

and purple feather dalea:

Several types of yuccas and cacti are just starting to bud and bloom; they will peak in a few days or weeks.


Yucca

 

Tasajillo cacti are full of red berries:

I saw a lot of scat full of those half-digested berries along the trails! One of the rangers said the scat was from either raccoons or coyotes. As large as the scat was, I'd guess it was from coyotes.

Coyotes are one of many wildlife species that inhabit Caprock Canyons State Park. Also common are mule and white-tailed deer, bobcats, pronghorn antelope, African aoudad sheep, and smaller mammals like grey fox, possums, jackrabbits, raccoons, and porcupines.

Over 175 species of birds, including rare Golden eagles, live in the park. Unfortunately, we didn't see any Golden eagles. Waterfowl and fish are attracted to Lake Theo:

Then there are the bats in the Clarity Tunnel along the Trailway. I'll talk about them in another entry.

Neither of us saw any of the thirty species of snakes that live in the park. We did see lots of lizards scurrying through the ravines and cliffs; fourteen kinds of lizards live there.

The wildlife at Caprock has changed through the eons along with the geology and weather. Black bears and grey wolves lived here for many years until they were forced out due to predator control by the 1950s.


Several mule deer along the park road

Mammoth, giant bison, and camels lived here over twelve thousand years ago when the climate was more cool and wet.

In 1974 archeologists unearthed a 10,000-year-old bison butchering camp at Caprock Canyons. They also discovered a grouping of bison leg and jaw bones, arranged in a circle and standing on end, with a bison skull perched on top. It is not clear if the Folsom hunters arranged the bones in this way in a post-hunting ritual or as a ceremonial tribute.

There is a replica of this arrangement on display at the interpretive center near Honey Flat Campground:

Just as wooden cut-outs of alligators are the predominant motif at Brazos Bend State Park in coastal Texas, metal cut-outs of bison are Caprock Canyon State Park's symbol. Here's why:

TEXAS STATE BISON HERD: PRIDE OF THE PARK

Caprock Canyons State Park has the distinction of being home to a small herd of bison AKA buffalo that are the descendents of the vast southern bison herd that used to roam the Plains from Canada to Texas. (Buffalo are technically a species from Asia and Africa but so many people continue to call bison "buffalo" that I'll use both interchangeably here.)

Although Native Americans hunted buffalo for their meat, coats, and hides for several centuries they did it to survive, not prosper. They barely put a dent in the estimated 30-60 million bison that lived in North America prior to 1870 compared to the slaughter that ensued by buffalo hunters after the Plains Indians were driven from their homeland. Between 1876 and 1878, bison were hunted almost to extinction.

Two other big factors contributed to the demise of the bison: railroads and the loss of prairie.

This map from one of the park displays graphically illustrates how transcontinental railroads built across the central part of the country in the 1860s and 1870s divided bison herds into northern and southern groups. Bison ranged in the light orange areas prior to 1870, the medium orange shaded areas after 1870, and the dark orange areas after 1880.

Now there are even fewer of them, of course.

The final death knell occurred when most of the prairies were turned into farms, ranches, and communities. The next map, from one of the park's interpretive displays, shows how much of the Plains were covered by prairies before this debacle in the 19th and 20th centuries. Now less than one percent of these prairies are in existence!

In 1874 Charles Goodnight and other cattlemen moved into the area that includes Caprock Canyons and Palo Duro Canyon. Goodnight purchased many acres of land for John G. Adair, who became owner of the huge J. A. Ranch. The current Caprock Canyons SP is on land formerly owned by the J. A. Ranch.

Goodnight was dismayed by the destruction of the native bison herds in northern Texas. His wife suggested they start their own herd on the J. A. Ranch, and later on their own nearby property. This herd grew to 250 head of buffalo by 1929.

Goodnight's bison preservation efforts also included providing animals for federally protected herds at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the National Bison Range in Montana.


Large sculpture paying homage to a vast herd of bison at Caprock Canyons SP visitor center

The herd gradually dwindled after Goodnight's death in the hands of other owners. Fortunately, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department stepped in to manage the historic bison herd and save it from extinction.

Descendents of this herd are now protected at Caprock Canyons State Park. In recent years wildlife biologists have purchased some bison bulls from Ted Turner's New Mexico ranch to diversify the Caprock herd's genetic makeup and ensure its longevity.

The park has a lot of interesting old photos and information about the heyday of the Plains bison in both the visitor center and interpretive center. A large area in the southeastern part of the park has been fenced off to allow the bison to live in their native range; part of it is shown below:.

Visitors can watch the herd from the cliff behind the visitor center near the park entrance. A covered overlook has two telescopes for close-up views of the bison. We saw only three of the shaggy critters at any one time, although the herd numbers several dozen.

A ranger told us we might be able to see more bison from the county road on the east edge of the park but we didn't see any from that vantage point.

[Note: To really see a lot of buffalo up close, we recommend you visit Custer State Park in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. The crowds of people are smaller there than at Yellowstone National Park and the bison wander around the buildings and roads more freely.]

CULTURAL HERITAGE

Various Native American peoples have lived in this part of Texas for about 12,000 years. The Folsom culture inhabited the area until about 10,000 years ago, then the Plainview culture from about 9,000-8,000 years ago. There is evidence of these peoples around Lake Theo during the Paleo-Indian era when humans hunted now-extinct giant bison.

As the climate became drier and warmer, smaller animal species gradually replaced the huge mammals that once roamed the region. The people who lived here changed, too, during what is called the Archaic Period from 8,000 to 2,000 years ago. Archaeologists have unearthed many artifacts from these cultures at Caprock Canyons. The canyons provided shelter and plentiful resources such as water, game, rich soils for raising crops, and rocks to make tools. From 2,000 to 800 years ago permanent Indian settlements were established.

In historical times Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, and other tribes lived in Caprock Canyons. Spanish explorer Coronado traveled through the region in the early 1540s. During the 1600s trade was established between the Plains Indian tribes and Spanish missions in New Mexico. Trade prospered until the Native Americans were driven from their homeland by the U.S. Army in the 1870s and the region was settled by Anglo cattlemen.

Land that is now park property passed through several hands after it was sold off from the vast A.J. Ranch mentioned earlier. The last private owner was Theo Geisler, who died in 1969. When the park property was purchased by the state a few years later, Lake Theo was named for Geisler.

Next entry: things to do and see at Caprock Canyons, including facilities, camping, and fees

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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