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 race:
Caprock 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
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
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
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
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
Distinctive layers of the Quartermaster
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
Here are photos of some of the flowers I saw:
A type of gaillardia
Indian blanket is another type of
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.]
Various Native American peoples have lived in this part of Texas for about 12,000 years.
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
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil