So now that Jim and I have not only stood at the edge of the
canyon but hiked our butts up to the iconic Lighthouse rock
formation, are we true Texans??
I doubt it! But we have
done something most Texans haven't done.
SIMILARITIES WITH CAPROCK CANYONS
Palo Duro Canyon is sorta like Caprock Canyons, only more so!
View of part of Palo Duro Canyon from the
Instead of numerous smaller canyons, Palo Duro is one very, very
long and wide canyon. Not all of it is in the state park,
although at 20,000+ acres Palo Duro is Texas' second-largest
state park (only Big Bend is bigger). Annual visitation at Palo Duro is also one
of the system's highest.
There's a lot to like at
Palo Duro Canyon. There are many
similarities to neighboring Caprock Canyons, which Jim and I
- Both areas were formed in the same manner geologically,
with rocks dating back at least 250 million years.
- Both are a pleasant shock after driving over flat prairie
land for miles and miles.
- Both offer magnificent technicolor "red rock" scenery.
- Both have provided food and shelter to the same groups of
humans for about 12,000 years.
- Both support many of the same species of plants and
- Both have miles and miles of trails and offer lots of
outdoor recreational opportunities.
- Both make great vacation destinations if you enjoy outdoor
activities and dramatic scenery.
INTRODUCTION TO PALO DURO CANYON STATE PARK
Palo Duro is easily accessed about twenty miles southeast of
Amarillo and is open year-round. Spring and fall offer the most
moderate temperatures, but summer is the busiest season, partly
because that's when the popular outdoor theater production,
"Texas," is brought to life in song and dance at the Pioneer
Palo Duro Canyon State Park was opened to the public many
years before Caprock
Canyons State Park -- it will celebrate its 76th
"birthday" this summer. The park officially opened on July 4,
1934. Twenty thousand
acres of land were deeded to the state the year before. It took
the Civilian Conservation Corps until 1937 to complete all the basic roads and beautiful
rock structures (headquarters, visitor center, cabins, and
shelters) on the rim and down in the canyon.
An additional 2,000+ acres of land was purchased by the state
in the Fortress Cliffs area in 2008. Not many states were
adding to their park systems in that economically depressed
This is a small version of the Palo Duro park facilities map that you can find on
the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's
Click on the link so you can actually see what's where! This
version is too small to read but gives you an idea of the
park layout. There is one main road that's about seven miles
long from the entrance (right side of map) to the far end of the
canyon (left side of map).
Other markings are for trails (dotted lines) and streams (blue
The map shows only the areas that are open to the public. The
park itself covers a lot more ground than this.
I'll take you on a bit of a driving tour of the park first,
then mention more details about facilities and activities you can
enjoy at Palo Duro Canyon in the next entry.
Visitors enter the park from the canyon rim and
immediately come to the headquarters building, which was the
scene of bedlam when we checked in on Wednesday. That
was the first day of a totally new computerized program for the
entire Texas state park system and nothing seemed to be working
according to plan. Even though we already had reservations in
one of the campgrounds for a week, it took us almost an hour to
check in. More about that later.
This is a picture of the old stone entrance building from the
That's quite an antenna on the right! I think the WiFi
antenna is the shorter one in the center of the picture. We had
to drive up to this building to make phone calls or get online;
we had no Verizon service anywhere in the canyon (or TV
-- need a satellite dish for that).
After barely surviving check-in, the first thing I noticed as
we drove from the entrance station toward the canyon was a lone
longhorn steer in a pasture adjacent to the parking lot:
This is home to part of the official Texas state longhorn herd,
ancestors of the vast herds of cattle who used to roam the
Panhandle prairies and canyons of the million-acre JA Ranch that
included what is now both Caprock Canyons and Palo Duro Canyon
state parks. I mentioned Charles Goodnight and John Adair (the
"JA" in the JA Ranch) in one of the Caprock
is the fella who prevented the extinction of the Panhandle bison
herd in the late 1870s. The canyons also provided all the food,
water, and shelter needed for raising numerous cattle.
Every day at 1 PM park staff feed the cattle near the
entrance so visitors
can see part of the herd now living here. We didn't see any of those feedings
but at least one longhorn was present, waiting and hoping, each
time we went up to the entrance building.
A little way down the main park road are three old stone CCC
cabins that visitors may rent. Unfortunately, only the occupants may see them so I
am unable to show photos of them here. Because they all have grand
vistas of the canyon, they stay booked most of the time.
Soon after the cabins is the primary canyon overlook . . .
. . . and the magnificent old stone CCC-built visitor and
interpretive center. Since this building clings to the edge of the canyon
wall the only close-up view I had was from the
side in the parking area:
I could barely see the building from the CCC Trail that starts
nearby and descends into the canyon.
The overlook and large windows in the visitor center offer
expansive views of the canyon, two of which I've shown above. This is one of the nicest interpretive centers
we've seen in a state park.
There are numerous attractive exhibits detailing the
geological history of the canyon, cultural heritage, and flora
Samples of rocks and
geodes in the canyon, which
date back 250 million
years to the Quartermaster Formation.
The visitor center also houses a room devoted to the
contributions of the CCC, a book store, and one of the park stores.
Included are works of Native American art, not just tourist trinkets.
Pretty soon the park road begins its 800-foot descent into
the canyon via a long and winding road. Here are some pictures I
took of the road from the overlook and the CCC Trail:
Even though its a fair distance down, we had no trouble hauling our Cameo fifth-wheel camper up and
down the gentle grade of the road into/out of the canyon.
A bigger challenge awaits along the road down in the canyon
-- six very low low-water crossings, which are dangerous during
flash floods and can trap visitors in the canyon until the water
Five of the crossings are only a few inches above the
streams. Crossing #6 was covered in several inches of water while we were there:
That one is on a loop at the end of the park road, however, and
isn't necessary to cross in order to reach any of the
campgrounds. It wasn't a problem when we drove through it with
our truck a couple times.
My only problem with this crossing was during a bike ride when
I hit several inches of sand on one side (foreground, above) and
came to an abrupt halt -- too fast to get my right
foot out of the "clipless" pedal. It was a soft landing but all
the sand has screwed up the gear shifter I use the most.
All the rest of the park facilities are down in the canyon:
the Pioneer Amphitheater, Lone Star Interpretive Theater,
a wildlife blind,
a horse stable, several day use areas,
two tent camping and three RV camping areas,
a replica of the dugout used by Col. Charles Goodnight when he
settled the area,
four small Cow Camp cabins built by the CCC,
and numerous trailheads:
Trailheads for Juniper
Trail (Riverside in foreground, Cliffside in background)
Juncture of Lighthouse,
Juniper, and Rojo Grande trails; most trailheads have
Visitors who are not athletic can enjoy many scenic views
from their vehicles. In addition to the panoramas I showed near
the beginning of this entry from the canyon rim, here are some
views from the park roads down in the canyon.
The less-traveled side of the loop at the end of the road,
designated as Alternate Park Road 5, has some of the more
interesting views of the rim walls on either side of the canyon:
One of my favorite places along 5A is this cave.
You can see it from the road and Cliffside Juniper Trail or
explore it on foot:
A man was walking around inside the cave opening
when I took these photos. That gave me some perspective from my
angle; the opening is about 25 feet high. If we visit
again, I'd like to climb up to it.
FLORA AND FAUNA
European explorers named the canyon "Palo Duro," Spanish for
"hard wood," because so many hardwood trees like mesquite and
various species of juniper thrive there. You can see them in many of
the photos above.
Other trees, shrubs, prairie grasses, and
wildflowers are the same as those that grow at
Caprock Canyons. Both parks
offer a diversity of habitats for a large variety of plants and
For some reason I saw fewer flowers (and fewer kinds
of flowers) blooming along the trails I was on at Palo Duro.
Although elk, bison, wolves, and mountain lions have vanished
from Palo Duro Canyon, plenty of other wildlife calls the
prairies and canyon home: those Texas longhorns I already
mentioned, Barbary sheep (the one below is stuffed and lives in
the visitor center),
white tail and mule deer, pronghorns, bobcats, coyotes, fox,
possums, raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, various rodents and
insects, snakes, lizards, and other reptiles, bats, wild
turkeys, and many other kinds of birds. It was fun to watch the
wild turkeys parade through our campground and to see some of
the other kinds of animals from the trails.
In the next entry I'll go into a little more detail about
activities visitors can enjoy in the park, as well as park
facilities and fees.
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil