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"One of the most renowned destinations in Texas, this mysterious terra cotta badland,
referred to as the 'Grand Canyon of Texas,' calls out to the adventuresome to be explored."
~ Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept. State Park Guide, p. 28
We think one of the best ways to explore any park is on the trails!

Palo Duro has over thirty miles of unpaved, multi-use trails. One begins on the rim but quickly drops into the canyon. All the others have trailheads down in the canyon. I don't believe there are any trails through the prairie on the rim at Palo Duro as there are at Caprock Canyons.

According to the park map and the printed information guide to the park that we picked up, it appears that mountain bikers can use every one of the park's twelve (or more) trails, although they can't possibly negotiate the steep rock climb at the very end of the Lighthouse Trail. That's a challenge even for hikers!

A cyclist rounds a bend in the popular Lighthouse Trail.

Runners and hikers can use all of the trails except one four-mile loop, the Capitol Peak Mountain Bike Trail, which is is described as "unsuitable for foot traffic." That's for safety reasons for the cyclists and pedestrians, not because of its level of difficulty.

Equestrians are limited to about sixteen miles of trail, including the out-and-back Juniper / Cliffside and Lighthouse trails and the Equestrian Trail loop.

The Lighthouse rock formation

Jim and I didn't have time during our short stay to see all of these trails but we did our best! I'll describe most of them and show photos from the ones I sampled. I'll save the best for last: the popular Lighthouse Trail, with the park's iconic "lighthouse" rock formation at its far end. Because of the number of photos I want to include I'll put that entry on a separate page.


Runners have the opportunity to explore several of the Palo Duro Canyon trails every October in a 20K, 50K, or 50-mile race. The race was begun by Red Spicer and is now directed by Bill and Wynn Ross. This year's race will be held on October 16.

Neither Jim nor I have run this event before. After seeing how nice the trails are at Palo Duro, Jim's interested in doing one of the ultras. I wish we'd done it when I was still able to run and before Red's death in 2008. He was an interesting fella.

Part of the Lighthouse Trail

The race website describes the 6- and 12-mile loops used in the race but it's hard for me to tell exactly which trails are used in the event based on a topo map of the course. The races start and end in the Juniper Day Use Area. It appears they use both of the Juniper trails, the Sunflower, Rojo Grande, and Paseo Del Rio trails, the Givens/Spicer/Lowry Trail, and part of the Lighthouse Trail. I'll talk about all those trails in this and the next entry.


There are two Juniper trails that run roughly parallel to each other for about a mile on either side of Alternate Park Road 5. The main trailheads for both trails are across the road from each other near water crossing #6 at the northern end of the loop with Park Road 5

Juniper / Cliffside TH, above;  Juniper / Riverside TH, below.  There is a large
thermometer at these and other trailheads to remind visitors how hot it can get in the canyon!

Juniper / Riverside Trail (which I've marked in blue in the map below) runs a mile along the river to the Sunflower Trail (marked in yellow). At that point trail users can turn around and go back to the trailhead (two miles roundtrip), go right on the Sunflower Trail and intersect other trails to the south, or go left across 5A and make a loop back to the trailhead on the Juniper / Cliffside Trail (2+ miles, marked in orange). This trail is for pedestrians and cyclists, not equestrians.

Part of the Juniper / Riverside Trail is visible in the photo above.

Juniper / Cliffside Trail (marked in orange) runs fairly close to 5A for three miles one way until it intersects with the Lighthouse Trail (far right parking area on map below). It is open to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. This trail is fairly easy to negotiate and has great views of the nearby cliffs.

Main Juniper trailhead is on the far left

Trail users have a variety of options using this trail, including out and back from the main trailhead (six miles), a loop with the Juniper / Creekside Trail (2+ miles), a loop with the Sunflower or Rio Grande Trail (four to six miles), or continuing on to the Lighthouse, Paseo Del Rio, Givens/Spicer/Lowry, and/or Little Fox Canyon trails.

This large sign is at the Lighthouse trailhead parking area, where the Juniper / Cliffside Trail "ends:"

That sign (and thermometer!) are typical of the very helpful signs at the trailheads at Palo Duro.

Jim used the Juniper / Cliffside Trail outbound from our campsite at the Mesquite Camp Area to reach the Lighthouse Trail yesterday. The parts of both trails I've seen from overlooks and trailheads look pretty easy to negotiate.

Posts define the trail (above) near the cliff side cave (below).



This popular trail is named for three runners who were instrumental in its development. One is Red Spicer, an ultra runner and race director who lived in Amarillo and frequently ran and volunteered at Palo Duro Canyon before his death in 2008. You can read more about this well-loved character at this UltraRunning page.

Old windmill just left of this trailhead

The GSLRT trailhead is located across from Hackberry Campground. Here's a portion of the park map that shows the trail, which I've marked in yellow:

Runners and cyclists can do all sorts of out-and-backs and loops incorporating this trail, with distances ranging up to 28 or 30 miles. A common "loop" is 11 miles. I'll describe it here.

The trailhead (shown below) is at the bottom of this map section. The yellow trail is 3 miles to the intersection of the Lighthouse Trail, in blue. It's another 1.5 miles to the lighthouse formation, then 1.5 miles back. Add in the orange Little Fox Canyon Trail loop one time (2 miles) and the 3-mile yellow section, and you've got 11 miles. Do the Little Fox loop both out and back for 13 miles.

Or trail users can do the yellow and orange trails, go out and back to the lighthouse formation, then continue on the blue trail to the Lighthouse trailhead and back on the red Paseo Del Rio Trail (not all of that is shown above), which is also about 13 miles.

It's easy to go farther with barely any repetition. After reaching the Lighthouse trailhead, folks can head the other way down the park road just a bit and hit several other trailheads (Rojo Grande, Sunflower, Juniper Cliffside, Juniper Riverside, and/or the equestrian trail) and end up with an ultra-distance run of 28-30 miles.


This is the first trailhead that visitors encounter after entering the park. It is located on the rim of the canyon at the overlook just above the visitor center:

The CCC Trail is the only trail that descends to the floor of the canyon from the rim. It is 1.75 miles point-to-point from the overlook parking area to the Pioneer Amphitheater, a drop of 800 feet. It is considered moderately difficult due to some steep areas and loose rocks.

You can see the trail descend along the canyon wall in the next picture:

The views are magnificent as you ascend or descend the CCC Trail. Here are some more photos I took:










This park is full of trails! A few other short ones we didn't run or hike include:

  • Paseo Del Rio -- easy, shady one-mile hiking/cycling trail that traces the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River between water crossings #1 and #2
  • Sunflower -- easy, shady one-mile hiking/cycling trail inside the park road loop between water crossing #5 and the Juniper / Riverside Trail
  • Rojo Grande -- shady, scenic 1+ mile trail of moderate difficulty inside the park road loop that connects the Lighthouse and Sunflower trails
  • Nature -- easy 1/2-mile loop across the road from the Pioneer Amphitheater
  • Equestrian -- four-mile loop trail at the far end of the park road loop near the historical marker for the 1874 Battle of Palo Duro Canyon:

  • Capitol Peak Mountain Bike Trail -- four-mile double loop for cyclists only that also connects with the Lighthouse Trail right in front of Capitol Peak

Visitors who want to run, walk, or cycle on pavement have about sixteen miles of park roads to use. I enjoyed riding about six miles on the undulating loop at the end of the canyon. The low-water crossings are even more fun on a bike than in a vehicle!

Next entry: the very popular Lighthouse Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Happy trails,

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

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2010 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil