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"You can't call yourself a true Texan until you've stood at the edge of the multihued
majesty of Palo Duro Canyon that rends the flapjack flatness of the Panhandle plains
south of Amarillo and gazed upon what AOL Travel recently called one of
'America's 10 Underrated Natural Wonders.' At 120 miles long, up to 800 feet deep,
and 20 miles wide at its widest point, Palo Duro Canyon -- the Grand Canyon of Texas --
ranks second only to Arizona's Grand Canyon as the nation's second largest canyon."
~ Texas Parks & Wildlife Dept., Park of the Month article, December, 2009
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.


Palo Duro Canyon is sorta like Caprock Canyons, only more so!

View of part of Palo Duro Canyon from the visitors' center

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 really enjoyed:

  • 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 animals.
  • 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.


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 Amphitheater.

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 year!

This is a small version of the Palo Duro park facilities map that you can find on the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's website:

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 lines).

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 parking lot:

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 entries. Goodnight 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 and fauna:


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 subsides:

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,

trading post/restaurant,

a wildlife blind,

a horse stable, several day use areas,

two tent camping and three RV camping areas,

Mesquite Campground

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 thermometers!

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.


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 animals.

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.

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