It would be easy to dismiss the Texas Plains as flat and featureless. From the road, you see windswept farmland as far as the eye can see. And in the Panhandle, you can see a long way. Take a second look though. Did you know that the Texas Panhandle is home to the second-largest canyon in the United States? Did you know that you can spot golden eagles, bison, prairie dogs and other incredible wildlife species there? If you're looking for a very worthwhile spot to do some scenic road-tripping and hiking, check out these must-see parks in the Texas Panhandle: Caprock Canyons.
Caprock Canyons State Park
The prairie is blanketed with short grass and bison roam freely along the road to the Visitor's Center at Caprock Canyons State Park. The moment you take a step outside your vehicle, a strong gust hits you, sending your clothes flapping wildly in the wind. Your ears are filled with the sound of a nearby flag whipping back-and-forth violently. The wind here is serious, and it pushes you to seek immediate shelter within the Visitor's Center.
This is what it's like in the Panhandle. The wind is your constant companion. We spent two nights here in the canyon and absolutely loved it. The hikes are gorgeous and can be challenging. Vistas are everywhere you look. We like to take photographs. Along with the gorgeous sunset, sunrise, and night sky, the fascinating geographic features and wildlife provided excellent subjects for us.
Because we visited in early December, the park was nearly empty. The rangers told us that the park is normally full. Thus, going in this off-season would be ideal. Here's a word of caution. It gets quite cold. We had beefy winter sleeping bags and down jackets. Be sure to have the gear, or you will be miserable or worse. For a map of the park's layout, click here.
The Caprock here is the hard layer that resists erosional forces. It is ever present in the Panhandle and differs from the other more-susceptible geologic layers here, which fall away with water and wind movements. These differences in erosional properties create breathtaking hoodoos and canyons. Leaving behind an aesthetically pleasing layer cake of reds, pinks, and creams, each one represents a period of geologic history.
The term Caprock is also used to refer to the geographical and geological border (the escarpment) between the Northern Highs Plains and Western Llano Estacado of the Panhandle with the Eastern Rolling Plains of Texas. Water created the fascinating and scenic terrain in the park. As it drains off the High Plains and down the escarpment to rejoin the rivers below, it carves canyons of color and wonder.
There is evidence of people in this area beginning more than 10,000 years ago. Before the arrival of the Spaniards, native peoples in the Panhandle had established small agricultural settlements and traded with ancestral Puebloan people to the west. With the Spanish came horses, which the Apache acquired and mastered. Trade developed between the New Mexicans and the Native Americans. Later, the Apache were displaced by the Comanche. The Comanche held the Panhandle lands through the late 1800s. After which, they were forced onto reservation lands.
This opened the land for settlement. People like Charles Goodnight established ranchlands, and others came for farming. Eventually, a railroad was constructed. This now retired Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway is now the Caprock Canyons Trailway, a 64.25-mile trail. For details, click here. For a map, click here.
There is a great abundance of wildlife at Caprock Canyons. From mule and white-tailed deer to pronghorn antelope and Barbary sheep, there are bats, reptiles, and birds (there is even a bird blind). Perhaps the most celebrated is the official Texas State Bison Herd. This group of nearly 200 animals, dispersed into smaller family groups, roam the 10,00 acres here. Tradition has it that the Goodnight family were instrumental in saving the plains bison from extinction by preserving this herd for posterity.
Another entertaining species at Caprock is the black-tailed prairie dog. Their towns are easily viewed from the road near the Honey Flat Camping Area. The re-introduction of this rodent helps provide a food source for the many predators in the area, including coyotes, golden eagles, bobcats, and more.
There are numerous campsites throughout the park. Find detailed information on locations, amenities, and costs here. They do have clean, complimentary shower facilities. During our two-night stay, we camped in the South Prong Tent Camping Area. We were happy with the basic sites, which were flat and scenic. It was quite windy, so you'd be wise to choose something with some vegetative barriers.
The first night we camped in site 37. It had a gorgeous view, but the wind rushed through the canyon all night pushing the tent sides inward. The second night we got smart and moved to 51 where it was relatively still among the trees and shrubs. At South Prong, there is a pit toilet, fire rings, food poles, and access to the trailhead for the Upper South Prong.
The trails here are excellent. There are more than 90 miles of them. While there, we hiked an epic loop starting from the trailhead in our campground at South Prong. From there, we hike west on the Upper South Prong Trail. This trail takes you for a walk among grasses and cottonwoods. Javelina dart in and out of the brush. Hoodoos adorn the canyon walls to your right. Then you start the steep climb up to the Upper North Prong Trail and are rewarded with nice views of the canyon you just traversed. The Upper South Prong Trail is 2.6 miles out.
At the intersection of South and North Prong, take the little side trail down to the Fern Canyon. The 2-mile Upper North Prong Trail takes you through wooded slopes to the mesa where you can see the reds and pinks of the earth. It is a lovely hike. We finished up by hiking South along the North Prong Spur to the grueling slope of the Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail. This trail is a ridge walk west. The view at the top is incredible and well worth the climb. The Haynes Ridge is 2.3 miles and leads back to the Upper South Prong to complete our 10-mile loop. This is a great way to see a lot of the park in one shot. It's fun and a challenge!
For a map of hiking trails, click here.
- Take sun protection: polarized sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat.
- The best place to catch a glimpse of the bison is early in the morning or at dusk. They are usually near the Honey Flat Camping Area.
- You'd be crazy to miss the sunrise, sunset, or night sky here. There is a good viewing spot nearby the Wild Horse Camping Area and a scenic pullout just before the Little Red Tent Camping Area.
- Dress in layers because temperatures will fluctuate during your hiking day.
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