Must-See Parks in the Texas Panhandle: Palo Duro Canyon

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View of Palo Duro Canyon State Park Texas

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.  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: Palo Duro Canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

You drive along the prairie just south and east of Amarillo.  The flatness of the earth here is stunning.  It’s like looking at the ocean.  You can look in any direction and see the horizon unobstructed 3 miles away.  Soon you come to the stone building built by the CCC in the 1930s, marking the entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park.  You think there can’t be a canyon here.  There’s nothing here…not for miles and miles. 

Long Horn Herd Palo Duro State Park Texas

Off to your left, you see Longhorn grazing at pasture.  In almost an instant the flat high plains end, and the Grand Canyon of Texas opens up before you.  Almost 800 feet deep in spots, 120 miles long, and 20 miles at its widest, the second-largest canyon in the United States, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a place that begs to be explored.       

Natural History

The layers of rock here tell a story beginning 250 million years ago.  There are 4 layers of rock, topped with what is referred to in this region as the Caprock.  This hardy layer of calcium carbonate often erodes more slowly than others.  These different rates of erosion lead to the formation of hoodoos.  Hoodoos are beautiful and sometimes strange-looking rock shapes that often look like objects to the human eye and are named accordingly.  The Lighthouse, for example, is the most famous of these in the canyon.   

View of Palo Duro Canyon State Park Texas

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.

History

There is evidence of people in this area beginning 12,000 years ago with the Folsom and Clovis cultures.  These people hunted pre-historic mammals such as mammoths and giant bison.  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. 

Hole in the Wall Palo Duro Canyon State Park Texas

With the Spanish came horses, which the Apache acquired and mastered.  “Palo Duro” is a Spanish word meaning hardwood and refers to the Rocky Mountain junipers found in the canyon.  Trade developed between the New Mexicans and the Native Americans.  Later, the Apache were displaced by the Comanche.  The Comanche and other tribes held the Panhandle lands through the late 1800s. 

A decisive battle in the Red River War occurred in the canyon in 1874.  Following a surprise attack, Comanches, Kiowa, and Cheyenne people ran while U.S. soldiers killed their livestock and burned caches.  After which, the tribes were forced onto reservation lands.  This opened the land for settlement.  People like Charles Goodnight established ranchlands.  He brought Longhorns to the canyon, which are the descendants of Spanish cattle left in the wild known for their hardy disposition.    

Wildlife

Palo Duro Canyon is a fantastic place to see wildlife.  You’ll hear coyotes yipping and great-horned owls hooting during the night.  Mule deer, roadrunners, and wild turkeys are a common sight.  Perhaps, the most interesting is the official Texas Longhorn Herd.  These impressive animals are often feeding at the troughs near the entrance.  Threatened species reside at Palo Duro, including the Palo Duro Mouse and Texas Horned Lizard.  There is a bird blind near the trading post on the canyon floor.  For a birding checklist, click here.  

a view at part of the lighthouse rock formation in Palo Duro Canyon State Park Texas

Camping

There are numerous campsites in the park.  Find detailed information on locations, amenities, and costs here.  
They do have clean, complimentary shower facilities.  We camped in the Fortress Cliff Camp Area.  We were happy with the basic sites, which were flat and sheltered from the wind.  For a map of the park layout, click here.   

Hiking

Palo Duro has over 30 miles of hiking trails.  We highly recommend the Lighthouse Trail.  A 5.5-mile out and back that culminates with an amazing hoodoo.  The trail dead ends at a picnic table.  From there, follow the hiker-created path up to the lighthouse.  You can also climb up the backside of the rock formation opposite the Lighthouse to get commanding views of the canyon that are truly phenomenal.    

Light House formation Palo Duro State Park Texas

Another trail that we loved is the Rock Garden.  This 5-mile out and back takes you through a boulder field with some really unique formations.  Follow this up to the Rylander Fortress Cliff trail where you can walk along the canyon’s rim for scenic vistas.  For a map of hiking trails, click here.  

Rock Garden Trail Palo Duro Canyon State Park Texas

Hiker Tips:

  • Take sun protection: polarized sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat.
  • Dress in layers because temperatures will fluctuate during your hiking day.
  • Check out other must-see parks in the Texas Panhandle, Caprock Canyons, here.

Please leave a comment for us.  We’d love to hear from you.  For more road trip ideas, visit our page here.

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