When it comes to one of the best-kept secrets of the Lone Star State, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, sometimes called the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” ranks pretty high. Comprising 29,182 acres of orange canyons, buttes, and spires, the park actually only contains the northernmost portion of the Palo Duro Canyon, spanning 120 miles in length and 20 miles wide at certain locations. Located in the Texas Panhandle near the city of Amarillo, this vast and picturesque canyon is believed to be the second-largest canyon in the entire United States behind the one and only Grand Canyon.
Historians and archeologists estimate that nomadic tribes hunting mammoth and giant bison inhabited the canyon as far back as 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. The first Europeans arrived in Palo Duro Canyon in 1541 at a time when Apache Indians inhabited the region. The bison-hunting Apache lived here for some time but were eventually displaced by the Comanche and Kiowa tribes. The Comanche Indians were one of several Plains tribes who refused to be forcibly relocated to reservations in the nineteenth century. Their refusal to give in to such demands by the United States and other mounting conflicts eventually gave rise to the Red River War in 1874.
During the 1874 war, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Arapaho were led by the chief of the Kiowa tribe, Lone Wolf, and sought refuge in Palo Duro Canyon, where they amassed food and supplies to last them for the upcoming winter. The United States Army followed them into the canyon with strict orders to drive them from the region and into their reservation lands. The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon ensued, and, although few lives were lost, the battle was a complete rout of the Indians, resulting in burned dwellings, a complete loss of food and supplies, and even the slaughter of over 1,200 of their horses. The result was the end of the Red River War and the end of a way of life for Southern Plains Indians as they were relocated to reservation lands. In subsequent years Palo Duro remained in private possession until 1934, when the upper portion was purchased by the state of Texas and eventually turned into the state park it is today.
When visiting Palo Duro Canyon, you’ll likely see an array of wildlife, including longhorns, wild turkeys, roadrunners, sheep, and deer. Be on the lookout for desert animals low on the ground as well, as scorpions (mostly nonvenomous), lizards, tarantulas, deadly diamondback rattlesnakes, and other nonvenomous snakes are pretty common in this region of Texas. Two threatened species also inhabit the park—the Texas horned lizard and the Palo Duro mouse, though the latter will be nearly impossible to spot since it spends most of its day burrowed into canyon walls, hiding out from the heat and its top predator, the rattlesnake.
In addition to watching wildlife, just taking a drive around the park is quite a feat in its own right and is highlighted by a grand entrance that will probably take you by surprise. After driving for hours through mostly featureless flat grasslands, you’ll suddenly pull up to the park where the ground drops off abruptly, and you’re introduced to the far-reaching views of red and orange canyon walls dotted with green vegetation. The sudden transition is remarkable, and the drive offers plenty of overlooks to stop at and take photographs.
There are a number of fantastic hikes to experience at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, but my recommendation is the Lighthouse Trail. The Lighthouse rock formation, a US National Natural Landmark, is the signature geologic formation of the park, towering four hundred feet above the floor of nearby Sunday Canyon (a side canyon of Palo Duro). The hike follows a well-marked trail and is considered moderately difficult by most hikers. The most difficult portion of the hike happens just as you arrive at the Lighthouse and have to ascend a series of steep and dramatic steps onto the pedestal. Once on its base, you’ll have commanding views of the canyon and other signature formations, such as Castle Peak and Capitol Peak. Please remember that, due to the loose rock structure, climbing on the Lighthouse is strictly prohibited. The hike is about six miles round-trip, so make sure you have a good supply of water and allow plenty of time (four to five hours) to complete the hike and get back before daylight runs out.
Another solid hiking choice is the lesser known Triassic Trail (also known as the CCC Trail), which is the only trail that begins at rim level, next to the visitor center. The hike takes you along the edges of the cliffsides and table rocks and, as such, offers you the most stunning views of the canyon from above, including a great one of the Texas Amphitheater. Take both right forks in the trail to reach a spectacular vantage point from a narrow tabletop ledge, but be prepared to navigate over some narrow and exposed cliffsides. It’s a moderate hike and can be anywhere from three to seven miles depending on how far one decides to venture. If views are a priority for you when it comes to hiking, then this would be the best option for you. Unless park officials have updated their maps, this trailhead is not listed on the official maps, so inquire with the visitor center before embarking to make sure you’re headed to the right place.
Camping is available in the park as well. Each campsite has its own covered area and picnic table, offering a nice place to rest your feet and seek refuge from the hot Texas sun. The park also offers the option of staying in one of the little vintage cabins built of stone that overlook the canyon area. Most of the cabins can hold about four people, and some might surprise you—they not only contain a refrigerator and microwave but heating and cooling systems as well. The good news is that the price for the cabins range from $60–$120/night, depending on the amenities and size—a real bargain and a great way to spend the night in the park.
Visitors will be happy to know that the Texas Department of Transportation has spent close to $4 million dollars in 2014 on new bridges in the park that will allow visitors better access even when heavy rains flood some of the areas.
- The official musical of Texas, known as “Texas,” is shown at the Pioneer Natural Amphitheater throughout the summer (Tuesday through Saturday). Known as “the most spectacular outdoor musical drama in the world,” the show features a wonderful display of music, singing, and horsemanship that attracts millions of fans from all over the world. It’s an interesting and very popular form of entertainment that offers lasting appeal to people of all ages. And be sure to stick around until the end of the production so you don’t miss out on the fireworks show that gets bigger and better every year.
- Horseback rides are offered for around $35.
- Be sure to request detailed trail maps from the visitor center.