Destination: Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon
Travel time from:
Austin – 8.5 hours
Brownsville – 13 hours
Dallas – 6.5 hours
Houston – 10.5 hours
San Antonio – 8.5 hours
Lubbock – 2 hours
El Paso – 7.5 hours
By Cynthia Walker Pickens
Our Own ‘Grand’ Canyon Palo Duro paints a vivid surprise in the Panhandle.
Traveling to Canyon from almost anywhere in Texas is no small endeavor. But after that first glimpse over the rim of the Palo Duro Canyon, travelers throughout the ages have known that it is a journey worth taking.
Our first glimpse is at sundown, after a long day in the car. We descend into the canyon, with just enough light remaining to appreciate the scene’s rockbound grandeur. The canyon was excavated primarily by the waters of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. It is about 120 miles long, up to 20 miles wide and up to 800 feet deep — a huge gash in the wide, flat Panhandle plains. About 250 million years of geological history are displayed in the canyon’s walls.
The musical TEXAS is performed at Palo Duro Canyon State Park’s amphitheater Tuesday through Sunday during summer months, drawing thousands of visitors, including us on two previous occasions. On this visit to the park, however, we plan to explore the natural beauty of the canyon.
We find our site and set up camp by lantern. The night sky is dazzling, and I break into song (“The stars at night, are big and bright ...”). My family ignores me. After a chilly night, we awake to a beautiful morning. Unofficial camp hosts welcome us: a flock of turkeys and a group of white-tailed does, one of which pauses to give us a thorough inspection. Breakfast and coffee fortify us for the 5.75-mile round-trip Lighthouse Trail, the longest trail my 8-year-old daughter and I have attempted. We think we can, we think we can ...
We set off at 9:30 a.m., jockeying for the lead with a few other families. They are speaking in languages we can’t identify — apparently, this is an internationally known trail! People are hiking, biking and horseback riding on this lovely Sunday morning. A biker calling “On left!” startles us, and we hop like rabbits to the right of the trail.
We quickly learn to keep our eyes and ears open for fellow explorers.
Our destination is the Lighthouse, a geologic formation known as a “hoodoo.” The trail is not too strenuous and is easy to follow, with frequent distance markers — handy when hiking with a youngster. The vivid colors of the cliffs, interesting rocks underfoot and varied plant life enthrall us as we wind our way along the canyon floor. At last, we arrive at a picnic table with a bicycle rack nearby, marking the ascent to the Lighthouse.
The next portion is steep, and is by far the most difficult part, but we persevere. An elevated plateau at the base of the Lighthouse offers a fine view of the canyon — the reward for our exertion. We catch our breath and revel in the scenery before heading down. My daughter is nervous about the steep descent to the picnic table but manages successfully until the very end. A premature victory dance leads to a slip and fall. Moral of that story: Celebrate on solid ground!
She quickly recovers from this mishap, and we tackle the rest of the return trip. The trail is bustling with outbound hikers and bikers. By the time we reach the parking lot, we are worse for wear but proud of ourselves.
After a quick lunch, we drive to headquarters for “Lunch with the Longhorns.” The park interpreter feeds Biscuits and Gravy, the park longhorns, each afternoon at 1:30. When we arrive, there is no ranger in sight, but two very large longhorns are contentedly munching their lunch.
Next stop is the visitors center, which contains a small museum and bookstore. The center is housed in the El Coronado Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It is perched on the rim of the canyon and features large windows with panoramic views. The museum houses displays on the canyon’s colorful history. A video tells of the Red River War, between Native Americans and the U.S. Army, which culminated in 1874 with Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie capturing and slaughtering more than 1,000 horses belonging to a large group of plains Indians camped in the canyon. This battle signaled the end of the Native Americans’ domination of the plains and the beginning of widespread settlement by Anglos. From 1876 to the late 1880s, Charles Goodnight and a partner ranched in the canyon.
Souvenir shopping at the Palo Duro Trading Post, on the canyon floor in the park, tempts us. As we shop, my husband glances at his cell phone and realizes too late that daylight-saving time began today, unbeknownst to us. We are late for horseback riding reservations! Old West Stables, just down the road, offers one-hour horseback rides and longer rides to the Lighthouse, and a chance to experience the canyon as earlier visitors did. Unfortunately, we missed out on our chance.
Instead, we take a driving tour of the campground. The road through the park has numerous low-water crossings, with flood warnings posted. Water formed this beautiful place, and is still a dangerous force.
We return to our campsite, build a fire and relax. While the soup heats, my cowboy troubadour strums his guitar. It is a perfect camping evening.
In the night, the rain begins. Thunder awakens us, echoing for an incredibly long time through the canyon. We arise to a very wet, very cold morning. The picnic shelter is roofed with logs placed side by side; it’s not waterproof. The planned cowboy breakfast doesn’t seem like such a good idea, so we head to Canyon in search of food.
There we stumble across the Ranch House Cafe. Its ranch-themed decor reminds me of my grandparents’ farmhouse. With cold rain spattering the windows and a big, hot breakfast in front of us, we are warm and happy.
The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum provides another warm haven on this cold morning. Located on the West Texas A&M University campus, it features exhibits on the oil industry; geology, paleontology and archaeology; area history; art and more. My daughter is immediately impressed with the huge 1920s cable-tool drilling rig just off the main entry hall. We identify the parts and ponder how it works. The extensive petroleum exhibit prompts discussions of family members in the oil business.
We spend a lot of time at our favorite exhibit, on windmills, and view a pioneer town, old automobiles and weapons. A graphic video showing how Native Americans butchered and utilized all parts of a buffalo fascinates us. I take a quick whirl through the art exhibit halls, pausing to admire the museum's Georgia O’Keeffe painting, Red Landscape.
O’Keeffe taught in Canyon for a few years, beginning in 1916. (See “O’Keeffe’s Canyon,” TP&W magazine, October 2007.)
Birders shouldn’t miss the Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge, southwest of Canyon. The 7,664-acre refuge features shortgrass prairie and what manager Lynn Nymeyer calls a “moist soil management unit,” which provides waterfowl habitat. The refuge’s central U.S. location allows visitors to see a wide variety of birds — both eastern and western species, as well as migrating waterfowl. Nymeyer tells me we are not here at a good time; best viewing times are April through May and September through November. Sightings here include ducks (many thousands), bald eagles, golden eagles, kingbirds, hawks, warblers and much more.
Here we are, however, so I head back to the car for a driving tour. Meanwhile, my family has been plotting mutiny. They inform me they do not want to camp in this miserable weather, and they demand hotel accommodations. I tell them I'll think about it, as we embark on the five-mile auto tour of the refuge.
Nymeyer is correct; not much is flying out there. Mountain bluebirds entertain us, as they flit about, landing on stalks or hovering in midair.
At the farthest point of the tour is an observation blind. My husband gamely accompanies me to the blind, which is perched down in the dry lake bed. The wind escalates to a frigid blast as we emerge from the trees edging the lake bed. We dash to the blind and peer out with binoculars to see a few birds, too far away for identification. We quickly return to the trees and spot white-crowned sparrows and woodpeckers before scurrying for the protection of the car. The thermometer says 37 degrees; we agree the wind chill down on the lake was near 20 degrees. Maybe a hotel would be a good idea for this frosty night.
We do see a few more birds on the return portion of the trail: meadowlark, a hawk (probably red-tailed), more bluebirds. My husband also hears a killdeer. Our last stop is the refuge’s prairie dog town. Nymeyer had told me the prairie dogs would be underground, staying warm. They are wise little creatures; we decide to find a warm burrow, too.
The next morning, I pull into the Palo Duro scenic overlook for one last look. The mist-filled canyon is backlit by the rising sun, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Park host Annie Marouchoc told me a few days ago that she chose to work here so she could experience the canyon in all its moods.
“The colors here — you can’t imagine all the variations,” she said.
We have seen some of its many faces in just the few days of our visit. It is a fascinating place, filled with not only great beauty, but also a great sense of Texas’ history.
We can’t wait to come back.
• Palo Duro Canyon State Park: archive.tpwd.state.tx.us/palodurocanyon
• TEXAS: 806-655-2181, www.texas-show.com
• Palo Duro Trading Post: 806-488-2821
• Old West Stables: 806-488-2180, www.oldweststables.com
• The Ranch House Cafe: 806-655-8785, www.theranchhousecafe.com
• Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum: 806-651-2244, www.panhandleplains.org
• Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge: 806-499-3382, www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/buffalo.html
Video clips from Texas Parks & Wildlife accompany many of the stories on this website — to see even more videos, visit TPWD’s You Tube channel