The Year of State Parks: Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Grandest Canyon of Texas
From the Lighthouse to the Spanish Skirts, Palo Duro invites us to explore.
By Melissa Gaskill
From the scenic overlook on the canyon rim near Palo Duro Canyon State Park’s visitor center, the Lighthouse rises like a tiny finger of rock, tantalizing in the distance. About a mile and a half down the Lighthouse Trail, the first glimpse of the formation hints at something more impressive. But nothing compares to standing at the base of this stocky, reddish-orange hoodoo towering 310 feet from the canyon floor.
My hiking buddies Julie Peckham and Kathy Weiler and I came to Palo Duro Canyon State Park for a few days, and seeing this Texas icon up-close topped our list.
We head out across the undulating red ground and circle the rounded dome of Capitol Peak, sitting high atop lavender, amber and red rock formations called, for obvious reasons, Spanish Skirts. A bit farther on, we face a towering remnant of red rock that looks like an enormous fortress, some miniature, misplaced Masada.
The second largest canyon in the entire country, Palo Duro runs 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 800 feet deep. This impressive gash in the Earth extends from the town of Canyon southeast to Silverton. The state park’s 28,000 acres take up a mere fraction of the actual canyon.
Sunrise illuminates Palo Duro Canyon.
About a million years ago, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River began nibbling at the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado, and this steady, relentless erosion reached the canyon’s present depth roughly 10,000 years ago. Exposed rock dates back 250 million years to the Permian Age. We hike over red sandstone, shale and white gypsum in the oldest, bottom layer, known as the Quartermaster Formation. Traveling upward in space and forward in time, the canyon walls contain shales, sandstones, siltstone and caliche, topped by deposits of sand and topsoil built up during the past 2 million years. To me, it resembles a cake of many colorful layers, white veins of gypsum like cream cheese frosting in between.
On our way to the Lighthouse, we encounter an ornate box turtle ambling across the trail, its olive-brown shell decorated with yellow starbursts. On this and our other hikes, we also catch glimpses of several speedy lizards, which, ranger Jeff Davis tells us later, could be eastern collared lizards, six-lined racerunners, checkered whiptails or northern prairie lizards.
A shaded picnic table waits at the 2.7-mile marker. We sit and snack, watching a beautifully blue-hued western scrub jay clean up crumbs from previous visitors. A father and son duo and a young couple join us, creating an impromptu hiker’s party. From here, the route lurches up a steep, rocky slope to a small plateau on which the Lighthouse stands. Hoodoo formations occur when a harder rock layer protects softer rock underneath it from erosion, creating a hard-rock cap atop an ever-thinning column of soft rock. In the case of the Lighthouse, hard sandstone tops a pillar of soft shale. I marvel at the artful power of water and wind for the first of many times in the canyon. This high point also offers a spectacular view, and we linger to take it in.
“The constant views just keep me in awe,” Julie says as we start back. “Every time we pass a hill or rock structure, there’s something else fascinating to see. It just doesn’t stop being beautiful.”
For our next hike, we take Davis’ recommendation of Upper Comanche Trail, which runs about 5 miles from Chinaberry Day Use Area to Mesquite Camp Area. We park at the former, pausing to watch a golden-fronted woodpecker hard at work in a mesquite tree and a flock of turkey hens strolling through the grass.
Lighthouse in the snow.
This trail ascends some 400 feet up the wall, high enough to afford sweeping views across the canyon and to its floor, much of which is river floodplain where wildflowers and grasses grow in season, including Indian blanket, American basket-flower, sunflower, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss and sand sage. The name Palo Duro, Spanish for “hard wood,” refers to Rocky Mountain junipers that grow here. The canyon also contains mesquite, cottonwood, willow, western soapberry and hackberry. About midway, our hike crosses the Rock Garden Trail, which traverses an ancient landslide on its way up to the canyon rim, where shortgrass prairie grows. We pass small hoodoos that invite comparison to tilted tables, graduation caps, mushrooms or other familiar shapes.
Returning to our Cow Camp cabin at dusk, we’re treated to a glimpse of the threatened Palo Duro mouse. Eight inches long, half of that tail, the mouse lives in only three Texas counties. It emerges from burrows or crevices in rocks at night to eat the seeds of juniper, mesquite and prickly pear cactus — or people food left out by careless campers.
Threatened Texas horned lizards also live in the park, and the Pioneer Nature Trail offers good chances to see those. During our stay, we spy white-tailed deer several times, hear the yipping of coyotes at night and enjoy watching a couple of roadrunners hanging around the cabins.
Near dusk, we check out the bird blind near the Trading Post park store, where birds such as the canyon wren, black-crested titmouse, cedar waxwing and western meadowlark flock around the feeders. These birds scatter when some turkeys strut in but quickly return when those bigger birds move on. Various species come and go with the seasons — painted buntings, for example, hang out in spring, summer and fall but not winter. Photos posted on the walls of the blind show species common in the area, and the park has a bird checklist.
Dark skies in this remote part of the state mean excellent stargazing. We sit outside the cabin after dark and enjoy stars and planets sparkling like candles on my imaginary layer cake.
The Red River has its origins in the canyon and continues to work its erosive power.
The next day, we explore exhibits at the visitor center that tell the canyon’s human history. The first inhabitants arrived here 12,000 years ago to hunt large herds of mammoth and giant bison. Later, Apache, Comanche, Kiowa and others created rock art and bedrock mortars in the canyon. On Sept. 28, 1874, during the Red River War between the U.S. Army and Southern Plains tribes, the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment launched a surprise attack on a band of Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne that had taken refuge in the canyon. They fled, leaving behind their pony herd, teepees and winter stores, effectively ending the free days of the Plains people.
Charles Goodnight and John Adair founded the JA Ranch in 1877, and by 1885, 100,000 head of cattle grazed more than a million acres across the Panhandle, including the canyon. The partners divided the land in 1887, with most of the canyon remaining part of the JA Ranch. Today, a pasture near the entrance holds the only cattle in the park: Brisket, T-Bone and Omelet, members of the official State Longhorn Herd. The hardy longhorn breed descended from cattle brought to Texas in the 1500s by the Spaniards.
The state bought land for the park in 1933, and Civilian Conservation Corps workers spent the next five years building the road into the canyon, El Coronado Lodge (now the visitor center), cabins on the rim and canyon floor, and trails. On our list for next time: a rim-to-floor hike with a 500-foot elevation change in 1.43 miles, named the CCC Trail in the workers’ honor.
Winter provides excellent conditions for hiking and biking in the canyon, with average high temperatures in the upper 50s and only occasional, light snow. Summer temperatures, by contrast, rise well into the 90s, and much of the canyon offers little shade. Summer also sees many more visitors, particularly from early June to late August when the outdoor musical drama Texas runs. This family-friendly show includes singing, dancing and even fireworks, with a canyon wall as the backdrop.
The canyon puts on quite a show all by itself, though, and provides an excellent backdrop for hiking adventures. It just doesn’t stop being beautiful.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
11450 Park Road 5
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