Trip Review: Palo Duro Canyon State Park
April 7, 2017 / By Chris Oudean & Katie Hnatik
Palo Duro Canyon, Texas is one of those places that doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves. With a maximum width of twenty miles, a maximum height of one thousand feet, and stretching over 100 miles long, it’s the second largest canyon in the United States and has been nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Texas.” Formed by erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork tributary of the Red River over thousands of years, it holds a great deal of history in its great, crumbling, sandstone walls. Fossils from long extinct animals as well as tools and arrowheads from ancient Native Americans have been found inside the canyon.
The state park itself is just a portion of the overall canyon. It offers year-round camping and many trails for exploration by foot, bike, or even horseback. There is an amphitheater within the park where a play called “Texas” is performed during the summer months by local actors. The play debuted in 1966 and has run annually within the park ever since. Unfortunately, we came a bit too early in the season for it.
We discovered Palo Duro while trying to find someplace new to explore for a weekend and an escape from Colorado snow. It’s a 7.5 hour drive from Denver. A long drive there and back, but doable within two days as long as we budgeted our time wisely. The fastest route took us through part of New Mexico and right past Capulin Volcano National Monument. Bonus! We woke up at 2:30am Saturday morning, brewed some strong (STRONG) coffee, and hit the road.
Traveling in the wee hours of the morning was actually pretty great. We got out of Denver and well away from densely populated areas before the sun rose, so it was smooth sailing with very little traffic. We watched the sunrise at a rest area in Trinidad, CO, stopped to check out the Volcano in New Mexico, which helped break up the long drive, and arrived at Palo Duro by 3:00pm. (The volcano proved to be more interesting than expected and took up more time than planned).
Arriving at the park entrance, we queued up in a long line of cars. We had no idea that it would be this busy so early in the season, but it was a nice sunny day with a high of 75°, perfect for exploring the canyon. If you want to avoid traffic at the gate, plan to arrive early. Visitors start lining up before the park opens, but there is much less traffic in the early hours.
Once inside, there is a parking lot for the visitor’s center a short distance away. From here, you have your first dramatic view of the canyon. I would venture to say that no camera can appropriately capture this sight, but it won’t stop you from trying. There is a small, steep, one lane street leading from the upper parking lot to a small, lower lot right in front of the visitor’s center. If you want to escape this parking lot easily, I would advise parking in the upper lots instead of heading to the lower one. Lots of foot traffic and narrowness of the road may cause traffic jams.
- – A short walk down a trail by the visitor’s center, we found a nice view for our first google photosphere.
Because we had limited time and were excited to explore the canyon, we didn’t spend much time at the visitor’s center. If you have the time on your visit though, it’s worth a longer look. There is a gift shop in the front of the building with beautiful artwork and collectables. The building is flooded with natural light from large windows lining the back of the building which sits near the edge of the canyon. From the windows you have a nice view of the canyon with a telescope that you can use to take a closer look. Beyond the front counter, they have a museum-like exhibit showing native artifacts, fossils, and samples of interesting rocks that can be found in the canyon. It’s a great preface before going further into the park.
The canyon is vibrant and colorful and full of life. The wildlife and critters were a big part of what drew us to Palo Duro. The water and richness of the canyon supports a diverse ecosystem. Visiting the canyon, you may find wild turkeys, roadrunners, bats, lizards, coyotes, bobcats, owls, snakes, and lizards including the Texas horned lizard which is a threatened species. If you visit in the fall, you may find tarantulas. Many of us have fears when it comes to the creepy, crawly, slithery critters, but they are an important piece if this environment. Our presence here is usually more of a danger to them than theirs is to us. Some of these animals are threatened or endangered, so please don’t run them over or attempt to kill them on your visit. If a snake or other animal seems to be a danger, your best option is to keep your distance and notify a park ranger rather than approaching it.
Our visit proved to be a bit early in the season for many critters, but spring seemed to be well on its way. Green grass was beginning to grow, trees had young green leaves, and wildflowers were starting to blossom. For a couple of former Alaskans living in the mile-high city of Denver, Colorado, the drop in elevation was also a refreshing experience. The peak elevation at the top of the canyon is a mere 3500 feet.
Winters in the canyon are dry. It receives less than ¾ inch of snow/rain per month and the temperatures range from the low 20’s to the upper 50’s. The summers are also fairly dry with average monthly rainfall of 2-3 inches. Despite the dry climate, we were rather surprised by the noticeable humidity compared to Denver in March, which added to a feeling of spring. Summer temperatures here range from the mid 60’s to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re sensitive to heat, avoiding the summer months (June through August) may make your trip more enjoyable. You can spend more time out on the trails exploring without overheating. Even then, park rangers advise visitors to carry plenty of water and to avoid exertion during the peak heat of the day. It’s best to begin hikes and other outings as close to dawn as possible or to wait until closer to dusk before heading out.
This was a spur of the moment trip for us and as such, we didn’t have time to pack our camping gear and decided instead to stay at a hotel in Amarillo, which is conveniently only a forty-five-minute drive from Palo Duro. The city of Canyon is even closer, about 30 minutes from the park, but offers less lodging that seems to fill up quickly. If you’re planning a more intimate visit, there are plenty of campsites available within the park, most of which feature bathrooms, picnic tables with permanent canopies for shade, & designated fire pits. There are also three cabins with electricity and full bathrooms on the canyon rim that can be rented, however they often book up moths in advance, so plan ahead if you want to snag your accommodations. For more information or to book a cabin, see the Texas Parks and Wildlife website.
Erosion is ever present here. You get the sense that all of this is temporary, and your visit to many places may be a once in a lifetime event. Our first excursion onto a trail was a little ways in on what is called the “CCC trail”. We were leery of this trail at first due to seeing people off in the distance at the visitor’s center viewpoint that appeared to be traversing along the thin, dangerous looking ridge of an extruding upper portion of the canyon. At first, we thought they were perhaps wandering off to unsafe areas, but soon enough we found ourselves going down that very same path! The trail that looked like a thin ridge turned out to be a wide, established path. Keep in mind, however, that some areas of the canyon are made up largely of sandstone which is a soft rock that crumbles easily. Venturing off established trails can be dangerous. As we traversed this short trail, we found ourselves overlooking the amphitheater below to the left, and to the right was the visitors center in view far off in the distance. Upon reaching the end, you’re greeted with an abrupt cliff edge and a breathtaking view of the canyon floor far below. We couldn’t help ourselves, and made our second photosphere here.
As we headed deeper into the park, the road meandered along steep cliffs with warning signs of rocks on the road until reaching the canyon floor. At the bottom, the road takes you in a loop along all the main attractions with stops at the many trailheads. One of the most popular trails is the Lighthouse Trail. This six-mile (round trip), out and back trail terminates at the aptly named lighthouse formation it’s famous for, which is by far the most photographed geological formation in the park. Due to our limited time and desire to see a broader range of attractions, we only traversed a mile or so into the trail. The trail itself is quite beautiful, offering more than just the lighthouse formation. You’ll also pass along Capitol Peak, be surrounded by colorful canyon walls, and can look out at layers and layers of hills in the distance.
A little further down the road, another trail caught our eye on the official trails map that they give out at the entrance. Number ten on the list is called “The Big Cave”. This intriguing name is all we needed to lock ourselves into full exploration mode and we made a b-line for the Juniper/Cliffside trailhead. This trail system has several interconnecting trails and Palo Duro State Park lists it as a moderately difficult trail on their park map. However, the section of the trail that takes you to the Big Cave is easy. We found our stride on the dirt path that parallels the park road, leading through sparse trees, shrubs, and cactuses with inch long thorns, (beware the cacti!). The dirt here is tinted orange and fine with a consistency like baby powder. Less than a mile from the trailhead, the path opens up and you have a nice view of the canyon. A short trail leads up to the cave. The trail is fairly steep and the powdery dirt makes it a bit slippery, so be careful on your way up (and down).
–Looking out from the Cave
This is a big attraction in the evening. Families come together to check out the cave. If you want a quieter, less crowded visit, try coming in the morning, soon after sunrise. You’ll likely have the cave all to yourself, at least for a little while. It’s quite a sight. Many people over the years have wandered into the back of the cave to leave carvings in the soft sandstone, professing friendship, love, and the occasional quip.
By this time, the sun was setting and it was time to head back to Amarillo for some much-needed rest. We would return to the canyon before first light to catch the sunrise and hopefully get some good photos.
As I mentioned earlier, upon our return to the gate the next morning, we were greeted with a short line. It was about 20 minutes before the entrance was opened and people were already lining up. March is definitely a popular month for this place. Once inside, we went straight to the lighthouse trail. With its grand view of the canyon, we decided that one of the small offshoots about a half-mile into the trail would be an ideal place for a spectacular sunrise. We weren’t disappointed. We spent the next thirty minutes or so waiting for the sun to come up, and listening to the sounds of nature all around us. Coyotes could be heard howling in groups nearby, reminding us a little of rambunctious, laughing, children. Then came the familiar sounds of two owls hooting back and forth.
As the sun’s rays abruptly come over the canyon rim, splashing color all around us, night creatures give way to day creatures, and a crazy sounding bird began to sing. This was our first experience hearing a genuine mockingbird up close. The Northern Mockingbird, as we would find out later, is a native here. Most birds learn songs when they are young and then stick to those songs throughout adulthood. Mockingbirds, on the other hand, are believed to be part of a rare group of birds that are considered to be open-ended learners, meaning that they continue to learn snippets of new songs throughout their lives. It’s believed that the reason for their mocking is for mating, and that perhaps the larger their repertoire of songs, the greater their chances are of finding a mate. They are fascinating to listen to. At one point, it sounded like a baboon. Who knows where it would have picked that up from.
We spent the rest of our time in Palo Duro getting up close and personal with the big cave. There were few people this early, so we had it nearly all to ourselves. You can take a look for yourself on our photosphere walk through. You start a couple hundred feet from the cave entrance, and can follow the arrows all the way up to the entrance and to the very back of the cave. It’s a spoiler, but trust me, even a 360 photo doesn’t match actually being there.
- -Our photosphere at the Big Cave. Be sure to follow the arrows. For a VR experience, this works with Google Cardboard too!
-See more photos in our “Texas Gallery“
If you’re living in the Midwest United States and looking to escape bad weather in the winter, Palo Duro is a worthwhile consideration. Despite temps flirting with the 20’s at night, the daytime highs are comfy and the canyon itself keeps in the heat. Winter camping couldn’t get much better than this.
Have you been to Palo Duro Canyon? If so, do you have a favorite place you could recommend? Let others know by leaving a comment below. Sharing your experience will provide valuable insight for someone who may be considering a trip here!
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