I peered over the edge of the canyon where shrubs and grasses dotted rust-colored folds of the crevasse. It was a foggy day and the other side of the canyon appeared to fade into nothingness. I turned to follow the trail that takes hikers along the edge. As I rounded a corner I saw what appeared to be a herd of lounging bison, right on the trail, where I needed to go. Caprock Canyons State Park is home to the official state Texas bison herd, and they were in my way.
Remembering Leave No Trace Principle 6 – Respect Wildlife – I knew I needed to find an alternate route. The only problem was they were everywhere. But getting trampled by a bison wasn’t on the agenda, so I turned around and finished the loop by retracing my steps back to the trailhead.
Caprock Canyons State Park is about a two-hour drive southeast of Amarillo, Texas. It is a great place to explore and see the beauty of the Great Plains. It’s the third largest state park in Texas.
There is much to do at Caprock Canyons State Park, like camping, hiking, horseback riding, and backpacking. But perhaps my favorite thing is to see the bison.
Bison roam freely throughout the park, and although they are accustomed to being around people, they are still wild animals. That is why I did not try to hike through the middle of them. All around the park, I could see piles of evidence left by the bison that showed me they truly do roam freely throughout the park.
A cattleman and his wife, Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight, started the herd in 1878, and it, along with four other foundation herds, saved the bison from extinction. The Goodnights’ ranch, JA Ranch, donated the herd to the State of Texas, and they now reside at Caprock Canyons State Park.
In the 19th century, as the bison were nearly driven to extinction, some concerned individuals stepped in to preserve the fate of the species. They took care of orphaned calves and formed their own herd through the orphans.
At Mary Ann’s urging, Charles began to round up orphans, and their herd grew to about 200. In the 1990s genetic tests were performed and showed a rare genetic marker that revealed that the herd could be the last remaining group of southern plains bison. The herd was designated the Official Bison Herd of the State Of Texas.
The famed Caprock Canyons are carved out of the escarpment between the Llano Estacado high plains to the west and the lower Texas Rolling Plains to the east. It really is a unique area. The Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail climbs to the highest point in the park. There you really get perspective on the changing terrain and how the Caprock Escarpment serves as a border between the high plains and the lower plains.
Streams flow through the escarpment cutting into it and giving it deeply cut valleys like fingers on a hand. These streams that eventually join the Red, Brazos, and Colorado Rivers form the canyons that make up Caprock Canyons State Park.
The Mexican travelers who came through the area were known to have said, “Hay sierras debajo de los llanos,” which translates to “there are mountains below the plains.”
Because there are three different geological areas of the park, the ecology varies. The areas above the escarpment in the high plains are home to short grasses and shrubs. Within the canyons the climate is cool and damp, so you can see juniper and scrub oak, as well as a wall of overhanging ferns at the Fern Cave. In the wetter environment of the bottomlands near the Little Red River and its tributaries, you will find mid-level grasses and cottonwood trees.
Wildlife at Caprock Canyons State Park
In addition to the official Texas State Bison Herd, Caprock Canyons State Park is home to many other types of wildlife. On a walk down the road near the Honey Flat Campground you will hear strange almost chirping noises. I thought there was an alarm going off somewhere. And there was. Just under the surface of the ground, just out of sight, a prairie dog was barking at us telling us to move along.
At the Honey Flat Prairie Dog Town, you can watch the blacked-tailed prairie dogs pop in and out their holes.
Other wildlife in the park includes mule and white-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats, and a few pronghorns. The park is also home to numerous species of birds and reptiles.
Hiking at Caprock Canyons
There are 25 miles of trails within the park. The trails range from easy to very challenging. Most of the trails are multi-use, meaning they are open to horsemen and mountain bikers as well as hikers. If you hike these trails, it’s good to know your trail etiquette. Hikers yield to equestrians. Bikers yield to equestrians and hikers, and equestrians have the right-of-way.
There are primitive camping areas along the trails for those who would like to backpack at the park.
Part of Caprock Canyons State Park is the Caprock Canyons Trailway, an approximately 65-mile long rails-to-trails path. It is open to equestrians, bikers, and hikers. It stretches across three counties taking travelers from the top of the escarpment to the Red River Valley.
There are multiple points of entry along the trailway and hikers can choose between five-mile hike or a thru-hike.
Camping is allowed in designated spots along the trailway. You will want to check with the park for what is needed for an overnight hike. One thing to note is there is no water available along the trailway, however, there are various comfort station points.
Camping at Caprock Canyons
There are three campgrounds within the Caprock Canyons State Park. Campsites vary from having 50 amp electricity to no services. The Honey Flat campground has 10 sites with 50 amp electricity and water and 25 sites with 30 amp electricity and water. These are also drive-up sites.
When I stayed there, I stayed in the Lake Theo area. Here there are nine sites with restrooms close by; however, we still drove to them. I also need to note that on the park’s website, they appear to be drive-up sites, but that is not the case. The campsites are about 100 yards from the parking area. I didn’t mind the walk, but I might have packed differently had I know the campsite was that far from my vehicle.
The Little Red and South Prong camping areas both have eight primitive campsites. You need to bring in your water and pack out all trash. They do have organic toilets, but no showers. And even though these are labeled “walk-in” sites, they actually appeared to be closer to their parking areas than the Lake Theo camping area.
There are also 40 “hike-in” or backpacking sites along the hiking trails.
A unique and beautiful area
The area where Caprock Canyons State Park resides is truly a unique and beautiful area. One thing that I really enjoyed was seeing the three different geological areas. For more information on the park, click here.
Your description of the area is spot on and brought back memories of the sound of coyotes at sunset. The Goodnights were philanthropists to the people of the Texas Panhandle and Mrs Goodnight was definitely an innovative and strong woman. Love your Blog, Mara. Thank you for sharing your adventures and taking us along with you.
Awe, thank you!
Loved all the history of the Bison in this Blog. Also, happy you made the decision to turn around on the trail and not disturb the Bison even though you had travelled such a long way. Ethics on the trail should not be overlooked and I applaud you for respecting the Leave No Trace Principles as well as respecting the Bison. Makes me happy to know you
Awe, thank you ☺️