Driving along across the high plains of west Texas I take in the vastness that spreads out in every direction. Not quite going the speed limit, because this Arkansan still can’t believe a two-lane highway can have a 70-mile-an-hour speed limit (don’t hate me Texans!). I look to my right and suddenly see I am on the edge of a cliff. Completely confused because I’ve seen nothing but flat plains for mile and miles, I then realize that this is Palo Duro Canyon.
The second largest canyon in the country, second only to the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon lies in the heart of the Texas Panhandle. The canyon is 120 miles long with a depth of more than 800 feet.
Nicknamed “The Grand Canyon of Texas,” the two are alike with their multicolored striped rocks and steep mesa walls.
I first discovered Palo Duro Canyon the old-fashioned way – by studying a map. In my downtime at work, I used to “virtually” explore locations via Google Maps. On one excursion I investigated to see if I could find cool places with a 10-hour driving radius. While looking at Amarillo on Google Maps with the terrain setting on, I noticed a very rugged area. And quickly, Palo Duro Canyon was added to my list of places to visit.
However, that list is long and ever growing so it took me a while to make it there. And I’m a little disappointed I waited so long.
For the park’s website, click here.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
To showcase this natural wonder, the state of Texas set aside the most rugged and beautiful parts for a state park. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is full of adventure activities, such as hiking, biking, and horseback riding. With more than 30 miles of trails, there is so much to explore in this unique place carved out of the plains.
The park offers numerous campsites that appeal to every kind of camper. And I mean every kind. They have sites with water and electricity for RVers, primitive tent only sites, backcountry or backpacking sites, and equestrian sites.
Since I’m a low maintenance kinda gal, I chose a primitive tent only site. There are two primitive tent only camping areas – Cactus Camp Area and Fortress Cliff Camp Area. Neither camp area has flush toilets or showers, but they do have potable water and port-a-potties. Cactus Camp Area is not far from Mesquite Camp Area, which does have showers and flush toilets for those who want to be closer to them. But as I said, I’m lazy and low maintenance, so I chose the Fortress Cliff Camp Area.
I really enjoyed camping at Fortress Cliff Camp Area. Each spot has a covered picnic table and I was able to hang my hammock between the posts supporting the canopy. I chose to sleep in my car instead of setting up my tent or sleeping in my hammock because my car is comfy and it was cold and windy.
The Lighthouse Trail
The park’s most popular hike takes hikers to it’s most recognizable feature, the Lighthouse. The Lighthouse Trail is 5.5 miles round trip.
The trail begins in a valley or draw and is a mostly easy hike until you get to the last little bit which requires a slight amount of using your hands to get up trail. My pooped pup, Caddie, did not like this part as she has torn both of her ACLs. Although most large dogs would have been able to pull themselves up, I had to pick Caddie up, much to her annoyance.
But at the end it was more than worth the climb to see the Lighthouse up close and from all sides.
I also really enjoyed experiencing all the desert has to offer. The Lighthouse Trail is a great way to see desert life. It also takes hikers past unique hill sides that are striped with multi-colored layered rock. Something I have not seen anywhere else. It is very much like a painting.
Hike along the river
It is amazing what wind and water can do. For my second day at the park, I combined the Rojo Grande and Paseo Del Rio trails, which both follow the river. I loved seeing the life that blossoms at river. A sign explained to me that the trails showcase this oasis. The water gives life to vegetation which provides food and shelter for wildlife.
Bird chirped and flew around me as hiked these trails. I was amazed at how swift the water is. It cuts deep into the sandy soil and carves away at the terrain. I thought of a quote I once heard about sculptures. The quote talks about how the statue is already inside the marble, wood, or whatever medium the artist is using. The artist simply removes the excess to show it.
To me that rings true for Palo Duro Canyon, only the wind and water are the artists and the canyon is the sculpture.
After hiking both trails, I returned back to the Fortress Cliff Camping Area via the road. In total this was about a four mile round trip.
Rock Garden Trail
I unfortunately only had two days to spend in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and wished for one more day. I would have liked to have hiked the Rock Garden Trail because it takes hikers from he valley to the rim.
My family and friends know that I love a challenge, and this five mile round trip hike climbs 600 feet from valley floor to to the rim of the canyon.
For another Texas park that provides an excellent desert experience check out my post on Big Bend National Park.
Although, I did get to experience life and the scenery on the rim via the road, I would have liked to have hiked to the rim to explore all the canyon has to offer on foot.
A haven for mountain bikers
Palo Duro Canyon State Park has wonderful mountain biking trails. I came very close to bringing my bike (and I am not a mountain biker). But what made me decide not to was I wanted to bring my dog. Since dogs have to be on a leash, and Caddie doesn’t really need to be running beside me (knee injuries, remember?), I chose to leave the bike at home.
But boy, I’m bringing it next time. Palo Duro Canyon has mountain biking trails for each level. Beginner for me please!
Palo Duro Canyon for Thanksgiving
I visited Palo Duro Canyon State Park over Thanksgiving weekend. According to Google, which tells you how busy a place is now, when I was there it said “as busy as it gets.” But even with that it was not nearly as crowded as other places I have been. (Uh umm, looking at you Yellowstone.) I did have have to step over and let people pass a few times on the Lighthouse Trail, because either they were hiking a faster pace than me, or they had a dog and I wanted to give Caddie and their dog room. Or I stepped off to the letter mountain bikers zoom past. But I enjoyed the slower pace to take in the desert.
On my second day, when I hiked along the river, I saw very little people. The Lighthouse Trail is the most popular in the park so on that trail on a holiday weekend, it is to be expected.
The weather was perfect. It was cold at night and warm in the day. While hiking between about 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., I did get a little hot, so in the summer hiking in mid-day may not be so great.
Palo Duro Canyon is a beautiful and wonderful place and I cannot wait to go back.