Back Roads Nature–Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Out here, the north Texas shortgrass prairie seems infinite under a relentless sun and perpetual withering wind. The land spreads flat to the horizon, making it hard to believe the earth really is round. Like a great blonde ocean there is nothing but monotonous repetition in all directions, without end. This is the southern high plains, named El Llano Estacado by the Spanish. Then, suddenly, the earth falls away before you, plunging 800 feet, presenting a gash stretching 120 miles long and 20 miles wide, gaping like some main entrance to Dante’s underworld.  Revealed before your eyes is a panoramic view of magnificent color and geologic art born some 250 million years ago. Rock formations shimmer through the distant haze in banded layers of bright orange, red, brown, yellow, grey, white and maroon—you can only stop and stare in disbelief. It’s as if time had stopped . . . or not yet started.  This is Palo Duro Canyon—the Grand Canyon of Texas!

Not only is the park geologically significant (the second largest canyon in the United States), it’s also historically and archeologically important. Mankind has lived here for over 12,000 years, finding wood, water, game, edible wild plants and refuge from the elements. The first known residents were prehistoric big game hunters of now extinct mammoths and giant bison. Population within the canyon varied with climate cycles but the canyon floor has always been supportive of life. It lies in the flood plain of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, the waterway believed to have chiseled and carved the canyon.

In the 1500’s Spanish explorers named the canyon Palo Duro (hard wood) after the Rocky Mountain junipers that grow here. The other major influence of the Spanish was a legacy of hard scrabble cattle capable of flourishing on poor pastureland and harsh conditions.  Descendants of these cattle are our longhorns.  Part of the official Texas Longhorn herd lives at the park today. Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches, and Cheyennes also have roamed the canyon, but it was the Comanche who dominated. In fact, this part of Texas was also known to the Spanish as Comancheria.  The canyon was the last stronghold of the remaining band of Comanches—the Quahadis—the most vicious of some 13 Comanche bands.

The Quahadi Comanche never signed a treaty with the white man and were regarded as the fiercest, least yielding and most violent of all plains Indians. With the Canadian River forming the northern boundary of Comancheria and the Caprock Escarpment protecting the east, Palo Duro Canyon provided the Comanche a near impregnable fortress.  Despite these advantages, the last of the Comanches were defeated in the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon in late summer of 1874. As a consequence of the loss, Comanche horses were purposely destroyed by U.S. Army troops. Mostly afoot, without shelter, food, or clothing and facing winter on the high plains with few remaining buffalo, the Comanche had been routed, in large number, from their last important hideout. Thus marked the end of Indian influence in the southern territories.  It also spawned a legend. On certain nights, it is said, a spectral herd of wild ponies can be seen galloping through the canyon in a haunting display of defiance.

Within a few years of this epic battle, barbed wire would stretch the length and breadth of the plains. The most famous white settler of the area was a former Texas Ranger, Charles Goodnight. Not only was Goodnight a charismatic adventurer, he was also an accomplished frontiersman and cattleman. He arrived in the canyon in 1876 with 1,600 head of longhorn cattle and formed the J.A. Ranch in 1877, along with his partner John Adair. By 1885 Goodnight and Adair were grazing 100,000 head of cattle on over 1.3 million acres of Panhandle rangeland.  The partnership ended in 1887, and the partners divided the land.  Most of the canyon belonged to the J.A. Ranch up until 1890. Adair descendants continue to run the ranch today and access to the ranch is just outside the park entrance.

Modern day Palo Duro boasts 27, 173 acres of protected land, surrounded by indescribable beauty. On the topside are three rustic rim rock cabins available for rent, perched high on canyon walls (there are four more limited use cabins on the canyon floor).  Nearby is a bustling visitor center with breathtaking views and a classy gift shop. The best part, however, awaits below.  As you begin the steep descent into the canyon, notice the interplay between sun and shadow as the road winds around cliffs glinting as if chopped by God’s own axe.

Once on the floor, you’re immediately struck by the sheer number of recreational venues, most of which are suitable for travelers who only have limited time to spend. There is a sprawling conference center and wedding site as well as an Old West Riding Stable where you can schedule trail rides out to Timber Creek Canyon (reservations required:  806-488-2180). Snacks and souvenirs are available here too. If you are camping within the park or if you are just in need of some cool refreshment, a campground Trading Post on the canyon floor offers ice, snacks and supplies.

Another major event draw is found at the Pioneer Amphitheater each summer from June through August. This is where local performers put on “TEXAS” every Tuesday through Sunday evening.  It’s a family-friendly extravaganza featuring singing, dancing, fireworks and lots of fun and humor as it tells the story of the struggles and triumphs of early settlers in the area.  Be sure to call ahead for reservations (806-655-2181); come early and enjoy some Texas barbeque under a covered patio.

But Palo Duro demands more than a day trip to appreciate the over 1,500 acres of equestrian space, 30 miles of hike/bike trails, historical sites and distinctive rock formations. Camp sites of all types and rental accommodations are found within the park, or visitors can stay in nearby Canyon, Texas.  Either way, this place should not be hurried.

Hiking is a popular pastime here with a varied selection of walking trails, both high up in the rocks or down on the canyon floor. Some trails take you to old abandoned sod sleeping quarters while others, like Lighthouse Trail, offer up close and personal looks at famous rock formations. Canyon weather, trail length and time of day are important factors in planning any outdoor activity here.  Most major trailheads have active thermometer displays, warning signs and, in some cases, shaved ice and water vendors catering to parched tourists.

In terms of plant and wildlife, the park is all Texas. Wildflowers and grasses dot the canyon wall and floor.  Seasonally, you can see Indian blankets, blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats gramma and buffalo grass, among many others. Prickly pear and yucca are common all year round. Besides juniper, also find mesquite, cottonwood, willow and hackberry trees. Salt cedar grows along streams on the canyon floor.  Don’t expect to see much wildlife during daytime, but—make no mistake—all the typical Texas critters call this canyon home. Both white-tailed and mule deer, wild turkeys, bobcats, snakes and lizards—they seek out the canyon for the same reasons man has. Two threatened species also live here:  the Palo Duro mouse and the Texas horned lizard. Coyote serenades begin just before dusk—no reservations required.

Converting this natural gorge into a sprawling state park was no easy task. While the original park land was deeded by private owners in 1933, it took seven different CCC and military veteran units five years to convert this daunting geography into an inviting, modern park that would sustain visitor traffic at “national park” levels. The biggest tasks included developing 11 miles of road to and through the canyon floor, building picnic areas, steps, trails and lookout points to spotlight the most impressive rock formations.  But there was also the common infrastructure requirements of the visitor center, cabins, shelters, bridges and park headquarters.  The park officially opened to the public on the fourth of July, 1934, even though it remained a work in progress.

On the upper rim, just outside the main entrance to the park, the afternoon sun sparkles against a 22-foot arrow stuck in the earth. It’s easy to miss; a single arrow in the middle of the prairie, just by the roadside. It’s as if it soared in a giant arc from an enchanted bow somewhere deep within the canyon. It’s one of 70 such arrows across Texas created by artist Charles A. Smith to honor the rich culture and history of the Comancheria. It’s an eerie reminder of the dominance once sheltered by this land. The Comanche spirit is palpable. That there is much human history to understand is but one reason to make the commitment to visit Palo Duro Canyon. Don’t do it on a whim. Spend several days in the park; the canyon will pay you back.

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