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November 2007 Park of the Month
Caprock Canyons State Park

A Home Where the Buffalo Roam

Imagine a place where marbled redrock canyons slice through a vast landscape dominated by table top-flat plains, where miniature mountains pierce an azure sky, where historic railroad bridges seem to float in space and the descendants of ancient bison herds graze native grasses. Welcome to one of Texas' best kept secrets - Caprock Canyons State Park.

Rob McCorkle © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
Campers at the South Prong Camping Area
at Caprock Canyons State Park in the
Texas Panhandle greet the day.

This 14,000-acre picture postcard setting of the Wild West, located roughly 50 miles northeast of Plainview, marks the geographic spot where the Panhandle's High Plains to the west collide with the Rolling Plains to the east. The bulk of the park's annual 75,000 visitors drive an hour from Amarillo, but more Texans should do themselves a favor and seek out this natural and cultural jewel of a destination.

Caprock Canyons State Park is home to the small, but growing Texas State Bison Herd that today numbers 67. Often called buffalo, which is technically a species from Asia and Africa, the bison are members of the bovine family, same as cattle. What makes the Caprock herd special is its bloodline that can be traced to the historic bison herd that Panhandle ranchers Charles and Mary Goodnight saved from extinction in the 1870s.

Park visitors can read all about the 19th century heyday of the buffalo at an interpretive center just down the road from the new $1 million Visitor Center that perches near the edge of a cliff overlooking a meadow where bison graze lazily below. Two telescopes at a nearby overlook afford visitors a close-up look at the shaggy creatures.

A future exhibit to be installed at the Visitor Center will tell the remarkable story of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's relocation of the remnants of Goodnight's herd from the JA Ranch to Caprock Canyons and the following scientific testing that verified the purity of the herd's genetics. Wildlife biologists have imported three bison bulls from Ted Turner's New Mexico ranch to try to diversify the Caprock herd's genetic makeup to insure its longevity.

The small herd is all that remains of the vast Southern bison herd that members of the 1840s Santa Fe Expedition described as being "as numerous as grains on the seashore spread across the Great Plains like a black cloud on the prairie." Prior to 1870, an estimated 30 to 60 million bison once populated the Great Plains from Canada through the American heartland and into north Texas prior. The beginning of the end for the bison came when the last of the Plains Indians were driven from their homeland and the railroad came, opening up the herd up to slaughter by buffalo hunters who sold their meat for food, coats for buffalo robes and hides for leather goods and belts to drive industrial machinery. Even the bison bones were used for fertilizer, buttons and bone china.

Park exhibits explain the importance of the bison to the prairie ecosystem. Sadly, only one percent of America's prairies exist today, most having succumbed to farming. Efforts have been made to restore a tiny patch of prairie in the park by seeding the land with native grasses and employing controlled burns to mimic lightning-induced fires that controls woody vegetation.

Humans have occupied this part of Texas for some 12,000 years. The canyons provided shelter from harsh weather and ample resources, such as plentiful game, good water supplies and rich soils for raising crops. Historians believe this is an area visited by Spanish explorer Coronado in the 1500s and where Comanches brought kidnapped Cynthia Ann Parker, who later gave birth to its famous chief, Quanah Parker.

Earl Nottingham © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.
The redrock canyon country of Caprock
Canyons State Park is atypical of the mostly
pancake-flat terrain of the Texas Panhandle.

Despite its notable cultural and natural history, Caprock Canyons still exists as a step-child to its more renowned older sister park, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, to the north. While park Superintendent Deanna Oberheu acknowledges that reality, she says those who find their way to her park are amazed.

"They know about Palo Duro," she said, "but when they come in here, they say 'Wow, this is the best-kept secret in Texas. I never knew it was here.' One guy told me the other day that the canyons are gorgeous, describing the park as 'the next best thing to Sedona.'"

The park's dazzling natural features woo visitors surprised to find sandstone ridges, rust-colored canyons carved by tributaries of the Red River, bizarre pinnacles and hoodoos caused by erosion, and plentiful campsites amid scenic settings. The park even boasts a small lake -- Lake Theo -- an ideal spot for taking a swim, hooking a catfish or perch from the banks or a pier, picnicking or pitching a tent at one of nine lakeside campsites ($14 a night). The park entry fee is $3 per person for those 13 and older.

Lake Theo sits at the first turnoff along five-mile interior park road that leads from the Visitor Center atop the caprock to canyonlands below. Stay to the right on the main park road and you'll find yourself on a roller coaster drive passing an interpretive center guarded by metal cutouts of bison, the Honey Flat Camping Area (35 water-and-electric sites costing $15-$20 a night) and Wild Horse Camping Area for equestrians ($12). After a couple of miles, the road descends into the canyons of the North Prong and South Prong of the Little Red River. Here are found trailheads for several canyon hiking trails that vary in difficulty, two primitive camping areas accessed by short hikes, and 20 sites in the South Prong Tent Camping Area ($10) ideal for car campers. Primitive backpack campsites run $8 a night.

To truly appreciate the significance of Caprock Canyons State Park's remarkable landscape, stop at the various wayside exhibits to learn about its geologic history than spans 250 million years. The story is revealed in the different colored layers of the Panhandle Escarpment that date from the Permian Age when the Texas Panhandle was part of and inland tropical basin surrounded by highlands. Wind and water over the eons shaped the landscape visible today.

When you've had enough of hiking, mountain biking, camping and horseback riding, head over to the companion Caprock Canyons Trailway State Park. The 64-mile Rails-to-Trails Conservancy initiative converted an abandoned Burlington Northern rail line into a multipurpose trailway for hikers, biker and equestrians. You can access the four individual trail segments, which run from South Plains to Turkey, at five locations. The Quitaque Canyon segment includes the Clarity Tunnel, which is home to thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats. The tunnel was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. The Turkey to Estelline segment is closed at this time.

While visiting the caprock canyons country, check out nearby Turkey, Texas. Turkey is the hometown of the late Texas swing music legend Bob Wills. Visit the Bob Wills Museum to see memorabilia dating to the 1940s and stay the night in the historic Turkey Hotel.

Caprock Canyons State Park is located near Quitaque on FM 1065 approximately 4 miles north of State Highway 86. It is one of 110 state parks that make up the Texas State Park system. For more information about the park visit the Caprock Canyons State Park web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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