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November - December 2009 Feature Park
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
"Grand Canyon of Texas" A Sight To See

You can’t call yourself a true Texan until you’ve stood at the edge of the multihued majesty of Palo Duro Canyon that rends the flapjack flatness of the Panhandle plains south of Amarillo and gazed upon what AOL Travel recently called one of “America’s 10 Underrated Natural Wonders.” At 120 miles long, up to 800 feet deep and 20 miles wide at its widest point, Palo Duro Canyon – the Grand Canyon of Texas – ranks second only to Arizona’s Grand Canyon as the nation’s second largest canyon.

Earl Nottingham photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.

Some 300,000 people annually visit Palo Duro Canyon State Park to marvel at the Technicolor canyon walls and engage in a variety of outdoor activities amid nature’s splendor. Most are shocked after driving across miles and miles of the monotonous Llano Estacado prairies to discover this geologic gem carved beginning less than a million years ago by waters of the Red River’s Prairie Dog Fork. European explorers would later discover the canyon and name it “Palo Duro,” Spanish for “hard wood,” because of the area’s plentiful hardwood trees, such as mesquite and Rocky Mountain juniper.

The majority of park visitors come during the summer months not only to camp, hike, mountain bike, ride horses and picnic, but also to attend the 44-year-old outdoor theater production, “Texas,” that brings the pioneer history of the Texas Panhandle to life in song and dance at the Pioneer Amphitheater. But for those whose schedules and constitution allow, a winter visit to the 75-year-old state park pays dividends that include greater solitude, plentiful wildlife encounters and less crowded interpretive programs designed to educate visitors about Palo Duro’s many natural and cultural assets.

One of the best ways for park visitors to learn about the geology, history, plants and animals of Palo Duro Canyon is to join park interpreter Bernice Blasingame for one of her interpretive tours. This winter, she and the trails and resource manager are trying out something new – a monthly Polar Bear Hike – running Nov. 21 through Feb. 27, 2010. Guided evening hikes along the Juniper Riverside Trail cover about half a mile and last about an hour.

Blasingame says participants have been known to come from as far away as Santa Fe and College Station to go on full-moon hikes and learn about bats, white-tailed deer, horned lizards and other critters that inhabit the canyon. Visitors also may hear stories about the 1874 Battle of Palo Duro that led to the demise of the Plains Indians or learn about legendary 19th century ranchers like Charles Goodnight, who ran the sprawling J. A. Ranch. Tours are limited to 40 people and advanced reservations are required. Call (806) 488-2227, extension 106.

As long as a rare ice storm doesn’t shut down the park road that leads from the rim to the canyon floor, a winter visit to Palo Duro Canyon State Park can bring many benefits.

Earl Nottingham photo © Tx. Parks & Wildlife Dept.
View a larger version of this image.

“As it gets colder,” Blasingame says, “you’ll see more wildlife. You’ll see bobcats, coyotes, turkeys and occasionally a badger during the day and beavers along the river at night. There are many different bird species in the park during colder months, including hawks and the occasional bald eagle.”

Outdoor enthusiasts can rent a horse to trot along a four-mile trail, cycle miles of challenging mountain bike trails or hike dozens of miles of canyon trails, including the popular three-mile trail to the park’s icon, the 310-foot high Lighthouse formation. There’s even a 1.75-mile trail descending from the rim to the canyon floor that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which is credited in the early 1930s with building many of the park’s enduring features, such as the three popular rock cabins on the park’s canyon rim and four rustic Cow Camp cabins at the far end of the developed park property.

The rimside heated and fully furnished Goodnight, Lighthouse and Sorenson cabins with indoor bathrooms book up early despite the $110 to $125 nightly rate. For a more private experience in a remote portion of the park, book one of the Cow Camp cabins nestled among the canyon floor chaparral, which at $60 a night don’t include indoor bathrooms, but are quite cozy with bunk beds, wood-burning fireplace, microwave and mini-fridge. A bathroom with showers lies a short walk away at the Mesquite Camp Area.

Other camping facilities accommodating everything from tents to RVs requiring 50-amp service line the park road on the canyon floor. Campers can pick up fire wood and other supplies at the conveniently located, full-service Trading Post, which serves breakfast and “world-famous” burgers and fries, among other fare, for lunch.

Before descending to the canyon floor, stop by the Visitor Center for an excellent orientation to the park’s natural and cultural history, and an eye-popping view of the short-grass prairies stretching to the horizon and the colorful canyon walls that resemble a many layered cake. Look for older, prominent red claystone and sandstone, and the white gypsum of the Quartermaster Formation topped by yellows, grays and lavender mudstone that together form the showy, triangular slopes called Spanish Skirts. Though only seen in a few places at the bottom of the canyon walls, the canyon’s oldest rock, Cloud Chief gypsum, dates back 250 million years. Here, too, is found an explanation of the fascinating hoodoos, the strange-shaped columns of rock-topped clay and sandstone, a geologic signature of the Plains canyonlands.

Winter rains, while making for more inclement weather, bring out the vividness in canyon wall colors so cherished by photographers trying to capture Palo Duro’s magical hues. Runoff from downpours, too, provide another photographic opportunity as the park’s draws and low-water crossings surge with torrents of water the color of tomato juice color by the soil’s leached iron.

But the park’s main draw remains the stunning beauty of the canyon itself. After you’ve seen it, you’ll understand why the federal government once considered Palo Duro Canyon a national park candidate.

Palo Duro State Park is located 8 miles east of Interstate 27 on State Highway 217 about 20 miles south of Amarillo and 12 miles east of Canyon. For more information visit the Palo Duro Canyon State Park web site.

Article by Rob McCorkle

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