We drove for 30 miles, only a short drive from our current home in Amarillo, before patches of farmland started to fade and fall off of the landscape ahead of us. If I hadn’t observed a flash of narrow ravine out the car window, I would have never known that a canyon existed, as the flat farmland around us began to slowly evolve. As we passed the state park entrance, we began to see the various ripples of orange, yellow, and white lining the canyon below.
Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States, following Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. Water erosion from the Red River is what originally formed Palo Duro Canyon; downstream sediment deepens the canyon, while heavy winds contribute to widening the canyon. It is approximately 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and grows to 800 feet deep. Its name “Palo Duro” is Spanish for “hard wood,” referencing the juniper and mesquite trees that line the canyon floor.
Its decorated walls have been found to be 250 millions years old, and its four geological layers can be seen as visitors descend into the canyon. The canyon can be explored by car, bike, horse, or by foot. There are more than 30 miles of trails for equestrians, bikers, or hikers, offering great opportunities for bird watching and observing nature.
This canyon homes an array of animals, including two threatened species, the Texas horned lizard and the Palo Duro mouse. Mule deer, roadrunners, coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, jackrabbits, and rattlesnakes are also inhabitants. We were extremely quiet while searching for wildlife – maybe too quiet. We came across a (much-too-close) 4 ft. rattlesnake (more on that later), mule deer, and roadrunners during our hike.
The daily fee to enter the State Park is $5.00/person and free to children 12 and under. We purchased the $70 annual Texas State Parks one-card membership, offering access to 90+ Texas State Parks, and unlimited visits to Palo Duro Canyon for the year. The Visitor Center offers travelers opportunities to learn more about the state park, and sells pottery and jewelry for visitors. Additional souvenirs can be found at The Trading Post within the canyon, and Old West Stables, also found on the canyon floor, offers guided tours on horseback. Camping sites, RV sites with water and electricity, and cabin rentals are also available within the state park. During the summer months (June 2 – August 18) the outdoor musical, Texas, utilizes the canyon as an amphitheater to depict the stories of early settlers. Rumor has it that a delicious BBQ dinner is served early before the show. Texas – we’ll see you for dinner and a show in 2017.
Our favorite hike has been the Lighthouse Trail (out of Juniper/Riverside, Paseo del Rio, Rojo Grande, and Sunflower trails). In autumn the trails were springing with grasshoppers, and we watched several roadrunners peering at us in the distance. Be careful not to get too comfortable – I was fortunate to have my husband stop me a foot and a half away from an outstretched rattlesnake. It looked like a fallen tree branch, and I’d somehow missed seeing it. I think it was as surprised to see me as I was to see it, because it did not shake it’s distinct rattle at me. We were already about 2 miles out on the trail (and away from our car) during this dangerous encounter. Luckily, he shouted at me (in a tone I’d never heard before), and I stopped dead in my tracks. We were at a standstill for about 10 minutes as it slithered away. Also, during our hike we saw a number of “Hoodoos,” observed as rock formations with a small base holding a larger rock. These formations are formed when layered rock erodes at different rates. At the end of the Lighthouse Trail starts the vertical climb. There are two ways to get up to the Lighthouse rock formation; both trails are moderate climbs, and the view is more than worth it. Enjoy the views and happy reading!
Trail Map: Palo Duro Canyon Trail Map and Interactive Map
Lighthouse Trail Details:
- Distance: Approx 5.75 miles round-trip (2.72 miles one-way)
- Time: 2-4 hour hike (we finished it in 2.5 hours while leisurely taking pictures)
- Difficulty: Light-Moderate
- Best time: Spring, Fall, Winter
- Elevation Gain: 940 ft.
- Dogs: Dogs are allowed on the trails, but must be leashed and monitored at all times, due to the surrounding wildlife. Proper trash and waste disposal is also required of pet-owners.
- Bring plenty of water/Gatorade – I recommend 1-2 liters per person.
- Depending on the time of day, you may want to wear an additional layer, as it is cooler on the canyon floor.
- Bring sunscreen – there’s very little cover on the trail.
- This should go with out saying, but wear comfortable, sturdy hiking boots or tennis shoes.
For more information about Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
NOTE: All blog posts, articles, and photographs are the intellectual and creative property of Melissa J. Koziol. Thank you for reading!