Day Trips

The geologic magnificence of Palo Duro Canyon.

Lighthouse Peak.
Lighthouse Peak. (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

Palo Duro Canyon is one of the indescribable natural wonders that make Texas such a special place. There are few other formations in the state to compete with its uniquely spectacular beauty. Traveling south from Amarillo, the Great Plains are almost billiard-table flat until you reach the great gash in the earth that signals the beginning of the rolling geological diversity of the rest of the state.

In the August 1942 issue of Texas Parade Magazine, a writer said: "Few travelers ever forget that first sight of this remarkable gorge, which, without any apparent geological warning, slaps the unsuspecting motorist accustomed to the level pattern of the Great Plains smack between the eyes as the bottom drops out from beneath his car just off State Highway 217."

The canyon stretches more than 120 miles along the dividing line between the High Plains and the lower rolling plains of West Texas. The width ranges from half a mile to 20 miles and up to 1,000 feet deep. In the park the canyon is six miles at its widest and as much as 800 feet deep. The Grand Canyon in Arizona is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000 feet deep.

Contrasted with its flat, drab surroundings, the great depression is a fascinating assortment of multicolored geologic formations and rock sculptures. While the plains are nearly treeless, the bottom lands are thick with the remnants of an ancient forest that once stretched to the Rocky Mountains.

At one time the land was seriously considered for inclusion in the National Park System (NPS). In 1940, the NPS was ready to establish a 135,000-acre national monument, often the first step to national park status. Greed, World War II, and Texans' apathy spelled doom for the project.

When the historical, ecological, geological, and recreational significance of the canyon is considered, it is difficult to understand why Palo Duro did not join Big Bend and Padre Island in our national inventory of public lands. The bottom line was money. Without an acquisition budget -- that would come much later -- the NPS simply had no way to pay for the property. Land for Big Bend was purchased at a penny to $3 an acre. The NPS estimated the value of the Panhandle property in 1940 to be around $558,000 or $4 an acre until one property-owner demanded $158 an acre for his 3,000 acres. Serious efforts by Washington ended there.

As early as 1908, the canyon was mentioned as having national significance. It wasn't until the 1930s that action was taken to turn the area into parkland. In 1933, the state parks board purchased 15,103 acres. That same year the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), including several African-American companies, set up a tent city on the land near the current entrance to the park. The Depression-era work crews' greatest achievement was the winding road down the cliff face to the canyon floor.

On a calm day it is hard to image that the quiet little stream, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, cut this magnificent split in the earth's crust. More than 90 million years of erosion has exposed bright, banded layers of orange, red, brown, yellow, gray, maroon, and white rocks that represent four different geologic periods.

Palo Duro Canyon was a favorite campsite for Native Americans on the almost barren southern plains. The first inhabitants more than 12,000 years ago hunted bison and mammoths. The first white man to see the canyon was conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1541 on his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. The only evidence of Coronado's visit is the canyon's name, which means "hard wood" in Spanish.

For the next three centuries the canyon was the undisputed homeland of roving bands of southern Plains Indians. That all ended in 1874, when Col. Ranald Mackenzie surprised a large encampment of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne Indians in the canyon. When the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was over the Indians were effectively subdued in Texas. Only four combatants lost their lives, but the tribes lost their tepees, winter supply of food, and 1,400 horses. Without the means to resist, the tribes began drifting back to the reservations in Oklahoma.

Two years later, ranching came to the Texas Panhandle. Charles Goodnight drove a herd of longhorns down approximately the same path that visitors take today to the canyon floor. Goodnight constructed a dugout cabin using Comanche lodge poles as rafters to begin the first cattle ranch in the Panhandle. Before he died at the age of 93, he had controlled more than 1.3 million acres of pasture land and saw the economy shift from huge ranches to family farms.

Because the Caprock escarpment was on private land, few Texans knew about the colorful cliff walls of Palo Duro Canyon. It was Chicago businessman Fred Emery who actually initiated the arrangements to make the site a park. Through his company, the Byers Brothers Livestock Company, he bought the property and then made arrangement to transfer most of it to the state. On July 4, 1934, Palo Duro Canyon State Scenic Park was officially opened to the public.

Today the state park encompasses 16,402 acres of canyonland. Coronado Lodge, built by the CCC, has been turned into a visitor center with an awesome view of the canyon stretching to the horizon. Six campgrounds around the park offer showers, restrooms, RV hookups, and other amenities. Two rock cabins built by the CCC overlooking the canyon are also for rent in the park. There are several miles of trails open to hikers and mountain bikers leading to some of the most spectacular features like Lighthouse, Castle, and Capitol peaks. During the summer season riding stables in the park offer horseback riding. From June to mid-August the musical drama Texas is performed in the park's amphitheater. For more information, call the park at 806/488-2312 or go to www.palodurocanyon.com or www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/paloduro.

Outside of the entrance to the park several private enterprises offer jeep or horseback tours of the escarpment, lodging, and other recreational opportunities. For information about Amarillo, which is 12 miles away, call 800/692-1338 or visit their Web site at www.amarillo-cvb.org.

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