From ground level, it’s impossible to see a canyon until you’re right up on it. It’s like trying to prove a negative — how can you verify what isn’t there? Unlike mountains, which make their presence known long before you get close to them, a canyon never announces itself until you’re almost to the edge of it. And that’s how the second biggest gorge in North America was able to sneak up on my friend Jeff and I.
We were on our way to Palo Duro Canyon, located about 25 miles outside of Amarillo. After getting off the main highway, we had been on the two-lane blacktop for a while, when all of a sudden the earth along the right side of the road peeled away, and we were looking deep into the chasm, a magnificent hole in the ground that artist Georgia O’Keefe called “a burning, seething cauldron filled with dramatic light and color.” I had the same experience when visiting the Grand Canyon and Snake River Canyon. The landscape is flatter than a pancake until suddenly and without warning, it’s not.
I hadn’t heard of Palo Duro until a few years ago. I was on a long road trip with my family passing through Amarillo when I saw signs for the canyon, and after doing a quick search online and seeing some photos, I knew I had to add it to my list of future destinations.
Jeff and I came to do some mountain biking, and Palo Duro is known for having 30-plus miles of the best trails in Texas. More than 120 miles long, Palo Duro reaches depths of up to 1,000 feet in places and was carved out of the Caprock Escarpment by the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River, a sandy stream which still flows the length of the canyon. The erosion caused by this river left behind the colorful bands of rock and soil that have inspired artists and explorers since prehistoric times, as evidenced by the ancient petroglyphs carved into the rock throughout the area, as well as the projectiles and tools that have been discovered by archaeologists here right alongside the bones of giant bison and mammoths.
The first Europeans to set eyes on the canyon were likely members of Coronado’s expedition who passed through the area in the spring of 1541 and named it “hard stick” after the indigenous juniper and mesquite trees. Palo Duro was home to generations of different Native American tribes long before Coronado’s time, until the Battle of Palo Duro in 1874 when the U.S. Army forced them back onto reservations in Oklahoma by destroying their winter food stores and rounding up and slaughtering more than 1,000 of their horses.
Three years later, Charles Goodnight and his partner John Adair established the JA Ranch, the first commercial ranching operation in the Texas panhandle. In 1933, the state of Texas purchased the land in the upper part of the canyon that became Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and the Civilian Conservation Corps (as part of FDR’s New Deal) set about constructing the 11 miles of road that snakes its way down the steep walls to the canyon floor below.
The CCC also built nearly all of the buildings in the park that you see today, including the visitor center and Cow Camp Cabin No. 2, which was to be our home-away-from-home for the weekend. Using only stone and wood collected from within the canyon, these cabins were designed by Amarillo architect Guy A. Carlander and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. Originally intended to house park workers while on-duty, these “house keeping cabins” were abandoned soon after construction, and stood empty until being refurbished in recent years by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
After unloading our gear at the cabin, Jeff and I hurriedly saddle up and hit the trails, making our way to Capitol Peak, one of the most prominent landmarks in the park. Named for its resemblance to the U.S. Capitol Building, Capitol Peak is a stunning example of the Spanish Skirts — the strata of dirt and rock seen throughout the area that have the appearance of a spinning Flamenco dancer’s dress that has been frozen in time. Perhaps even more impressive is the hoodoo lazily napping high atop the ridge, like a little piece of Utah that somehow wandered off and ended up making its home here in the Texas panhandle.
With sunset fast approaching and overnight temperatures expected to dip below freezing, we pedal our way back to cabin No. 2, letting out a whoop when we catch some air or bomb down a particularly steep pitch.
Being more accustomed to backpacking and primitive camping, staying in the cabin feels like full-on glamping. Mini-fridge, microwave, heat and A/C with public showers and restrooms nearby — this is way more cushy than the type of camping I’m used to, but I definitely appreciate the comfort of sleeping on a real full-size mattress at the end of a long day of riding. However, we aren’t alone in this cabin.
Turns out, a mouse calls Cow Camp Cabin No. 2 home as well. And when I say this is his home, I mean it literally, as in this is the Palo Duro Mouse (Peromyscus truei comanche) that is only found in three counties in the entire world. He scurries around so quickly that at first Jeff and I think our eyes are playing tricks on us in the dim, lantern-lit cabin, but after a few misfires I finally get grainy photographic proof of our furry little landlord. With his large ears and cinnamon and white fur, he looks more like a miniature chinchilla than your typical Texas rodent. However, we decide that he should stick to his usual diet of seeds, so we load our food back into the car at the end of the night to keep it safe … except for the hunk of dark chocolate I accidentally leave out on the table. When I find it on the mantle above the fireplace the next morning, it is 2/3 eaten with the tiniest of nibble marks all around its edges. I suppose it’s a small price to pay in rent. After all, it really is his house, we’re just sleeping in it.
The next morning we wake up to gray skies and drizzling rain, so we make a run into Canyon (the nearest town) for some additional supplies and wood for our fireplace. By the time we get back to the park, the rains have stopped, so we grab our bikes and head out on the Lighthouse Trail.
The Lighthouse is the most famous feature in the park, an orange and white striped hoodoo that towers 312 feet over the landscape. I must admit, when I first saw it from the canyon floor, I was expecting something a little … more, but this was just a trick of perspective. After a short scramble up a narrow rockslide path, we were standing at the base of the Lighthouse. Seven feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Lighthouse and the sandstone fin that looms behind it called the Castle are an awe-inspiring manifestation of the power and mystery of nature. I half-expected “Also sprach Zarathustra” — better known as Elvis’ entrance music or as the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey” — to start blasting from hidden speakers.
Even better is the view from between the two structures, looking out over miles of canyon, watching as the shades of red, orange, green, yellow and purple slowly shift in the changing light. The sun starts to burn away the gray cloud cover, and as I shoot way too many photos from my perch between the two towers, some blue sky is finally added to the canyon’s color palette.
We climb back down the boulder-strewn path to our bikes and hit the trails once again. For a literal change of scenery from the rocky canyon walls, we take the wooded trails that are located toward the center of the valley. They are incredibly fun to ride, with natural, fluid turns that wind between the trees. We pedal as fast as our intermediate skills will allow, stopping only to get a better look at some incredibly docile wild turkeys along the way. Maybe these particular birds should just be called turkeys because we could get close enough to touch them before a single feather was ruffled. Over the course of the weekend, we also spot mule deer and cottontail rabbits, but not the elusive Barbary sheep that also call this area home.
We get back to cabin No. 2 just in time to shoot photos of a gorgeous Palo Duro sunset. In fact, I’m so absorbed in my photography, I somehow manage to kick a cactus whilst looking through the viewfinder. Not an optimal outcome, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.
After some star-gazing at the picnic table and breeze-shooting by the fireplace, we hit the bunks to get an early start the next morning. No sign of our rodent landlord, so either he got his fill the night before or he has other mousey business to attend to.
The forecast calls for a clear day, so I make sure to set my alarm and get up early to see the sun rise over the canyon, and it does not disappoint. The first rays of the sun slip through fissures high in the canyon wall illuminating the wall on the opposite side for a brilliant display of crimson rock topped by an unbelievably blue sky.
As the shadows cast by the eastern wall begin to slide across the canyon floor, I take a moment to be thankful for times like this when I’m alone in nature. I try to commit the sensations to memory because you can’t capture a moment like this with just a camera.
Jeff has finally rolled out of his bunk, so we quickly scarf down some breakfast, pack our gear, and drive up the winding road to the ranger station to check out and return our key. All of the staff has been unbelievably courteous and helpful throughout the weekend, and I’m more than a little bummed out that our stay is nearing its end. However, the view from the nearby scenic lookout brightens my mood, and we make our way back down into the canyon for one last ride.
We take the Kiowa Trail (which is an easy trail) to the Upper Comanche Trail (which is decidedly not an easy trail). The tight, steep switchbacks keep me on my toes, with the knowledge that a misjudged turn or unseen rock could result in a brief, head-first flight over the handlebars with my final destination landing me among some aggressively spiny vegetation lurking 10-12 feet below.
Jeff has a hard out at 1 p.m., so after climbing and descending three challenging ridges on Upper Comanche, we decide to turn back and head for the car. As much as I’d like to keep going, we have a long drive ahead of us, and our legs are not nearly as fresh as they were two days ago.
We get back to the car with plenty of time to grab a tasty burger and a ridiculously delicious root beer float at the Trading Post in the park. I consider myself something of a connoisseur of all things frozen and dairy-based, but this was the first time I’ve ever had a float that used soft serve ice cream. I must admit that I felt some trepidation as I watched them dispense the soft serve into a drinking cup, but after one taste I was sold on this unorthodox twist on a longtime fave. The creamy fusion of vanilla and root beer had a frothy texture more like a milk shake and had me seriously considering seconds on my desert dessert, but ultimately the long (and frequently rest stop-less) road ahead made me reconsider.
As we left the rocky landscape of the panhandle behind us, I knew that I would be back to Palo Duro to conquer the rest of the Upper Comanche Trail and to explore even more of this beautiful part of our state. Jeff and I have already made plans to return there in the fall, and if you go, I can definitely recommend the Cow Camp Cabins. Just don’t book cabin No. 2, that one is ours. And you probably wouldn’t like the landlord anyway.