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Palo Duro Canyon - The Smile of the Panhandle Plains

The Plains Open Up at Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon has been described as a 120-mile-long, 800-foot-deep, copper-colored smile that dramatically illuminates the face of the Texas Panhandle.

One thing is certain: Palo Duro Canyon, just outside of Amarillo, is sure to put a smile on the face of every visitor.

Just when the Texas Panhandle Plains have you convinced that the earth really is flat, Palo Duro Canyon - “The Grand Canyon of Texas” - appears about 30 miles outside Amarillo. And unlike other grand canyons, you can drive into Palo Duro Canyon on well-maintained, paved roads. You’ll see anything from the largest RVs to mountain bikes meandering along the same trails used by the Comanche, Apache, buffalo hunters and early Spanish explorers.

Described as “a brilliantly colored sculpture of ravines, cliffs, hoodoos (fantastically shaped rock pillars), pinnacles, and mesas,” Palo Duro Canyon is is accessible to visitors through the 18,500-acre Palo Duro Canyon State Park, a favorite recreation and camping area for nearly half a million visitors each year. There are campsites for RVs and tents, riding stables, picnic areas, miles of picturesque hiking and biking trails and an outstanding visitor center.

The canyon is the second largest in the U.S., behind only the Grand Canyon. Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, and has a maximum depth in excess of 800 feet. Its elevation at the rim is 3,500 feet above sea level.

The epic outdoor theatre production, "TEXAS Legacies," performed in a natural amphitheater on the floor of the canyon, each summer welcomes visitors from around the world and every state in the nation.

Another perennial favorite is Cowboy Morning. The folks at the Figure 3 Ranch take guests on a 20-minute wagon ride to a beautiful campsite on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon. Guests get a taste of what the Old West was really like as they savor a cowboy breakfast cooked over an open mesquite fire.

Palo Duro Canyon History
The geologic origins of Palo Duro Canyon date back millions of years. It was carved over the millenia by the Red River.

Man has inhabited Palo Duro Canyon for approximately 12,000 years. The Clovis and Folsom people first resided in the canyon and hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison. Later on, other cultures such as the Apaches, Comanches, and Kiowas utilized the canyon’s abundant resources.

Early Spanish Explorers are believed to have discovered the area and dubbed the canyon "Palo Duro" which is Spanish for "hard wood" in reference to the abundant mesquite and juniper trees. However, an American did not officially discover the canyon until 1852 when Captain Marcy ventured into the area while searching for the headwaters of the Red River.

In 1874, Palo Duro Canyon was a battle site during the Red River Wars. Col. Mackenzie, under orders from the US Government, apprehended the Native Americans residing in the canyon by first capturing 1,400 horses and then later destroying the majority of the herd. Unable to escape, the Native Americans surrendered and were transported to reservations in Oklahoma. Then, from 1876 until 1890, most of the canyon belonged to the J.A. Ranch and was operated by Col. Charles Goodnight.

The 16,042 acres that make up the state park were deeded to the State of Texas in 1933. In 2002, another 2,036 acres were acquired and added to Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Hiking Palo Duro Canyon State Park
There are 16 miles of paved roads in the park and you'll see several trailheads along the drive.

The most popular hike is to the "hoodoo" formation known as The Lighthouse. The Lighthouse Trail is a 5-mile round trip. If hiking in summer, start early in the day and take along lots of water.

The 9-mile Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail is popular with mountain bikers, hikers and runners. Other trails in the park are for equestrian or backpacking exploration of the park's back country.

Another trail runs alongside the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and past beautiful rock formations.

Camping in Palo Duro Canyon State Park
There are three 2-room cabins in the park with modern amenities; four "Cow Camp Cabins" that have twin beds but no restrooms or showers; several campsites with water and electricity; and more campsites with water only.

There are also several hike-in primitive camping areas, including one for equestrian camping. The equestrian area includes water and pens for horses. Also, several backpack campsites.

Palo Duro Canyon Links
For information on Palo Duro Canyon State Park fees and reservations, visits the Palo Duro Canyon State Park page on the Texas Parks & Wildlife site.

Some information for this article was provided by the Amarillo Convention & Visitors Bureau or the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

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