PALO DURO CANYON STATE PARK

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley LandisSince I first started 24inTX, I’ve wanted to go to Palo Duro Canyon.  It’s is truly one of our state’s biggest and brightest gems.

The stunning canyon opens up before you as you drive through hundreds of miles of flat land in the Texas panhandle.

It’s been a main attraction for over 12,000 years.  The canyon walls offered resources and shelter to the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa tribes, as well as Spanish explorers before it became a state park in 1934.

I learned all about the history of the canyon while I was there, but first I had to make the 500 mile journey from central Texas to the panhandle.  If you’re keeping track at home, that’s an 8-9 hour drive, and I documented every hour!

The drive really wasn’t bad and I saw some pretty great landscapes.  The windmills were fascinating, especially how they played against the horizon as a storm blew in.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

If you take this drive, forgo the route through Abilene and take TX-153 W instead.  It’s a pretty drive with some great scenery.

Anyway, I allowed myself some extra time on this trip.  I left home at 11 a.m. and arrived at the park around 7:30 p.m., where I was surprised to learn that most of the camping areas were closed.  Severe weather was expected over night and the lower-lying areas are susceptible to flash floods.

I got a camp site for two nights in the Sagebrush camping area, which is normally used for RV camping.  It wasn’t my ideal view, but as long as I had a place to put my tent, I was happy.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

It was getting dark, so I set up my tent, complete with extra tarp, just in case the weather took a bad turn, and I kept an eye on the skies for the sunset.  It was pretty cloudy by the time the sun went down, and I didn’t know the park well enough to quickly find an ideal sunset view, so I went back up to the park entrance.  I just caught the tail end.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

It turned out that would be the only colorful sunset or sunrise I’d get the whole time I was in the panhandle.

When planning this trip, I thought about what time of year I might want to go.  Fall?  Spring?  I don’t know, as long as it’s not the middle of summer.  So, of course, I went in early August…  I’d been tracking the weather forecast and a polar vortex was headed our way.  I took advantage of what might be the only decent camping weather this summer and hit the road.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park is known for many things and one of them happens to be a stage show called Texas.  I didn’t know this before I got there, or else I might have made time for it.  I’ve heard it’s a fabulous show, but I was more interested in what the canyon had to offer.

Like I said, I booked two nights at my camp site, which isn’t normal for a 24inTX trip.  The drive took almost a whole day, so I didn’t count that as part of this trip.  I figured I’d have a leisurely night to myself in the park with no pressures to produce any content for my blog until the next morning.

Ha!  Yeah, that didn’t last long.  I sat at my camp site for about 20 min. after my failed sunset attempt and couldn’t sit still.  I had a whole canyon to capture and fully charged camera batteries.  Instead of building a fire or reading a book, I drove up to a lookout point to do some night photography.

I played around with exposure a little, hoping the stars would peak out of the clouds long enough for a few pictures when I noticed a faint light coming from one side of a cliff.  I thought maybe I was seeing things, but then it got a little brighter.  It was light pollution from the stage lights at the Texas show.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

At that same moment the skies cleared and faint stars appeared.  I waited for the lights to dim and snapped a photo.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

After that I called it a night.  Rain poured and thunder bellowed that night, but I was safe and dry inside my tent.

The next morning I woke up early, hoping to see the sunrise.  It was cool outside, almost chilly, when I brushed my teeth and headed for the same scenic overlook I was at the night before.  I had made up my mind that I would spend the day hiking through the canyon and, of course, taking photos along the way.

When I arrived at the overlook it was clear that I wasn’t going to see a colorful sunrise like I’d hoped.  The whole sky was thick with rain clouds.  I put my camera on a tripod and set it to take a photo every 10 sec.  I thought since I was up there, I could at least get some time lapse footage of the clouds moving around.

I stayed there for a little while, then headed back to camp for some breakfast.  While looking at my trail map, I flipped through my photos and thought, “huh, maybe I’ll try that again…”

After breakfast I took a camera and a backpack with essentials to the CCC Trail.  This is a short, 1.5 mi trail with a lot of bang for your buck.  It’s near the entrance to the park and it’s a perfect trail for kids or inexperienced hikers.  It offers some definite photo ops.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

Along the way I experimented with a few more time lapse clips and decided my goal for the day was to get enough footage for a video for the 24inTX blog.  (Keep reading, it’s down there.)

When I stopped hiking for lunch, I went up to the visitors’ center.  There’s an exhibit there about the history of Palo Duro Canyon.

The canyon got it’s name from early Spanish explorers, who called it “Palo Duro,” Spanish for “hard wood.”  It’s the second largest canyon in the United States, after the Grand Canyon.  Thousands of people have called it home over the past 12,000 years, including the Comanche people, whose lifestyle thwarted others from invading for hundreds of years.

In 1874, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie led the U.S. Cavalry in to the canyon and captured and killed most of the Comanches’ horses.  Horses were vital to the tribe, and they couldn’t defend themselves without them.  The tribes were forced to move to reservations in Oklahoma.

Shortly after the Comanches were removed, rancher and former Texas Ranger, Charles Goodnight, drove 1,600 cattle in to the canyon.  By 1885, Goodnight and his partner John Adair, had over 100,000 head of cattle on the 1,325,000 acre JA Ranch.

In 1933, the state bought Palo Duro Canyon and it’s surrounding area from Fred S. Emory, and the Civilian Conservation Corps spent the next five years converting it in to a state park.

After my history lesson, I went down to the Trading Post, which is situated down in the canyon near the camping areas.  They have t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale, and they have a little cafe that has a reputation for serving a great burger.

That was a nice break for me, but I had much more hiking to do!

There are many hiking, biking and equestrian trails in the park, and there’s no way I could do them all.  I chose the six mile Lighthouse Trail for my afternoon hike.

That trail leads to the Lighthouse rock formation, which serves as the icon of the park.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

The weather at that point in the day was fantastic.  It was July 31st and it was about 75 degrees outside.  The clouds were starting to burn off and show beautiful blue skies.  I had to stop every so often and just breathe in my gorgeous surroundings.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

Aside from it’s medium length, the Lighthouse Trail isn’t very difficult.  Well, not until you get to the Lighthouse.  That last 200 yards to get up close and personal with the iconic rock formation is sort of like climbing a cliff.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

That being said, I met two retired ladies with very little hiking experience who did just fine.

There are a few opportunities to make your hike a little more challenging.  The trail up to the formation is one.  Then there’s a short climb up to a flat part of the formation, which I highly recommend.  There’s also a climbing path on the formation opposite the Lighthouse that leads you all the way to the top.  That’s a real climb, though, where you have to find finger and foot holds to make it up.

I opted against the last option because the wind had kicked up once I made it to the flat part.  There were gusts of about 40 mph and I had trouble keeping my footing as it was.  No reason not to celebrate the point where I did make it to, though!

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

I lingered for a few minutes, huddled behind a rock so I could enjoy the view without fear of being blown off the side.  I looked at the clock and realized it was a little later than I expected, so I hurried down from my perch and got back on the trail.

I still stopped a few times to get some time lapses and clouds rolled back in.  By the end of the trail, I was having short discussions with other hikers about the chance of rain.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

This disappointed me because I had found a place on the CCC Trail that would have made a perfect place to watch the sunset.

The clouds got thicker, so I grabbed some snacks from my food stash and figured I could just camp out at my secret spot until the sun went down, hoping it would peak through the clouds for a moment of magic.

Just before 8 p.m., two men on horses rode through on the trail.  One of them told me I needed to leave because the trails closed at 6 p.m.  …6 p.m.?!  The light doesn’t even get good until at least 7:30 p.m.  He said it was “for my safety,” and I couldn’t really argue with a ranger on a horse, so I looked elsewhere to finish my time lapse.

I ended up at the remains of the old CCC dining hall, then back at the scenic overlook.  The sun never did come back out, but I did end up getting a splash of color in the sky.  The Texas show ended with fireworks that lit up the canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

Okay, you’ve waited long enough, here’s a time lapse of my cloudy day at Palo Duro Canyon:

I went to bed that night, fully appreciating everything the park had to offer.  I was already thinking about what I would do on my next visit.

In the morning, I woke up and ate a leisurely breakfast at my campsite while enjoying the unusually cool weather on Aug. 1st.  Then I drove down in to the canyon to see what I was missing with the other camp sites.

Next time, I’d like to camp in the Mesquite camping area or in one of the Cow Cabins.  That area of the park is exceptionally beautiful.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TXPhoto copyright Ashley Landis

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, TX Photo copyright Ashley Landis

When my short, self-guided tour was over, I packed up my tent and big farewell to Palo Duro Canyon State Park.  But before I left, I stopped at the park headquarters to say goodbye to the rangers.  After beaming with pride over the canyon, one woman gave me a hug and said, “I’m so glad you came to visit our park!”  A wonderful way to end my journey!

Next stop Amarillo!

Here are some links to help you plan your trip:
Palo Duro Canyon State Park (the official web site)Texas (the show’s web site)
Trails Map (hike, bike and equestrian trails)

2 comments on “PALO DURO CANYON STATE PARK
  1. jp thomas says:

    Ashley, wow can you see me smile , thank you for being joy to my heart with this wonderful treat , love the time lapse ( wondering what the camera setting are ) dig the music , old Jerry ..
    Thank you for driving so many miles , so glad to so your smile ..
    J.P.

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  1. […] can’t say that I was entirely ready to leave Palo Duro Canyon (see last post), but I had far exceeded my 24 hour rule.  It was time to move on to the […]

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