Travel deep into the heart of the Texas Panhandle and you’ll find a true natural wonder. Canyon walls gleaming orange in bright sunshine, otherworldly rock formations, and scenic trails lined with mesquite and juniper trees await at Palo Duro Canyon.
About 120 miles long and 20 miles wide, and with a depth of roughly 800 feet, Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the country. Formed over millions of years, the canyon is a majestic showcase of nature’s power. Descend into its depths and you’ll see vibrant layers of rock in the canyon walls that tell a story 250 million years in the making.
I first traveled to Palo Duro while RVing with two sons, ages 8 and 9, in 2005. They were enchanted and loved the remoteness. Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs was their favorite on this particular trip, but Palo Duro Canyon was a highly rated second place.
I suppose some people naturally compare it to the Grand Canyon. If you’ve been there, how can you measure any place against the Grand Canyon? To do so may disappoint. For their young eyes–who had never been to Arizona–Palo Duro was spectacular and offered a spirit of adventure.
We only stayed two nights, but could have easily stayed more. My journalism professor at Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State), Jeff Henderson, told me about a show there back in the late 1970s. It remained on my bucket list for 30 years before I was able to experience it.
We enjoyed a great Chuck Wagon meal prior to the event just outside the entry of the Pioneer Ampitheater.
It’s beautifully carved out of and nestled into a natural basin in the state park. Summer 2021 the spectacular TEXAS OUTDOOR MUSICAL Palo Duro Canyon comes alive once again for the 55th season of the Official Play of the State of Texas.
It reminded me of a Seven Brides For Seven Brothers Broadway musical type play but set against an authentic tapestry of history. The show’s fictional characters bring to life the stories, struggles and triumphs of the settlers of the Texas Panhandle in the 1800’s. Song and dance abound – and a generous helping of good ol’ Texas humor too – with spellbinding lighting, special effects and fireworks.
For a dad with his two sons, one of the best ways we experienced the canyon was by tying on hiking shoes and exploring the CCC Trail, one of more than 30 miles of trails.
If a strenuous, yet rewarding, hike is what you’re after, traverse either the Upper Comanche or the Lower Comanche trails. The former takes you across a river and deep through Comanche territory to an overlook halfway up the canyon wall. The latter meanders beneath Fortress Cliff and past spring-fed streams and Rocky Mountain junipers. Meanwhile, the Juniper/Cliffside trail offers a more easygoing stroll past percolation caves carved by moving water over time.
A favorite for many visitors (it was the middle of June, hot, so we elected not to try it–almost 6 mile round trip) to Palo Duro Canyon hike to the Lighthouse, the park’s iconic rock formation. If you decide to trek to Lighthouse trail to see it for yourself, make sure to bring plenty of water.
Of course, there are other ways to uncover Palo Duro Canyon’s many wonders. Ride horseback on the canyon floor on a guided tour with Old West Stables or find your way along many of the trails on your mountain bike.
The canyon’s lush landscapes and variety of terrain makes it a veritable hotspot for birdwatching. Golden-fronted woodpeckers are among the many birds you can see throughout the year, while summer welcomes such colorful species as painted buntings and Bullock’s orioles.
Keep a keen eye and you may even see bobcats, coyotes, and wild turkeys, as well as members of the official State Longhorn Herd (descendants of cattle brought by the Spanish in the 1500s).