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Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Palo Duro Canyon State Park

For years I made the long drive through northwest Texas into New Mexico for hunting trips – through the small “water tower towns” along 287 – and past the signs pointing to Palo Duro Canyon  – “ The Grand Canyon of Texas”

Well, part of this journey is to visit some of those places that I passed in a hurry and on the way to someplace else…

Palo Duro Canyon was one of those places on my Texas bucket list.

The Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, and has a maximum depth of more than 800 feet. Its elevation at the rim is 3,500 feet above sea level. It is often claimed that Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States. ( The largest, the Grand Canyon, is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000 ft. deep. )

In fact, I was to learn that during the 1930s, Palo Duro was considered as a site for the first national park to be established in Texas, but with land acquisition too expensive and troublesome, Big Bend eventually got the honor. Instead, in 1934, Texas created Palo Duro Canyon State Park with about 15,000 acres of purchased land and Texas Highway 217 was built to descend from a visitor center (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps) to the floor of the canyon, crossing the main tributary of the Red River six times.

As I drove the big rig across Hwy 217 I was beginning to wonder about the canyon—where was it—I certainly couldn’t see any evidence of it…nothing but a monotonous landscape: an unbroken horizon line, pale blue sky, pale blond grass and fields as far as the eye can see.

Yup, hard to imagine I was about to descend into a jaw-dropping formation whose walls abruptly leave the flat land behind, plunging some 800 feet to the canyon floor.  About a mile from entrance gate I see what can only be called a “gash” in the land off to my right – well this is getting interesting after all… yup, interesting all right…how about a 10 percent grade down to the valley floor on a series of switchbacks….geez…keep you eyes on the road not on the magnificent views unfolding before me…cliffs offering an array of colors – red, yellow and purple.


The plan was to spend a few days hiking the park’s trails and trying to capture some of the beauty of the canyon as well as any of the park’s variety of species that inhabit the surrounding countryside.

Despite the unseasonably warm , and occasionally down right hot, weather, I covered more miles during my stay than I had covered on some of my hunting trips – maybe I should have come here to get in shape…

I was even successful capturing some of the “locals”…although I got a little too close to the rattlesnake when I put camera bag down to change lenses…makes your heart rate jump a bit

I also was reminded that Palo Duro was the setting for a show – in a state where everything is bigger – that is simply  called “Texas”… where the show’s fictional characters bring to life the stories, struggles and triumphs of the settlers of the Texas Panhandle in the 1800s.  It’s full of song and dance-and apparently a generous helping of good ol’ Texas humor and also offers up some amazing lighting, special fire and water effects and fireworks  when conditions allow.  It really is a spectacular setting for a show and to watch more than 80 singers, dancers and musicians appear.   A 600-foot cliff in Palo Duro Canyon State Park serves as the back of the stage – interesting stuff.  It was fun wandering around the amphitheater and photographing some of the props under signs that proclaimed…”no photography allowed”…good thing I was the in the off season

And the history lessons didn’t stop there—we all know Texas offers up a lot of colorful history… I learned, that in 1876, Charles Goodnight, of Lonesome Dove inspiration fame, entered Palo Duro canyon and opened the JA Ranch. At its biggest, the ranch had more than 100,000 head of cattle. Goodnight operated the ranch until 1890. Although only a fraction of its original size, the JA Ranch remains a working ranch to this day…more interesting stuff…

I would have stayed longer as there were no shortages of hiking trails but it seems George W had other ideas – the park was going to host “W” and some folks from the Wounded Warrior Project…from the press release

Six wounded warriors from World T.E.A.M. Sports will ride with President George W. Bush in the second annual Warrior 100K ride April 26-28. The ride at Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas will include 20 disabled veterans.

For 20 wounded warriors from America’s military, spending a weekend riding mountain bikes in the second annual Warrior 100K will offer an opportunity to meet other veterans as well as ride with their former commander-in-chief. In the colorful desert canyons of Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, participants will be challenged by the dry springtime heat, the rough terrain and by the competitive riding skills of President George W. Bush.

A program from The Bush Center’s Military Service Initiative, the Warrior 100K brings together disabled veterans from four leading military support programs for an extended weekend of riding and comradery with President Bush, an avid mountain biker who frequently rode at his Texas ranch and at Camp David during his presidency

I would have liked to stick around to see the event but seems security requirements meant we all had to clear out for them…

I guess it was time to move on…

See you down the road…

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