Heralded as “Texas’ best kept secret,” Palo Duro Canyon State Park is a state park that is full of geologic wonders and a panorama of colors nestled in the Texas Panhandle.

Sure, we’d heard of Palo Duro Canyon State Park growing up, but had never made the trek to the panhandle town of Canyon to check it out. Until recently, that is, as we returned home from our maiden voyage in Jambo! (our Airstream) to Breckenridge, CO. Trying to escape from the Denver New Year holiday-makers who had descended upon Summit County, we decided to pack up, hitch up, and move along.

Palo Duro Canyon seemed a good stopping point along the road home, so off we went. (For the record, we went through Denver and we were on the road for about 12 hours with a few quick stops along the way for food, water, gas, and to let the fur babies stretch their legs.)

Sunset driving in West Texas. Photo by Louellen Coker

We arrived in the area as the sun was going down. And if you’ve not seen the sun set in the Texas plains, you’ve missed something spectacular. It’s flat, so you get a long and expansive sunset. The sun had made its exodus for the day by the time we got to the park, so we had no idea what to expect the next morning. We had an inkling that it would be something spectacular by the long and winding 10% grade road we took down into the park.

Our thoughts of researching what we should do while here were dashed the moment we entered the park and our phones went into “No Service” mode. There are worse things that could happen.

After getting Jambo! set up, I whipped up a nice little turkey and vegetable stew with our leftover Christmas turkey and some veggies that we had picked up along the way at Trader Joe’s. After a day of fast food, a healthy stew hit the spot and we were down for the count.

There is something about the peace and quiet of a campground that allows for a deep and peaceful sleep that you can’t get anywhere else. I woke up later than normal the next morning with Duane handing me a cup of coffee, the smell of breakfast cooking, and the chatter of a rafter of Turkey wandering through our campground. Definitely not a bad way to start your morning.

Watching the turkeys make their morning stroll through the campground. Photo by Duane Coker

 

The Park Itself

We were beyond delighted by our first glimpse of the park the next morning. The view was simply incredible and we were not disappointed by the 10% descent! We had descended to the floor of the canyon and awoke to stunning views of red, green, yellow, and brown that ebbed and flowed throughout the day as the sun made its trek across the sky.

According to the park’s interpretive guide, “Palo Duro Canyon is a place where erosion shapes the land, four bio regions intersect, cultures have met and clashed and change is the only constant.”

Palo Duro Canyon, 120 miles long and 6-800 feet deep, was formed less than 1 million years ago when the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River first carved its way through the Southern High Plains. The erosion tells a geologic story that began 250 million years ago with its panoramic splendor.

Palo Duro Canyon is simply breathtaking!
Photo by Louellen Coker

The original parkland of what is fondly known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas” was deeded by private owners in 1833 and more recently the purchase of the Canoncita Ranch make the park’s total footprint of 18,438 acres.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of Truman’s New Deal initiative, sent seven companies of young men and military veterans to develop access to the canyon floor and to develop the initial infrastructure of the park: the visitor center, cabins, shelters and the park headquarters. And while they worked from 1933 until 1937, the park officially opened on July 4, 1934.

Wildlife is abundant in the park. Endangered species include the Palo Duro mouse that is only found in the Red River canyon lands and the Texas horned lizard. Other species one might see include mule deer, road runners, wild turkey, cottontail rabbits, coyotes, barbary sheep (introduced), bobcats, and diamond-back rattlesnakes. Birdwatching is a popular park activity.

Winter cactus at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
Photo by Louellen Coker

Juniper trees are a common sight throughout the canyon have given the area its moniker: Palo Duro is Spanish for “hard wood.” Other species include mesquite, cottonwood, salt cedar, willow, western soapberry, and hackberry. Indian blanket, star thistle, sunflower, paper flower, Blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, sideoats grama, buffalograss, sage brush, yucca and prickly pear cactus area month the flowers and grasses one will encounter.

Should you want to drive through the park, you can drive the 16 miles of paved roadway through the canyon. Alternatively you can ride a horse (rentals are available), hike, or ride your bike along the park’s trails to get an up-close look at the breathtaking scenery.

Amenities-wise, this is what you can expect at Palo Duro Canyon State Park:

  • Camping: Backpacking, equestrian sites, tent sits and RV sites with water and electricity.
  • Cabins: CCC-built rental cabins (CCC=Civilian Conservation Corps from the New Deal).
  • Picnicking: picnic tables at a variety of locations.
  • Trails: 35 miles of hiking and biking trails. Equestrian trails available.
  • Old west Stables: Guided horse back rides.
  • Interpretive Center: Exhibits about the history, geology, and wildlife of the Canyon and the Park Museum store.
  • Nature Observation: Birdwatching, “textbook” geology.
  • Palo Duro Trading Post Restaurant and Park Store: Souvenirs, camping supplies, firewood, ice, restaurant, and catering.
  • Theatrical entertainment: “Texas” and outdoor drama, is performed in an open-air theatre nested at the food of a high cliff.

Getting there

Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located in Armstrong and Randall counties, 12 miles east of Canyon on Texas 217. Specifically (should you want to have Amazon deliver something to you…provided you leave the park itself to order it!), 11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, TX 79105 or www.palodurocanyon.com; or give the friendly park rangers a call at 806-488-2227. Other information is available at the Texas State Parks’ website, To talk to a real person about rates and reservations, call 512-389-8900. If email’s your thing, try info@palodurocanyon.com. To learn more about Texas, the outdoor musical drama, call 806-655-2181.

But whatever you do, I don’t recommend waiting 48 years to take a visit to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It truly is one of Texas’ best kept secrets.

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