Palo Duro Canyon

Not everything is bigger in Texas. Case in point: Palo Duro Canyon is only the second biggest canyon in America behind the Grand. And it’s not even close. Palo Duro is about 800 feet at its deepest point, compared to the Grand’s vertiginous 6,000-foot rim-to-base plunge. But while it’s not as jaw-droppingly vast as its Arizona cousin, Palo Duro is breathtakingly beautiful.

Palo Duro CanyonWhen Georgia O’Keeffe made her home in the Texas Panhandle, she hiked through and painted the canyon frequently. She described it as a “burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” There’s no hint of that geologic drama as you approach the canyon. Driving in from any direction, it’s hard to imagine there could be anything but infinitely horizontal prairies and cattle ranches. But then like a jolt, the earth opens up and white mesas, red hoodoos and exposed strata begin to twist like branches into the horizon.

Nights in the canyon can be equally vivid. The nearest source of significant light pollution is Amarillo, 25 miles to the north, which allows for a field of stars so unhindered that it can be tricky to pick out even the major constellations from the backdrop of distant stars not normally visible. The Canyon’s nocturnal soundtrack is intermittent howling from multiple coyote packs, which may be unnerving when you’re zipped in your tent. But the bays gradually become hauntingly beautiful.

There are over 30 different trails throughout O’Keeffe’s seething cauldron – including some set aside for horses and mountain bikes – but the highlights can be seen in the following three hikes.


The Lighthouse

Palo Duro Canyon

This is the postcard icon of the park. It’s Palo Duro’s Half Dome and Delicate Arch. This 310-foot hoodoo cannot be seen from the road and stands at the end of a three-mile hike that bends behind Capital Peak. The path is relatively flat, except for a final scramble up a sharp incline over boulders and sand. It’s one of those bring-plenty-of-water hikes that traverses parched earth with little shade. But the monument and the view from its stone jetty are outstanding.

Palo Duro Canyon



The Big Cave

Palo Duro CanyonWe hadn’t heard about this landmark before arriving, but when we saw “The Big Cave” listed as a point of interest on our park map, we had to investigate. And it turned out to be the highlight for our kids. Scrambling over boulders to a shallow, but dark-enough vertical maw was a perfect micro-adventure. Accessible and exhilarating, it’s the thrill Disneyland tried to create when they stuccoed together Tom Sawyer’s Island.










The Rock Garden

When I asked the park ranger – a petite woman with slow, friendly Texas drawl – which trails we should be sure to take, she immediately answered, “Oh, you have to see the Rock Garden. It’ll give you cold chills, it’s so beautiful.” The Rock Garden Trail is a relatively new addition to the canyon, debuting in late 2012. From the trailhead, the path winds through the eponymous rocks and boulders, creating an otherworldly landscape unlike anything else in the park. It’s the only trail in the canyon that leads to the Palo Duro’s rim – and the elevation gain of over 600 feet in 2.39 miles makes it one of the more difficult hikes in the canyon. But the ascent is a great way to end a visit, because the panorama lets hikers take in almost the entire canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon


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