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Where it is: 3.5 miles north of Quitaque
What you’ll do: Hike the rough breaks between the Caprock and the Rolling Plains
Where you’ll sleep: In your tent at the mouth of South Prong Canyon
What you’ll learn: The park is home to the state’s official bison herd
The colors are what strike you at Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway. The layers of sandstone and gypsum topped with hard caliche rise from the prairie as richly tinted as Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu, in northern New Mexico. These pink-and-cream strata are sprinkled with green juniper, and as the sun moves across the sky, their colors shift and sparkle, changing from dawn’s burnt orange to the Cimmerian crimson of dusk.
To see this vibrant tumble of cliff and canyon glowing in the gold of late afternoon, shoulder your backpack and hike the Upper Canyon Trail from the South Prong campground. For more than a mile there is little change in elevation, but the steep scramble required to climb up onto the limestone cap makes up for that. Rest where the red sandstone ends, and survey the eroded rock formations unfolding behind you. To the east is the edge of the Llano Estacado, the trackless “sea of grass” that befuddled Coronado in 1541. To the south the sharp ridges give way to an orderly procession of fields. From such a vantage point Comanche warriors must have gazed at land that was slipping from their grasp, watching while the buffalo were slaughtered and the railroad came steaming across the plain.
In a minor historical reversal, the state’s small bison herd does still roam a fenced-off section of the park, but the line to Lubbock closed in 1989. The good news for hikers and riders is that 64 miles of right-of-way along the tracks have been repurposed as the Caprock Canyons Trailway, and the TPWD has done a great job with the conversion, placing informative signs and primitive camping sites along the length of the gravel path. There are seven access points between Estelline and South Plains, a tiny settlement up “on the Cap,” which is where the longest and most scenic section of the trailway begins. These 17 miles from South Plains to Quitaque, dubbed the Quitaque Canyon Trail, descend through the breaks down to the prairie, passing through the Clarity, a rail tunnel that is now home to a bat colony.
TRIP TO TOWN: After coffee and cooked-to-order breakfast burritos at Quitaque’s Caprock Cafe (201 Main, caprockcafequitaque.com), drive ten miles to Turkey to visit the newly remodeled Bob Wills Museum (Sixth and Lyles, bobwillsday.com), which displays the King of Western Swing’s fiddles and cowboy hats.