IT WAS ONE OF THOSE PERFECT mornings you pine for in the summer, when the air is crisp and cool enough to justify a sweater or light jacket and the sky so sharp it seems like you can see every single molecule.
I was driving across ranchland on the southern edge of the Great Plains when a crack in the earth suddenly appeared in the distance. As I drew closer, the crack became a gaping maw a thousand feet deep and ten miles wide. Another world lay down there, a subsurface mountain range of peaks, pinnacles, buttes, monoliths, temples, castles, and spires of rock swathed in bands of red, brown, purple, pink, maroon, and orange. As the morning light shifted, so did the colors.
The setting was all the more remarkable because it wasn’t the Grand Canyon, or even New Mexico or Colorado. I was in the Texas Panhandle, typically maligned for its harsh weather, odiferous feedlots, and dull, wind-whipped landscape—flat as a tortilla and practically treeless.
What I was looking at was nothing like that.
The canyons of the Texas Panhandle are perhaps the most underappreciated natural phenomena in our state. One reason is that most of the canyon lands are privately owned, and access is restricted to a couple of state parks, a trailway, a family ranch, and some state highway picnic areas. Another reason is that the canyons pop up, or down, so suddenly in the middle of nowhere—the grasslands of the Great Plains that sprawl all the way to Canada. But good things come to those who go out of their way to find them. As I pondered the magnificent landscape and slurped from a hot cup of strong cowboy coffee, I thought of all the thousands of Texans making their annual family pilgrimages to New Mexico and Colorado to escape the Texas heat. This year they should blow it off and do the Panhandle instead. I wasn’t kidding.
You won’t get a headier whiff of the Old West or a better sense for this part of the country than the Panhandle canyons, particularly Palo Duro Canyon and, farther east, the area called the Caprock Canyons. Now is an especially good time to contemplate these hidden natural treasures, in light of the oppressive heat and humidity that envelop most of the state in the middle of summer. Though the temperature warms into the nineties on most August days (hey, at least it’s a dry heat), the nights cool down into the sixties and fifties, a comfort zone made even more pleasurable by the abundant spring rains that have greened up the fields and canyon walls and filled playa lakes as far as the eye can see. Even better, the natives are glad to see you and bear no ill feelings toward Texans, mainly because they’re Texans too. Think of it as going west at half the distance and half the cost.
Palo Duro Canyon
HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS OF YEARS of erosion went into the sculpting of Palo Duro Canyon, but two events from the past century define its sense of place. The canyon was the final refuge for one of the last bands of free-roaming Comanche, led by Quanah Parker, and the site of their last stand against U.S. troops before being forced onto a reservation in Oklahoma in 1874. Two years later Colonel Charles Goodnight became the first Panhandle rancher, building the famous J. A. Ranch in the canyon. Goodnight defined cowboying and cattle ranching during its romantic heyday; Larry McMurtry used him as the model for Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove.
Goodnight’s name is invoked at every turn in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, the 16,400-acre spread that is one of the oldest and biggest in the state parks system; it is also the only public access to the second biggest canyon in the United States. Along the sixteen-mile paved park road that drops from the rim to the canyon floor, you’ll find the Goodnight Riding Stables, where you can rent horses or book a trail ride; the Goodnight Trading Post, the all-purpose convenience store, gift shop, and snack bar where you can rent mountain bikes; and a replica of the humble dugout that the colonel lived in while he built the ranch.
Hiking, Biking, and Horseback Riding
Recreational activities range from the usual camping and hiking options to more-adventurous stuff, like riding horses and mountain bikes. Trails are spread