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 throughout the park: the 4.6-mile Lighthouse Trail for hikers and horseback riders; the Gleaves, Hester, and Paul Equestrian Trail at the southeastern end of the park, as remote as it gets hereabouts; and the nine-mile Givens, Spicer, and Lowry Running Trail to the Lighthouse rock monument and back, dedicated to runners and hikers. There are also ten miles worth of mountain-biking trails. No horses are allowed on the Capitol Peak Mountain Bike Trail. Etiquette on the other trails requires bikers to yield to horses; hikers must yield to both horses and bikers.
If you get too hot roaming the trails, cool off anywhere in the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, the remarkably insignificant little stream that carved out the canyon and still runs through the park. Water Crossing Number One seems to hold the most water.
The most recognized landmark in the canyon, and the entire Panhandle, is the Lighthouse, a freestanding eroded sentinel, or hoodoo, which can’t be seen from the road. The only way to gaze upon it is to hike or bike the 2.2-mile red caliche trail (close to a two-hour round trip by mountain bike, three hours on foot) or take the daylong guided tour on horseback from the Goodnight Riding Stables. Either way is worth the effort. At least it was for me when I spied a horned toad scurrying across the trail, a sight I hadn’t witnessed in 35 years.
Visitors with physical limitations can still get a good sense of the canyon by driving the main park road, admiring the obligatory herd of Longhorns, or dropping in at the interpretive visitors center on the canyon rim