Rugged and serene—and largely overlooked—the Panhandle canyons are an ideal destination for hiking, biking, and gazing at ancient stones. A guide to the coolest summer getaway in Texas.
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 near the entrance.
So You Want to Be a Cowboy?
One of Charlie Goodnight’s most enduring inventions was the chuck wagon, an on-location feeding concept developed for cowboys working the far corners of his wide-ranging spread. Anne Christian pointed this out to guests being pulled in a wagon by a team of mules across the grasslands of her family’s Figure 3 Ranch, a working cattle ranch on the canyon’s northern rim, about thirty miles east of the park. Her talk was accompanied by the aroma of eggs, sausage, sourdough biscuits, and coffee coming from two chuck wagons stationed nearby. Anne’s husband, Tom, and his father, Terrill, were born on the ranch. Tom’s grandfather, Jim, worked for Colonel Goodnight way back when. From April to October the Christians host Cowboy Morning breakfasts and Cowboy Evening dinners on their spread, giving everyday folks (willing to pay $19 and $22.50, respectively) stunning two-hour up-close-and-personal views of Palo Duro Canyon. The price is well worth the experience and includes other historical tidbits. For example, the Figure 3 was used for the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where the good guys ride off into the setting sun.
So You Want to See an Epic Musical?
The state park’s main attraction is indisputably the musical drama Texas, presented outdoors every summer against the canyon wall in the Pioneer Amphitheatre. The self-described “Musical Romance of Panhandle History,” now in its thirty-second season, was the creation of the late playwright Paul Green. The storyline is a somewhat corny shorthand telling of how the region was settled, focusing on the cowman versus the farmer drama, with lip service given to the natives who preceded the Anglo pioneers. But you’d have to be a hard-core curmudgeon not to get swept away by the dancing and singing, smartly designed stage sets (including covered wagons and a steam locomotive), flag waving and carrying on, and dazzling sound and light special effects. By all means, don’t leave before the grand finale fireworks extravaganza. And be sure to arrive an hour or two before the eight-thirty opening curtain for the preshow barbecue, music, and other festivities.
Beyond the Canyon
Okay, maybe I stretched it a bit when I extolled the salubrious Panhandle summer. If the forecast calls for highs in the nineties, plan outdoor activities for mornings and evenings and save midday for either soaking your feet in the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River or driving fifteen minutes to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in the town of Canyon. One of the biggest and best museums in the state, the Panhandle-Plains has more than 3.5 million objects in its vast collection, including Quanah Parker’s ceremonial war bonnet, a wooden cable tool drilling rig, a roomful of windmills, and enough dinosaur bones to enthrall the kid in all of us. August 8 marks the opening of the “XIT: The Ranch That Built the Texas Capitol” exhibit. The $3 donation is a bargain.
As you drive along Texas Highway 217 between Canyon and the canyon, keep an eye peeled for the exhibit immortalizing the Sad Monkey miniature train that ran through the park until last year. Other sights include the strangely imaginative Timber Canyon western town, the Palo Duro RV park, and the adjacent Rustic Outpost cowboy town, where the Amarillo Gunfighters stage shoot-’em-ups for the public on summer weekends.
Amarillo, about thirty minutes from the Palo Duro gates, has several indoor refuges good for amusing the kids for an hour or so. One is the Don Harrington Discovery Center, a hands-on science center and planetarium on the west side of the city (take the Coulter exit on Interstate 40). Another is the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center and Museum (I-40 at Quarter Horse Drive), currently hosting an exhibit on the American Cowboy. The city park complex (N.E. Twenty-fourth and U.S. 87), north of downtown, includes a swimming pool, a public golf course, a zoo, and the Wonderland amusement park. The Cadillac Ranch, west of the city (exit on Hope Road, then backtrack to the south frontage road), demands at least one souvenir snapshot, especially since vandalism and rust are taking their toll on the unique artistry of ten Cadillacs planted nose down in a wheat field. The Big Texan Steak Ranch (take the Lakeside exit on I-40) fulfills all the requirements of a great roadside attraction, including a billboard buildup from hundreds of miles away: “Free 72 oz Steak, If Eaten in One Hour”; “Texas’ Largest Rattlesnake!”), a faux western town storefront facade, and really good steaks.
I CAN’T THINK OF A BETTER AMBASSADOR for the Caprock Canyons than James Cathey, a folksy, tobacco-chewing gentleman with a Santa Claus beard whom I met over lunch at the Sportsman’s Cafe in Quitaque (pronounced “Kitty-kway”). Cathey runs the Big C Trading Post on Lake Theo at Caprock Canyons State Park, where he rents canoes and bicycles on weekends. As he taxied me and a bike up the Caprock in his pickup, we talked of tornadoes (as a storm spotter for the volunteer fire department, Cathey has observed that tornadoes tend not to touch the ground for the first five or ten minutes after they come off the Cap), geology, human kindness and the abuse thereof (all it takes is a few bad eggs to mess up a good thing, we agreed), the landmark Quitaque twin peaks, and the economic potential of the 15,160-acre state park, dedicated in 1981. “If it wasn’t for Texas,” he said, “it’d be no contest. We’d have Palo Duro beat ten to one.” He had a point. The Caprock Canyons lack both a musical amphitheater and the dramatic rim-level approach of Palo Duro, but the area has more off-the-beaten-path appeal.
That’s the Breaks
The Caprock Canyons are not your classic enclosed-basin type of canyons like Palo Duro or the Grand Canyon. They’re deep, rugged breaks, the tumbling transition zone between the High Plains, also known as the Llano Estacado, and the farmland of the rolling plains below. The terrain has enough variation to make a mountain biker forget about Moab. It’s also horseback-riding heaven—equestrians have their own designated campground with individual corrals and extra-large parking areas at each campsite to accommodate horse trailers. Nearly fifty miles of trails crisscross the red-dirt badlands, including several that offer some extreme floor-to-rim vertical rises and drops up to six hundred feet, particularly along the Upper Canyon Trail in the western part of the park and the isolated Old Ranch Road in the far east. If you get tired of trails and dirt, the hundred-acre Lake Theo has a decent roped-off swimming area with shaded picnic shelters on its banks. Rather than the symbolic herd of Longhorns maintained at Palo Duro and other state parks, Caprock Canyons State Park keeps a herd of buffalo in tribute to the animal’s prehistoric and historic presence on the site, which has been traced back more than 10,000 years. A reconstruction of a giant buffalo skull “altar” found at Lake Theo is displayed in an interpretive exhibit near the park entrance.
I had the most fun simply exploring the North Prong and South Prong canyons at the end of the park road, where high ridges, towering bluffs, stair steps, pyramids, reefs, and all sorts of other weirdly shaped geological phenomena hover above the narrow creekbeds and play tricks on the eyes, making you think they’re thousands—instead of hundreds—of feet tall. The constantly changing play of light on the walls, accompanied only by a quail’s lonely call of “Bobwhite, bobwhite,” provided hours of amusement at the beginning and end of the day. As I stared at the cross-bedded strata of Haynes Ridge in the waning light of early evening, I imagined sculptured faces like those at the entrance of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, visualized the profile of Fred Flintstone, and could have sworn there was a herd of elephants etched into the vertical face of a cliff. Canyons will do that to a person, especially when they’re framed by all that big sky, wide-open country, and endless horizons, the kind found nowhere else but the Texas Panhandle.
Ride the Low Country
“Watch for the bigger stones on the first part of the trail,” James Cathey advised me as he dropped me off near the western end of the Caprock Canyons State Trailway, a sixty-mile former railroad bed that skirts past the Caprock Canyons State Park. “The surface gets a lot finer after you go through the tunnel.” For $30 he had outfitted me with a ten-speed bike and shuttled me in his pickup from flat, low Quitaque up a dirt road called Dirt Cap Road and onto the Caprock.
I pedaled down the old rail bed, a gradual one-degree decline following Quitaque Creek, down the rugged canyon breaks rife with woodlands, over bridges and trestles, through the one-thousand-foot Clarity Railroad Tunnel (one of the longest in the state and redolent of bat guano), and up a slight rise through the countryside leading into Quitaque. (There’s not a lot of shade along the trail, so pack plenty of water and stay off the trail during the heat of the day.)
Dozens of quail flew out of the grasslands as I sped past, but the only person I saw along the way was a park ranger. He said most weekdays were pretty much like this one, but on weekends it got crowded, meaning 25 or so folks on the trail. I smiled to myself, thinking of all the horror stories I’d been hearing about overcrowding at Yellowstone and Yosemite. I could have continued on the trail to Caprock Canyons State Park, four miles distant, or gone to Turkey or trekked all the way to the end of the trail at Estelline, forty miles away. Instead, I biked into Quitaque, where I cooled off with a snow cone from Geedunk’s ice-cream stand and inspected the old town hotel, built in 1928, which owners Lee and Pearl Tapp have rechristened the Rails to Trails Lodge.
Beyond the Canyons
If you feel like swimming, head to Mackenzie Reservoir, a clear, cool nine-hundred-acre lake in a dammed-up portion of scenic Tule Canyon, thirty miles west of the park off Texas Highway 207. A $2 per person entry fee is charged.
Other Canyons, Other Views
NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE IN THE PANHANDLE, there’s a ridgetop view nearby that will take your breath away. I made this pleasant discovery several years ago on U.S. 70, south of Perryton, from the north ridge of the Canadian River Breaks. I also recommend the Fritch Fortress, a dizzying overlook above Lake Meredith in the Canadian Breaks just north of the town of Fritch, some forty miles north of Amarillo; the stretch of Highway 207 eight miles south of Claude where the Palo Duro Canyon appears like a mirage (there’s a designated picnic area and scenic overlook on the south rim of the canyon as well as an unmarked dirt road on the east side of the highway on the north rim); and the picnic area on Texas Highway 256, about twelve miles east of Silverton, which reveals some stun ning views of the eastern part of Palo Duro Canyon.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Getting There: The park is about thirty miles southeast of Amarillo on Highway 217.
Being There: Admission is $3 per person. There are designated campsites for backpackers, equestrians, tents, and RVs. For camping and cabin reservations call 512-389-8900. Mountain bike rentals, guided tours, catered meals, and overnight camp-outs are available through the Goodnight Trading Post in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, 806-488-2760. For trail ride information call the Goodnight Riding Stables in the park, 806-488-2231. For other park information call 800-792-1112 or 806-488-2227.
Staying There: Two primitive cabins on the canyon rim sleep four for $65 a night. Canyon and Amarillo have plenty of motels. Canyon also has two notable bed and breakfasts: the Historic Hudspeth House, 806-655-9800, and Country Home, 806-655-7636 or 800-664-7636.
Texas: Nightly through August 23, except Sundays. To reserve tickets ($7—$16), call 806-655-2181. No credit cards.
Figure 3 Ranch: To book reservations for the Cowboy Morning breakfasts and the Cowboy Evening steak dinners call 800-658-2613.
Caprock Canyons State Park
Getting There: The park is about eighty miles southeast of Amarillo, near Highway 86 and the town of Quitaque. Coming from downstate, turn off U.S. 287 at Estelline, and head west on Highway 86 through Turkey to Quitaque.
Being There: Admission is $2 per person. There are designated campsites for backpackers, equestrians, tents, and RVs. For more park information call 806-455-1492. For guided motorized tours of the Clarity Railroad Tunnel and its immediate environs call Queen of the Valley tours at the Circle Dot Ranch, 806-983-3639. James Cathey (806-455-1221) rents mountain bikes, as well as canoes and paddleboats, and runs a shuttle to both ends of the Caprock Canyons State Trailway. The $2 fee to use the trailway is waived if you pay the entry fee at Caprock Canyons State Park.
Staying There: The Rails to Trails Lodge (806-455-1344), the Quitaque Quail Lodge (806-455-1261), and the Hotel Turkey in Turkey (806-423-1151).
What to Bring: Water, sunscreen, a hat or cap, and comfortable shoes for the days; a light jacket for the cool nights.
How to Cope With Critters and Varmints: Though mosquitoes are a minimal irritant, horseflies can be a bother. The best protection is long-sleeved shirts and long pants, although one old-timer recommended rubbing alcohol on exposed skin or drinking beer. If flies persist around your campsite, do what the Christians do on the Figure 3: place plastic bags filled with water (a Mexican folk remedy) in strategic locations. Rattlesnakes are common to the area. The best advice is to avoid them at all costs.