I’ll admit that Palo Duro Canyon State Park doesn’t get nearly the love that its cousin, Big Bend National Park, receives. That doesn’t mean I think it’s right. Palo Duro is rich in history: Quanah Parker and the Comanche claimed it as their final stronghold during the Red River War of 1874 and 1875; shortly after their defeat, Charles Goodnight returned to Texas following an old Comanche trail and soon established the legendary JA Ranch in the canyon. The Panhandle was so wild that the Legislature didn’t draw boundaries for its counties until 1876, forty years after independence. And the canyon’s beauty is unrivaled in Texas, with dramatic features carved out of the majestic caprock by the waters of the Red River over the span of one million years. With stunning views, remote trails, and unforgettable horseback rides, Palo Duro makes for an excellent weekend of accessible isolation that allows you to reconnect with one of the things you love most about Texas: your family.
Civilian Conservation Corps Trail
My eleven-year-old daughter, Madeline, was the first one to note that this difficult 1.5-mile hike, which starts near the visitors center, is the only trail in the park that begins at the rim and descends all the way to the canyon floor. The path was built in 1934 and still retains some of its original bridges, so I found myself telling her to be careful too often as we made our way down. But the winding trail, with unforgettable vistas as big as the canyon, firmly held her full attention. Did she, at one point, stand on an outcropping above the canyon and yell, “I’m the king of the world”? Of course she did—and she was.
Old West Stables
Madeline saddled up on a roan named Festus (born into a ranching family on her mother’s side, she knew the reference), and I rode a chestnut named Rooster. Along with seven other riders, some from Australia, we followed our wonderful guide, Katie, a student at nearby West Texas A&M. As Madeline filed in behind Katie’s flea-bitten gray, we headed off on an hour-long ride through one of the draws in the canyon, its walls framed by a paint-blue sky. We passed by Sad Monkey Peak, marveling at the hoodoo and Spanish skirt rock formations, and made our way through a sea of juniper, mesquite, and Christmas cactus. At any moment we expected to stumble upon a cowboy camp or the tepees of the Comanche. Even though we didn’t see them, Madeline was certain we would if we could only keep riding.
The Lighthouse Trail
The signature landmark of Palo Duro Canyon is the Lighthouse Peak, a stunning formation that you can only really see if you are willing to hike to it. The round-trip is 5.75 miles, which took us almost three hours. But it was three hours of bliss. Rarely did we see any other hikers as we made our way past Fortress Cliff, Capitol Peak, and Castle Peak. Why it took my daughter to properly name certain formations, such as “Hippo Rock” and “T-Rex Mountain,” I’ll never know, but she clearly has a future as a park ranger. When the Lighthouse finally came into sight, we knew we had accomplished something we’d both remember for the rest of our lives.
The Cowboy Dugout
A short walk from the north end of the Paseo del Rio Trail, which runs along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, is a dugout with a crude wood roof that JA Ranch cowboys built into the side of a hill. The tiny space is just big enough to hold a bed, a few chairs, a cooking area, and a table for cards. As we let our minds wander back to that era, I said, a little too Dad-like, “Imagine what your life would be like without Netflix.” To which she shot back, “Imagine what your life would be like without Twitter.” We laughed, and just then three wild turkeys crossed our path. Madeline instinctively grabbed my phone to snap a picture, and we were off on our next adventure.