The Canyon Hike
Caprock Canyons State Park
Route: Upper Canyon Trail to Canyon Loop Trail
Distance: 7 miles
Difficulty: Hard. This hike pays off with some great views, but the rugged Panhandle terrain demands respect.
Up in the Panhandle, the High Plains give way to the legendary landscape of the Llano Estacado, an elevated plateau where rugged red-rock canyons offer panoramic journeys rivaling any in the state. One of them, the Palo Duro, is 120 miles long and nearly a thousand feet deep. Known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, its historical and geological marvels have been well documented. So in order to chart some new terrain, I lit out for the area, late last spring, with the Caprock canyons in mind instead.
The state park boasts 90 miles of trail, including a 64-mile repurposed railway that skirts the canyon’s southern boundary, but to find some quick elevation, I chose the Upper Canyon Trail. I spent the night in the South Prong camping area, about five miles from the park’s entrance. After a front-porch sunrise over the canyon, one of the Caprock’s virtues immediately became clear: I had the campground to myself. It came as little surprise, therefore, that the only footprints I encountered during my seven-mile hike belonged to coyote and deer, accompanied by a few unidentified piles of scat. I couldn’t seem to outrun my concern that a wily wild bison might be tucked into one of the juniper-lined ravines—the Texas State Bison Herd calls the park home—but the most intimidating creature I encountered was a collared lizard.
An hour or so in, the steep path that leads to the central mesas rose sharply above a set of twisted, coppery cliffs. As I stopped to rest, I considered the rough times that legendary chief Quanah Parker must have given the old cavalry troops who rode into this land in the late 1800s, during the last days of the Comanche empire. A line came to mind from Lubbock-born Max Crawford’s 1985 novel, Lords of the Plain, about the campaign to subdue the Comanche. “The cliffs above caught the late sun,” Crawford wrote, “the canyon walls bathed blood-red, the gypsum crystals sparkling as if the rocks were encrusted with diamonds.” The Caprock might not be a grand canyon, but the walls below and vistas beyond left me stunned nonetheless.
Before starting my descent, I came face-to-face with Fern Cave, where maidenhair ferns thrive on a perennial, hidden seep. The site, a shady respite on the trail, is every bit as lovely as Gorman Falls, in the Hill Country, or Fern Canyon, on the Rio Grande. One last set of switchbacks along the Canyon Loop Trail led me back to the main road, and the enduring hoodoos that towered in the distance delivered a final benediction.