In the Texas Panhandle, folks like to joke that the land is so flat you can watch your dog run away for days. Driving east from Canyon across the Llano Estacado, with hardly a tree in sight, I can almost picture the poor pup. But after about twelve miles, the monotonous terrain cracks wide open to reveal one of the state’s most startling natural wonders: Palo Duro Canyon, a dramatic gash that’s roughly 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and up to 800 feet deep. Second in size only to that slightly grander canyon in Arizona, the PDC is where the Comanche made their last stand against U.S. troops, in 1874, and where, shortly thereafter, Charles Goodnight and John Adair established their famous JA Ranch. For the next two days, it’ll be my home base too.
I had to reserve my thirties-era stone hut, one of the three “deluxe” cabins perched high on the canyon’s rim inside Palo Duro Canyon State Park (11450 Park Road 5, 806-488-2227) months ago, though there are also 79 RV hookups, 25 campsites, and 4 rustic “cow camp” cabins on the canyon floor. Key and map in hand, I begin to acquaint myself with the 29,182-acre park. Driving a little past the first scenic overlook, I downshift to traverse the zigzaggy descent, which is carved out of a towering outcrop of red Triassic-era sandstone.
From the canyon bottom, I gawk up at Goodnight Peak, which is striped with layers of yellow, lavender, and maroon shale and serves as the backdrop for Texas, the beloved Panhandle settler musical that often sells out Pioneer Amphitheater in the summer. At the Palo Duro Trading Post (806–488-2821) nearby, I spot a brown sign advertising “World Famous Burgers.” It’s only five o’clock, but the grill has just closed. Fortunately, I can still snag a smattering of nonperishables (jerky, popcorn, soup). I dine back at my cabin’s private picnic table, enjoying the evening’s entertainment: an aerial ballet performed by three hawks, the beauty of their pas de trois surpassed only by their stage.
Lulled to sleep the night before by howling wind and coyotes, I wake to the sound of silence. My sunrise drive down to the canyon floor is noticeably quieter too. Yesterday afternoon, the trailhead leading to the Lighthouse—the park’s most famous hoodoo, or rock formation—was bustling. This morning, I see only a small posse of spandex-clad fellows on mountain bikes. This 5.75-mile path is the most popular, but I’d prefer one less traveled—and shorter—so I continue on to the Rock Garden. Unveiled in December, the park’s newest trail is a reasonable 2.48 miles long. It’s also, I discover, one of the steepest, with a six-hundred-foot elevation gain and more than twenty switchbacks leading to a breathtaking panorama.
As a post-hike treat, I head over to the Trading Post for a second, more successful attempt at procuring one of those world-famous burgers, fuel for my horseback ride. Of the three people who show up to Old West Stables, I have the most equine experience—and I can count my rides on one hand. Our wrangler goes over steering and stopping, and we proceed tail-to-nose. What’s meant to be an hour jaunt is, unfortunately, cut short when our horses are spooked by a long wooden pole left on the path. When my horse begins to tap-dance, I spook too. The wrangler decides it’s safer to head back to the corral, and I appreciate the caution and the full refund.
With the sun—and heat—now at its peak, I go in search of colder climes. The air-conditioned Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (2503 4th Avenue, 806-651-2244), in Canyon, is the largest historical museum in Texas. The life-size Pioneer Town is the main attraction, but I linger longer among the Native American artifacts and upstairs art galleries, where I lock onto Georgia O’Keeffe’s Red Landscape, one of four oils she painted while living in the area. Less than a mile from the museum is the town’s courthouse square, which boasts a surprising handful of well-edited boutiques in beautifully renovated storefronts and a hip coffee shop that’s serious about its beans. Less surprising is the fifties-themed Rock ’N Roll Soda Shop (404 15th, 806-655-3381). Any small-town square worth strolling should serve homemade milk shakes as good as the key lime one I slurp down.
I’d like to take another solitary sunrise hike, but after buying a bundle of spirit-cleansing sage at the park’s gift shop, it’s time for my second shot at a horseback ride. I drive 45 minutes north to meet Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West (19300 South FM 1258, 806-676-6709) wrangler Phyllis Payne at her private ranch on the canyon’s northernmost edge (the state park encompasses a mere fraction of the PDC). After getting to know my sturdy American quarter horse, Nick, we’re off on a rousing trek through juniper, mesquite, and cottonwood. This is less a trail ride than a riding lesson. About an hour in, Phyllis’s dog, Little Girl, who has been running ahead, comes to an abrupt stop. A few feet beyond her paws, the earth plummets and she stares out at the horizon. The only thing keeping her—and us—from reaching it is an ancient and seemingly endless abyss.