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Itinerary for One Day at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Posted On 02/11/2019 17:31:00
Trip Date 10/04/2018
Destinations | Hiking | Texas | Canyon | Amarillo | Tourist Attractions near Amarillo | Palo Duro Canyon | What to do at Palo Duro Canyon State Park | What to see at Palo Duro Canyon State Park | Texas State Parks
We spent one evening and one full day at Palo Duro Canyon State Park and, in our usual travel style, packed as much into the time as possible. Scheduled activities and events were more limited since our visit was during autumn (not during high season), but the park was not crowded. Even so, the park has lots of history, great hikes and amazing scenery making us yearn to return.
If you have plans to visit the state park, this post will guide you through what to see and do to make the most of your time. If you have more than one day, it's easy to either take your visit at a more leisurely pace or incorporate lots more hiking into your plan. Whatever you choose to do, your visit will be well worth the daily entrance fee of $8.00 per person over the age of 13 (waived for those with a Texas State Parks Pass).
Background Information on Palo Duro Canyon State Park
The home of the second largest canyon in the country is in the Texas Panhandle just a 30 minute drive away from
Amarillo. At 800 feet deep and 120 miles long, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is huge and sometimes referred to as the Grand Canyon of Texas. The area within the park boundaries totals 28,000+ acres or over 45 square miles.
The canyon itself is thought to have started forming due to water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River about a million years ago. (The headwaters of the Red River which borders between Texas and Oklahoma are formed from two forks, the southernmost is this one in Palo Duro Canyon.) While the canyon walls are about 250 million years old, sediment moving downstream continues to slowly deepen the canyon and erosion from water and wind widen it gradually. It's estimated that humans have only inhabited Palo Duro Canyon for the past 12,000 years. The canyon was likely discovered by early Spanish explorers who named it "Palo Duro" in recognition of the Rocky Mountain Junipers. (In Spanish, the word "palo" translates to "wood" and "duro" means "hard".)
Entrance to Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Tips for Making the Most of Your Visit to Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Here's a few tips and suggestions to make the most of your time at the park:
Either before your visit or upon check-in, inquire about any scheduled events (ranger led activities, performances in the amphitheater, kids activities, etc.);
Dress appropriately for the expected weather - the average daily temperature can range from the 30's to the 80's
depending on the season. Be sure to have a hat, sunscreen and comfortable walking shoes;
Bring lots of water - and drink it throughout the day to stay hydrated;
There are places within the park where you can purchase food, as well as picnic areas if you prefer to pack a snack or
lunch, so plan accordingly;
Keep your camera handy as you'll find lots of photo opportunities. You may even want to carry extra charged camera
batteries just in case; and
Be on the lookout for both historical markers as well as state park signage - both have good information that will enhance your visit.
Historical Markers (left) and Palo Duro Canyon State Park Signage (right)
Overview of One Day Visit to Palo Duro Canyon State Park
First, a brief overview of what to expect by following this itinerary for the day. Park Road 5 is the main road that takes you from the park's entrance on the canyon rim all of the way down to the canyon floor. The round-trip distance of this scenic drive is about 16 miles during which you'll be able to see the colors in all four geologic layers (Quartermaster, Tecovas, Trujillo and Ogallala) as you descend and then climb back up.
Colorful Geological Layers of Palo Duro Canyon
Seeing the Geology of Palo Duro Canyon
Assuming that you are planning a day trip to the park, our plan starts at the entrance. If, however, you are staying in the park, you can easily start the itinerary closest to the point that your "home" is located. Once you get to number 18, you'll then want to work your way backwards from your starting point until you get to number 1. The following two maps are helpful for planning your visit (and can also be picked up when you enter the park):
To see and do all of the 18 items will require a full day that includes a combination of driving, lots of viewpoints as well as some hiking. The good news is that, if you prefer, you can see much of the history and beauty of the park with more limited walking - and much from the comfort of your car. If you do decide to hike, you'll be pleased to know that the recommended hiking is interspersed throughout the day to give your legs some time to rest. If you are worried about time, you can also save the hikes (or any other item in the list) for later in the day, time permitting. Remember however, that temperatures tend to rise in the afternoon, so if you are visiting during the summer months it will likely be hot and you'll want extra water!
And now, here's our recommended one day itinerary at Palo Duro Canyon State Park:
1. Find a Longhorn in the Pasture
Did you know that, since 1969, Texas has had an official State of Texas Longhorn Herd? The 250 "horns"
currently in the herd live in five of Texas' state parks, and you guessed it, Palo Duro Canyon is one of them. The herd is
thoughtfully bred to keep the cattle as historically correct as possible so both residents of and guests to the Lone Star
State have an opportunity to see them firsthand.
The pasture where they live is near the exit to the state park, however finding them can be like finding a needle in a haystack. The longhorns have lots of room to roam, so they are not always where visitors can see them. To increase your success, look every time you are near the pasture! Unfortunately, we never saw them during our visit - seeing the longhorns is one of many reasons we want to return.
Home of the Official State of Texas Longhorn Herd
2. Enjoy an Awesome View from the CCC Overlook
A definite "get out of your car moment" is at the CCC Overlook on the right where you can get an excellent view
of the canyon from the rim. Take some time to peruse the informational signage to learn more about the creation of the
View from CCC Overlook at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
As you gaze into the canyon, make sure to search for some of the formations for which the park is famous!
The lower part of the canyon walls are often referred to as Spanish Skirts. Just imagine a flowing striped skirt on
a beautiful Spanish dress and you'll understand why!
Spanish Skirts at Palo Duro Canyon
The park's most famous formation is best seen from the overlook nearest the Visitor Center. Look way off into the
distance and try to find the Lighthouse. To really appreciate the size of this formation does however require hiking much closer.
The Lighthouse, Palo Duro Canyon's most famous formation
If you have time and want to get more hiking in, consider one of the following:
At 2.7 miles one-way, hiking the Lighthouse Trail (the most popular trail at the park) will take you to the base
of the formation;
Although at 3.1 miles one-way, the Givens, Spicer, Lowry Trail is longer, there's a great view of the Lighthouse
(much closer than from the visitor center) at about the 1 1/2 mile point.
3. Marvel at the Handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps hired men aged 17 to 25 qualifying for public assistance to work on conservation projects such as creating Palo Duro Canyon State Park. The men were paid $1.00 per day plus the necessities of housing, food, clothing and medical care. After building a camp where they could live, CCC men created many of the park's improvements which still stand today.
The "CCC Boys" built the cabins on both the canyon rim and floor as well as a number of trails. In fact, until they
completed the road that winds from rim to floor, they got into and out of the canyon by hiking on what is today's CCC
Trail. What stands as the Visitor Center was originally built as the El Coronado Lodge. The design called for a multi-story building with an observation tower, however due to lack of funds, construction on a single story lodge was instead completed.
El Coronado Lodge and Palo Duro Canyon State Park Visitor Center
The lodge served as a grill and souvenir shop from 1935 until 1978. After that, exhibits created by the
Panhandle-Plains Museum were on display, many of which remain today. Since 1996, the lodge has served as the Visitor Center and is also home to the Canyon Gallery Gift Shop, Palo Duro Canyon Museum and Interpretive Center. Take some time to wander through the rooms of the Visitor Center to learn more about the park and the CCC. Save some time to browse through the jewelry, prints, books and more as all purchases benefit the park.
4. Find the Bridges on the Upper CCC Trail
The almost three mile round-trip CCC Trail is rated as difficult as it starts on the canyon rim, goes down to the
floor and back up again. You can, however, hike a portion of the trail so that you can get a closer view of and cross one or
more of the four historic CCC Bridges. The trailhead is located at the CCC Overlook parking lot or you can hike
the 0.2 mile Triassic Trail which intersects the CCC Trail at a midpoint.
CCC Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Hiking the CCC Trail
Crossing the Historic CCC Bridge at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
5. Get a Close-up of the CCC Fireplace
Just a short distance off the main park road stands a Fireplace and Chimney, the final remaining remnant of a
camp where the CCC workers lived. While you can see some of the structure from the park road, if you have the time,
take a few minutes to read the informational signs near the structure.
Fireplace and Chimney from CCC Camp at Palo Duro Canyon
6. Get your first View from the Canyon Floor
You'll now begin your descent into the canyon on a rather windy road. Don't worry though, the drive isn't bad - we did it
pulling our 33' RV with no problem at all. Just take it slow - the most difficult thing is for the driver to keep his or her
eyes on the road for fear that they'll miss the beautiful scenery along the way!
Park Road winding through Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Scenery along Park Road 5 in Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Once you reach the Mack Dick Group Pavilion on the left, make another stop. From here you'll be looking up to see the canyon rim where you came from rather than looking down into the canyon. Palo Duro Canyon definitely looks different from this angle! While parked, you may also want to take a look around the pavilion. Although the doors were closed during our visit, we enjoyed peering through the windows to see the furnishings and artwork inside. Imagine attending a group event, wedding or reunion in this fully heated and air conditioned building. The views from the outside patio will definitely win you over!
Mack Dick Group Pavilion at Palo Duro Canyon
7. Hike Pioneer Nature Trail to the River
You can find the trailhead for the Pioneer Nature Trail at the northeast corner of the Mack Dick Group Pavilion parking lot. The easy 1/2 mile loop on a flat dirt path will take you to the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River. During our visit, the river was dry and unfortunately we didn't spot any horned lizards, deer or wild turkeys.
Hiking the Pioneer Nature Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
8. Check out the Atmosphere at the Pioneer Amphitheater
Just across the road from the Mack Dick Group Pavilion is the Pioneer Amphitheater home of the summertime
outdoor musical TEXAS. If you plan your visit to the park between early June and mid-August, make sure to consider tickets for a performance and maybe even the pre-show chuck wagon dinner served on the covered patio.
Entrance to Pioneer Amphitheater, Home of the outdoor musical TEXAS
Even if your visit does not coincide with TEXAS, take a few minutes to wander through the beautiful grounds of the amphitheater. Walk among the western themed decor sprinkled throughout, listen to the sounds of the falling water and find the life size iron bust of Comanche Chief Quanah Parker.
Grounds of Pioneer Amphitheater at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
While you are there, take a look at the setting for the "Official Play of the State of Texas". The backdrop of the 1,600 seat
"... carved out of and nestled into the natural basin in the majestic Palo Duro Canyon ..."
Pioneer Amphitheater at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
9. Keep your Eyes Peeled for Hoodoos
As you're driving along the main park road, stopped at any of the scenic overlooks or hiking on a trail, be on the lookout for a larger rock balanced atop a smaller rock base. These interesting geological formations, called Hoodoos, are created when the softer lower layer of rock erodes more quickly than the upper layer. Because the larger upper layer of rock is harder, it then protects the rock below.
Hoodoo near Pioneer Amphitheatre at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
10. Stop at the Trading Post
In addition to offering hot meals and cold drinks, the Palo Duro Trading Post has supplies often needed by travelers including gas and groceries. Also available are a selection of souvenirs, many of which are different from those available at the Visitor Center. Admittedly, we aren't usually big shoppers, however Scott found a reasonably priced hat and I found a waist pack perfect for hiking with my water bottle and cell phone.
11. Look through the Wildlife Viewing Blind
Leaving your car parked in the same lot, take the short walk from the Trading Post to the Wildlife Viewing Blind.
The walls of the blind are loaded with photos of wildlife that fellow park visitors have seen. Just outside of the blind you'll see several feeders as well as a water feature all designed to attract birds. To have the best success with wildlife sightings, be quiet, be patient and open your eyes and ears!
Searching for Wildlife at the Viewing Blind in Palo Duro Canyon State Park
12. Feed Woodrow
Make a stop at the Old West Stables where you can purchase some food to feed Woodrow, the young Texas Longhorn trained to eat from your hand. (I wanted to feed this longhorn so badly, however since our visit was during the off-season, the stables were closed.) Other options available for purchase at the stables include souvenirs, snacks and even guided horseback rides in the park.
13. Search for the Prehistoric Kitchen
Before you reach the first of six river crossings, you'll see the Hackberry Camp Area on your left. After passing the camping loop entrance and RV dump station, there is a small parking area for the Lone Star Interpretive Theater. There's a trail behind the amphitheater and just a short walk will take you to a piece of history. Look for some almost perfectly rounded holes worn into a partially buried bedrock slab. (There's a sign nearby to help you find it.) It was in these holes that plants were ground by Native Americans making food for an upcoming meal.
Prehistoric Kitchen at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
If you have the time and are up for some more hiking, the trailhead of the Givens, Spicer, Lowry Trail is just across the road. Although you can't get a glimpse of the Lighthouse until you hike quite a distance, the scenery on the early part of the trail is quite beautiful.
Hiking the Givens, Spicer, Lowry Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
14. Hike to the Cowboy Dugout
The Paseo del Rio Trailhead begins just past the river crossing on the opposite side of the park road (it's an easy walk but there's no sidewalk so you have to share the road with any moving vehicles). While hiking or biking the entire two mile round trip trail is easy, it will take time so you be the judge. At minimum, hike the 1/8 mile to look inside the refurbished Cowboy Dugout originally part of Charles Goodnight's JA Ranch.
Cowboy Dugout on Paseo del Rio Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
15. Get another View of the Spanish Skirts
Upon reaching the loop as you near the far end of the park road, veer to the left. Before you reach the sixth river crossing, turn left into the Mesquite Camp Area. From there you can get another view of the steep, lower part of the canyon walls referred to as Spanish Skirts. You'll find one of the park's information signs located in front of the bathhouse pointing out the rock formation.
Viewing the Spanish Skirts from the Palo Duro Canyon Floor
16. Check-out one of the Cow Camp Cabins
On the opposite side of the park road is the location of the Cow Camp Cabins. It's worth a quick side trip to see at least one of the cabins built so many years ago by the men of the CCC and still in use today. Maybe you'll get lucky and one will be open so you can see the inside of these primitive yet comfortable cabins.
Cow Camp Cabin at Palo Duro Canyon
17. Find The Big Cave
Located just after the point where the park road loops back toward the park entrance, The Big Cave can be spotted on the left side. Some say that crawling and climbing across the large rocks to enter the cave is fun and very eye-opening (the hole is apparently not as big as it looks from the road). If you have the time, it's definitely a hike to consider - I'd love to do it on a return visit to get a photo from the inside looking out!
The Big Cave at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
18. Watch some Wild Turkeys
There is a good possibility of seeing wildlife anywhere in the park. Visitors have seen animals such as deer and coyotes,
smaller animals like roadrunners, rabbits and snakes and of course many birds flying about. I hoped to avoid any coyote or snake encounters, however welcomed the chance to see some wild turkeys. We made a stop to see some interesting rock formations on the opposite side of the road shortly after driving away from the cave and also got lucky with a sighting of a rafter of wild turkeys.
Rock Formations in Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Rafter of Wild Turkeys at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
From this point, continue driving on the road known as Alternate Park Road 5 until you reach the point where it
connects back to the main road. You'll then soon begin ascending back toward the park entrance. Depending on the amount of time you have remaining, this is also a great time to return to any of your favorite spots or add another hike or two.
For even more to see and do while you are in the area, check out our post titled 7 Don't Miss Attractions in Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle. While Palo Duro Canyon State Park is included in the list, there are five additional locations to spend some of your time and all are within about 30 minutes of the park.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
In your opinion, what are the "must see's and do's" (and why) that you recommend to people with plans to visit Palo Duro
Canyon State Park?
Created On 02/10/2019 23:30:23
Updated On 02/11/2019 14:31:00
Scheduled On 02/11/2019 14:31:00
Posted On 02/11/2019 17:31:00
Last Editor Stacy
Location Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Canyon, TX, United States