BY ANNETTE BROOKS
Tucked away in the Texas Panhandle about 20 miles from Amarillo is one of Texas’ most impressive natural wonders, Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
Formed over millions of years and carved deep into the eastern caprock of the southern high plains, it’s the second-largest canyon in the United States after the Grand Canyon. With dramatic features and breathtaking views set against the open Texas sky, Palo Duro Canyon is a road-trip-worthy destination the whole family will enjoy. It’s especially pleasant to visit in the springtime when temperatures are mild.
There are plenty of activities to keep you busy while you’re visiting the state park. Start by driving the 16-mile loop that descends from the rim to the canyon floor and winds back up. Along the way, you’ll see historical markers, trailheads, a couple of old buildings and bridges, and spectacular views that include hoodoos — rock formations with a larger rock balanced atop a smaller rock. Bring lunch and eat at one of the park’s picnic tables.
Hiking and Mountain Biking
Covering around 28,000 acres, Palo Duro Canyon State Park offers more than 30 miles of trails for hiking and biking. One of the most popular, family-friendly trails leads to the park’s signature landmark, a 310-foot rock formation called The Lighthouse. The 5.75-mile trail is wide, obstacle-free, and packed with dirt and rock.
Other trails include the one-and-a-half-mile-long CCC Trail, which begins near the visitor center and takes you down to the canyon floor, and the five-mile-long Rock Garden Trail, to name a few. The Capitol Peak Trail is a favorite among mountain bikers because of its rocky terrain, amazing views, and great flow.
Bring your own horse or opt for a guided horseback tour provided by one of the nearby riding stables. The horseback riding-friendly park has established equestrian trails and dedicated horse camping sites. Pick up an equestrian brochure from the park headquarters. Visit TPWD.Texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon/fees-facilities/horse-sites for more information and check-in.
Birding and Wildlife Watching
With its diverse habitats, the state park is teaming with wildlife. Birds include quail, wild turkeys, golden-fronted woodpeckers, roadrunners, Mississippi kites, Bullock’s orioles, tyrant flycatchers, hawks, owls, and the list goes on. A bird blind is located behind the Palo Duro Trading Post.
Animals include Aoudad sheep, bobcats, coyotes, mule and white-tailed deer, skunk, the endangered Palo Duro mouse, and rabbits. The canyon is also home to reptiles, including the Texas horned lizard and snakes, so be careful while hiking.
Although Palo Duro Canyon isn’t a true Dark Sky Park due to its proximity to Amarillo, it’s a good place for stargazing away from the light pollution of major cities. On a clear, dark new moon night, the Milky Way is often visible over the Lighthouse Rock formation.
Where to Stay
Lodging choices range from vintage rustic cabins to luxury accommodations.
The state park maintains and rents three very basic, CCC-built stone and timber cabins. Located on the canyon rim, they offer panoramic views. Book well ahead of time as they fill up quickly. TPWD.Texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon/fees-facilities/cabins
If you’re into glamping, the state park has glampsites on the canyon floor. They include luxury rustic furnishings and creature comforts such as microwaves and refrigerators, covered porches, rocking chairs, electricity, gas grills, heating, and air conditioning. PaloDuroGlamping.com
Starlight Canyon Bed & Breakfast, a popular choice for couples, sits on six peaceful acres shaded by 100-year-old elm trees. Choose from four unique, updated cabins, each with a private hot tub. Rates include a hot, home-cooked breakfast delivered to your cabin on the weekends. During the week, enjoy a continental breakfast with homemade cinnamon rolls. Add-on packages include the romance package, picnic in a basket, couples massage, and a four-course candlelight dinner. StarlightCanyon.com
Doves Rest Cabins offers custom-designed, distinctively appointed luxury home rentals for visitors seeking private luxury accommodations. No two cabins are alike and all offer views overlooking Palo Duro Canyon. The cabins range from four bedrooms with four king beds to a collection of 480-square-foot one king bed, one bath, pet-friendly studio Phantom Cabins. With concierge service at your fingertips, arrange for in-cabin massages, golf tee times, airport transfer, private tours, and more. DovesRestCabins.com