Known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, Palo Duro Canyon is a place of profound scenic beauty and an otherworldly, peaceful quiet. Burnt orange peaks and brick red mesas, cut with gray, yellow and lavender mudstone, form the endless desert vista. Throughout the 120-mile canyon, which stretches 20 miles wide and runs 800 feet deep, wildlife soar above, like the red-tailed hawk, and roam the countryside, like wild turkeys and road runners. Visitors admire the canyon’s stunning geologic formations like the Spanish Skirts; Castle Peak; the Lighthouse, a 310-foot-high pedestal rock; as well as hoodoos of larger tops with smaller bases, formed when rock layers wear down at different rates.
If you haven’t heard of Palo Duro Canyon, purported to be the second largest canyon in the U.S., don’t be surprised. The natural wonder is often eclipsed by the popularity of its sister in the southwest edge of the Lone Star State: Big Bend National Park, which encompasses the Chisos mountain range and a large swath of the Chihuahuan Desert. But all the better for Palo Duro visitors, who can experience this destination without droves of tourists.
A sense of history is palpable inside the canyon, exposing 240 million years of rock. Its deep walls were carved by water erosion of the Prairie Dog Town Fork tributary of the Red River, as well as whipping winds that widened the cleave.
At least 12,000 years ago, ancient Paleo-Indians, including Clovis and Folson cultures, hunted mammoth and giant bison in this gorge of the Panhandle. Later, Meso-Indians took down large prey with atlatl, spear throwers, and foraged the seasonally changing desert plant life. Rock art discovered within the canyon is suspected to be from the Meso-Indian Era. Come the Neo-Indian Era, hunters and gathers largely relied on gardening. They buried the dead within crevices of canyon walls and rock shelters.
Spaniards, starting with the Coronado expedition, first traversed the canyon in the mid-1500s. They named it Palo Duro, Spanish for hard wood, after its abundant juniper trees that then dotted the rocky chasm — a contrast to the surrounding flat plains.
Apaches inhabited the region until about 1700, when the Comanches moved in and forced the Apache southward. Then Comanche and Kiowa, superb horsemen, dominated the area for more than 150 years.
The 1874 Battle of Palo Duro Canyon ended Native residence within the sandstone escarpment. Col. Ranald Mackenzie and the 4th Cavalry captured more than 1,400 horses belonging to the tribes, keeping the best ones and shooting the vast majority. The soldiers additionally destroyed the Indians’ lodges and food supplies. Without transportation, shelter or sustenance, the Comanche and Kiowa surrendered. They were forced to Oklahoma reservations on foot. After the battle, part of the Red River War, settlers took residence in Palo Duro.
Among them was Charles Goodnight, who drove 1,600 cattle from Pueblo, Colorado, to start his JA Ranch. The wildlife preservationist also kept bison, elk, antelope, as well as various species of fowl. Today, bison still thrive in Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway, at the southern edge of Palo Duro. Goodnight is the namesake of the canyon’s Charles Goodnight Memorial Trail and the highway to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Goodnight operated the ranch until 1890. Although a fraction of its original size, his JA Ranch remains a working ranch today. Palo Duro Canyon State Park opened on July 4, 1934. It contains about 28,000 acres of the scenic and northernmost portion of the Palo Duro Canyon.
Exploring Palo Duro Today
Compared to the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro is incredibly accessible. Visitors can drive straight into the canyon’s belly. The area can be traversed by foot, bicycle, horse, car or via guided bus tours.
Overnight facilities include tent camping sites, equestrian camping sites, and developed “primitive areas” with cactus and fortress cliff. RV sites, as well as cabins of varying comfort and convenience, are also available.
While marveling at many layers of geologic rock, visitors likely see wild animals like mule deer, white-tailed deer, and cottontails, as well as Barbary sheep, native to northern Africa and introduced to the park in the 1950s.
Visitors may also encounter coyotes, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, and on rare occasion mountain lions. The canyon is also home to several species of non-venomous snakes and the dangerous western diamondback rattlesnakes. Birders will appreciate the prevalent golden-fronted woodpeckers year round, as well as Mississippi kites, Bullock’s orioles and painted buntings in the summer. On the rim, you’ll find Western meadowlarks and lark sparrows.
The desert is often in bloom with chinaberry and sotol. Because so many juniper trees were cut down for building materials, tree life is mostly populated by mesquite, cottonwood, salt cedar, willow, soapberry and hackberry. Wildflower and grass species grow along the canyon walls and floor, including Indian blanket, star thistle, sunflower, black-foot daisy, sage and little bluestem.
Texas weather has a mind of its own. By summer, temperatures climb into triple digits by day, and drop by up to 50 degrees at night. State Park advisory notices recommend drinking a gallon of water per person and pet on most hikes, as well as bringing sun protection and clothing layers. When dusk descends, expect an almost immediate 20-degree weather change.
From its highest elevation to its 800-feet depths, Palo Duro Canyon is living history in the form of ancient, sunset-colored rock layers and indigenous homeland. Locals consider it the state's best-kept secret.
This story was originally published March 2, 2017.