State Park Series

Texas' Own Grand Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon State Park may be a hike, but the dramatic canyon makes for a wild ride

By Andrew Husband December 4, 2014

IMAGE: Texas Parks & Wildlife — The views of the canyon stretch on for miles at Palo Duro.

So it turns out mountain biking on sandy loam is a rather difficult undertaking without adequate training and proper equipment. 

Yet despite the dueling pains of muscle fatigue and sunburn, we pressed on along the Lighthouse Trail. We'd made the trek countless times before, but never with the aid (or albatross) of aluminum bicycles, bags and helmets. It couldn't be any harder than the previous hikes, could it?

Palo Duro Canyon State Park sits a comfortable 25 miles southwest of Amarillo. The drive was by all accounts a quick but beautiful one to take, but I never had the chance to take it. Instead, I regularly made the trip up from Lubbock, a slightly less comfortable 100 miles along Interstate 27's brief lifespan.

Mike and I were graduate students at Texas Tech University, and like most transplanted residents of the Hub City, we had a strong urge to leave the college town on a regular basis. The second largest canyon in the country provided the kind of escape we needed.

All of our trips were usually the same. Gather a small group of friends, pack one or two vehicles with a weekend's worth of food, booze and camping supplies, and hit the road north as soon as the last person's final Friday hour of class or work was over.

IMAGE: Texas Parks & Wildlife — The canyon's views only get more dramatic as the sun sets.

In March of 2011, however, we decided to make a day of it. No heavy camping equipment or ice chests. Just bikes, helmets (protecting our investments in higher education), and enough food and water for the ride. The hour and a half necessary to reach Palo Duro Canyon from Lubbock might seem too much for a single day, but biking around in Texas' own Grand Canyon? Totally worth it.

Our plan was the same as most day visitors: trek the 2.72 miles of multi-use trail out from the sixth parking lot along the main road to the Lighthouse rock formation. We'd both hiked this trail a few times before, but biking it offered us a new adventure. We were ecstatic about the prospect; even as we gradually realized neither of us had done all that much mountain biking. 

A few grueling hours later, our legs (and my pasty white skin) were on fire. Near the trail's end, an old and weathered metal bike rack stood near a picnic table of similar condition. We stopped to rest, downed generous swigs of water, and locked our bikes to the rack. The rest of the trail consisted of a steep, rocky incline up to the tower whose resemblance to luminous coastal structures earned the trail its name.

IMAGE: Texas Parks & Wildlife — Lighthouse Rock is a result of centuries of beautiful sculpting by nature.

From the base of the Lighthouse, we could look out into the canyon. Or just look around the entire canyon, since the Lighthouse sits in its southwestern portion, surrounded by eons of sedimentary layers of reddish rock and dirt. And look we did, for despite all the other times we had visited Palo Duro, this time we'd earned the view. I also earned one of the more demanding sunburns of my life, but the photo-realistic memories were well worth the pain. 

Maybe that's why the American artist Georgia O'Keeffe described the canyon as “a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” Everyone seems to think the painter was describing the canyon's colors, but I'm sure some of her bite was meant for her own hard-boiled skin.

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