Open Road

Palo Duro Canyon, Second to None

Enjoy the silence, the breathtaking views and the “Smithsonian of Texas”—just 599 miles away.

By Katharine Shilcutt July 9, 2015 Published in the July 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Sandstone formations tower over Palo Duro Canyon.

Image: Shutterstock

The second-largest canyon in the United States seems like it should be in New Mexico, right? Or California maybe. Not 30 minutes from Amarillo. Small wonder, then, that my boyfriend and I were greeted with blank stares when friends heard we were going to Palo Duro. Palo Alto they knew, Palo Duro not so much. It couldn’t possibly be as grand as, well, you know, they sniffed. No, it wouldn’t be so enormous, we admitted, and neither would the crowds.   

Flying over the Texas Panhandle, we observed the terrain below, pure and stark, dry and dusty, as if howling winds had scraped it clean of all but cotton fields, cattle and eerie windmills with long, mournful-looking blades. But off in the distance, a mystery loomed, a change in the landscape. Craggy, shadowy fingers digging into the fawn-colored dirt. Palo Duro.

“I can’t let y’all down this road for quite a while,” drawled a Randall County sheriff’s deputy. We had arrived at the canyon’s state park only to find that the tiny, two-lane highway leading into it was closed, owing to a traffic fatality. “Y’all should just drive on into Canyon”—a nearby town—“and have a Coke,” suggested a park ranger who doubted the road would be open by dark when we called to inquire about the status of our lodging for the night in the canyon itself. “Maybe get a room in town.”

Not wanting to abandon our Palo Duro adventure so easily, we sought solace in Amarillo and the only coffee shop open on that Easter Sunday afternoon: The 806, a hipster haunt straight out of Montrose. Inside, bearded misfits read tattered paperbacks and played chess while sipping craft beers and lattes to the odd strains of the Beetlejuice soundtrack. Between that and my beautifully pulled double latte, The 806 made for a lovely diversion indeed. Still, my boyfriend and I were antsy. We hadn’t come to Amarillo for the coffee.

Then, relief—at 7 p.m. word arrived that the road to Palo Duro was open again, and we headed back down I-27 to the little highway that led to the park. Soon we were at the doorstep of a stone dwelling that seemed to emerge from the cliff face itself: Lighthouse Cabin, a two-room affair abutting a wooden fence, beyond which lay Palo Duro, its mesas and valleys stretching as far as the eye could see.

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Stars over Palo Duro Canyon's famous Lighthouse formation

Lighthouse is one of three cabins constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933—its sisters Goodnight and Sorensen sit just a few yards away—and originally served as temporary lodging for the workers who built Park Road 5, which leads from arid plains down to the scrubby canyon floor 800 feet below. Each of the three now boasts modern amenities like air conditioning, a full bathroom, a microwave and a mini-fridge—we promptly stocked ours with sandwich fixings and an indecent amount of lemon LeCroix—and each rents for an almost indecently reasonable $110 to $125 per night (which is why they’re usually booked months in advance, though campsites on the canyon floor are plentiful for both tent-and-sleeping-bag and RV campers).

We could see it all from the cabin—dusty land tumbling down into rust-hued rock that gave way to layers of mossy green and gold, then more ruddy strata, with rich autumn colors in between—even from the little window in the bathroom. The flat, pebble-covered roof, easily accessible via a rock staircase, afforded an even more extravagant view, the perfect place to hoist a couple of plastic folding chairs and take in the sunset. In any other setting—say, a poorly decorated living room—the pastel peach and neon pink hues of the sunset would have clashed terribly with the deep, emphatic jewel tones of the canyon. But here they mingled effortlessly, nature proving yet again that she knows what she’s doing.

Soon, the first stars blinked into existence. Achingly bright Venus was first over the western horizon, followed by Jupiter, and then—in quick succession—Sirius and his companion, Procyon; the faint rosy tinge of the original Betelgeuse; the glittering trio that make up Orion’s belt. It was every bit as beautiful and overwhelming as the canyon below.

Palo Duro days are best spent thus: marveling, watching quietly, walking gently through the trails in hopes of glimpsing a wild turkey pecking in the brush, or maybe a young deer sipping water from a narrow creek, or some keen little desert lizards, dashing madly across the footpaths.

The park offers hikes of every level of difficulty. The original CCC trail leading to the canyon floor is steep, rocky and best negotiated by experts (an Austrian tourist fell to his death from the trail in 2013). There are easier ones, however, like the Paseo del Rio, which leads you past an original cowboy dugout from the days when the area was owned by legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight (who managed to take a second wife at age 91 before expiring two years later—perhaps exhausted by the effort required to satisfy his 26-year-old bride).

We tackled the park’s most popular hike on the second day, a nearly six-mile trek leading to the Lighthouse formation, after which the Lighthouse cabin is named—a “hoodoo,” a tall, teetering column of sandstone that shines a vivid red in the evening light. In spring and winter, it’s a moderately easy hike past towering cliffs and across dry riverbeds. In the heat of summer, the so-called Lighthouse trail is better described as a punishing, Richard Bachman–style death march. This hike too has killed its share of visitors, most recently a German exchange student in 2011. For our part, we passed several young people along the trail who were hiking without water, dangerous in itself. “I remember being 19,” my boyfriend said, shaking his head. “I thought nothing could hurt me either.”

The next day, having found a route that was mercifully free of fellow explorers, we set about the task of conquering some of Palo Duro’s off-path caves. Clambering up steep, loose slopes, we eventually reached the cool, shady caves, both of us mesmerized by the chill of the air within and the pervasive quiet—as absolute as a sensory deprivation chamber. Climbing down, I grew too bold—my own 19-year-old self took over—and I paid for it with a brisk tumble and a few bloody scratches to my leg. Nature, man.

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The canyon floor awash in color

Image: Shutterstock

For our final night, the two of us stayed in yet another cabin, at the Starlight Canyon Bed & Breakfast a few miles away in the far outskirts of Amarillo, which promised a few amenities sorely lacking in the rim cabins: namely a hot tub, which our tired bodies desperately needed after a few days hiking steep trails in the heat.

The B&B offers history of its own too: the land it’s situated on was originally meant to become a companion park to Palo Duro—indeed, the B&B’s main lodge, like the Palo Duro rim cabins, was also built by the CCC in the ’30s—until the state decided that it would never be as grand as its neighbor. These days, Starlight’s luxuriously appointed series of cabins are overseen by owner Nate Green, a great grey bear of a man with an equally luxurious handlebar mustache, who noted with a nod as we checked in: “Fluffy robes are behind the bathroom door.”

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The Panhandle-Plains Museum is located in nearby Canyon.

We didn’t spend much time in the cabin, however, opting instead to visit the small town of Canyon (pop. 13,222) just down the highway. There, on the grounds of lovely West Texas A&M, whose student population of nearly 9,000 almost rivals the population of the town it calls home, dozens of Art Deco buildings harkened back to the campus’s days as West Texas State Normal College—including those housing the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, occasionally referred to as “the Smithsonian of Texas” (most notably by its own director, Guy C. Vanderpool, whose pride in his museum is boundless).

Artifacts on exhibit in the museum included delicate moccasins recovered from Comanche and Kiowa settlements, reconstructed pioneer homes complete with period furnishings, and a ’20s-era oil derrick large enough to demand its own two-story hall. The Panhandle-Plains never bored, from the captivating if bloody documentary on how to butcher a bison (with life-sized diorama for added detail) to the fossils and reconstructed skeletons of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures that once roamed the area.

Eventually, we came upon a scale model of Palo Duro Canyon, everything from its shrubs to its craggy crevices to its famous Lighthouse realized in fine detail. Though we’d left the actual canyon only that morning, we found ourselves already nostalgic for it, even in replica, pondering the great grisly beauty of the place that Georgia O’Keefe once called “a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” 

And all of it just a grand 599.3 miles from Houston. 

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