Just twenty-five miles from downtown Amarillo, flat plains give way to the second largest canyon in the United States.
Millions of years ago, the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River began to erode the land. The river runs off the Llano Estacado at the Caprock Escarpment. It is in this area, that water erosion has shaped Palo Duro Canyon. The canyon contains a range of unique geological features. The water has carved caves and sculpted hoodoos. Perhaps the most recognized feature of the canyon is Lighthouse Rock. Lighthouse Rock, a prime example of a hoodoo, was formed as wind water slowly wore away soft layers of rock beneath a hard rock surface. Another identifying feature of Palo Duro Canyon are its “Spanish skirts.” This geological feature tells the story of the canyon and its layers. Each color represents a different time period, revealing parts of the canyon’s creation story.
Though many people are blissfully unaware of Palo Duro Canyon, it has played a key role in the history of the Great Plains and its people. The earliest people of the plains, the Clovis and Folsom cultures, utilized the canyon. They hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison in the area. These hunters were nomadic but evidence of their hunts have been found in the layers of Palo Duro Canyon.
Native American cultures followed in the footsteps of the Paleo-Indians. Tribes, such as Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa, utilized the canyon and its rich resources. The availability of water attracted game and provided edible plants for tribes. The walls of the canyon offered protection from weather. These cultures left rock art and bedrock mortars as evidence of their lives in the area.
Comancheros, Spanish traders from Mexico, are known to have traded with the Indian Nations of the plains. They would have traveled in and around the canyon, taking advantage of plentiful water, shelter, and game. It is thought that the name Palo Duro originated with early Spanish settlers. Palo Duro is Spanish for hard wood or stick.
The name is likely a reference to the plentiful trees found in the canyon.
In 1541, members of Coronado’s expedition became the first Europeans to set eyes on the canyon. Horses brought to the plains by the Spanish allowed the Comanche and Kiowa tribes to become more dominant in Palo Duro Canyon. Later, Indian tribes resisting relocation to reservations camped in the canyon. During the fall of 1874, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie led an early morning raid on tribes camped in the canyon. The tribes fled, but Mackenzie was able to capture between 1,100 and 2,000 horses and burn teepees and possessions. Without means for survival, the Comanche and Kiowa conceded and returned to reservations in Oklahoma. This decisive battle during the Red River War became known as the Battle of Palo Duro.
With the native cultures of the plains removed to reservations, West Texas became a rancher’s dream. Charles Goodnight and John Adair founded the JA Ranch in 1876-77. It began when Goodnight drove 1,600 longhorn cattle into the canyon and grew for years. Cattle grazed freely throughout the canyon and over a vast area of the Panhandle plains. During this time, local residents began to visit the canyon even though it remained private land.
In the 1930’s, a landowner signed a contract with the local chamber of commerce to allow public access to the canyon. In 1933-34, the State of Texas purchased land from Fred S. Emory. This land turned into the 20,000 acre Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It is also designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.
Over the next five years, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the park we visit today. They began by building the road into the canyon, hiking in and out every day. The trail they used is still in use today and is known as the CCC Trail in their honor. After completing the two-lane road from the rim to the base of the canyon, the CCC completed other projects. El Coronado Lodge now serves as the park’s visitor center. They developed culverts, low-water crossings, and bridges. In addition the park headquarters, three cabins were built on the rim, the four Cow Camp cabins were completed, and other picnic and camping areas were added. Perhaps most important to note is that the workers used local stone and wood for the building materials. The foundation of Palo Duro Canyon built by the CCC continues to be serviceable today, in the second largest state park in Texas.
Today, Palo Duro Canyon is a scenic showplace. The park contains historical markers and picnic areas. Campgrounds are equipped with showers and restrooms. There are more than sixteen miles of easily accessible roads, miles of hiking and biking trails, ziplining, and horseback riding. Palo Duro Canyon holds adventures for everyone.
Visit https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon for more information!