The Grand Canyon of Texas


Everyone disrespects Amarillo. For most, it’s someplace you speed through between New Mexico and Oklahoma. But there are a few reasons to stop and spend some time.

Palo Duro Canyon from Mesquite Campground

Sunset light – Palo Duro Canyon from Mesquite Campground

The Grand Canyon – In Texas?
Palo Duro Canyon bills itself as the Grand Canyon of Texas. It was once part of an inland sea that dried up a long time ago, leaving sand behind. Over the millennia, pressure converted a lot of the sand to sandstone, and different (colorful) minerals leached in. The softer center washed away, exposing the layered sandstone walls. The result is an 800 foot deep red rock canyon.

We discovered Palo Duro on the web a few days before we began the 1000-mile drive to Illinois. Since the state park’s online reservation system showed no vacancies, I decided to try it the old-fashioned way, and gave them a call. Turned out there was a spot open the Friday we were arriving, but not the next night. So I took it.

Driving Down
It’s pretty easy to drive a small RV down the inside lane into a canyon, even with the occasional distracting ‘oh, wow, look at that!’ moments. Palo Duro’s entry station fortified us with a large map and some trail suggestions after our site assignment in the Mesquite Campground. As we drove around the canyon bottom, we were impressed by the sparkling newness of the facilities against the ancient exposed red rock.

Texas horned lizard at Palo Duro Canyon

Texas horned lizard

Strange Wildlife
At dinner, just before we ate our charcoal-grilled steak, something seemed to move over on the trail. Its camouflage was so good it took me a little while to locate it, but I’d spotted a Texas horned lizard. These guys puff up and squirt blood from their eyes and mouth when they’re threatened, but are pretty docile in spite of their scary appearance. I didn’t see any blood squirts, but I did get a few pictures.

Unofficial trailhead, Palo Duro Canyon

The unofficial trailhead

Our campsite happened to straddle the start of an unofficial trail that wound its way up the north side of the canyon. After watching a few people make their way up and down it, we decided to start our own hike early enough for sunrise light.

Walking the trail, Palo Duro Canyon

Up the trail

Hike It Early for Best Light
The next morning, we hiked that trail up the vaguely southwest-facing wall of the canyon. I knew this would put some features in shadow. But there were enough fingers with sunrise-facing walls to catch the warm light. Good shot design gave me more “near and far” compositions to lead a viewer’s eye around the picture.

We’d seen some hikers take their Labrador retriever up the trail the previous evening. The pup had made it, but we could see parts of the trail that looked narrowly sketchy. So we left our two dogs in the RV. It’s a good thing we did.

The ascent was a relatively easy scramble until about two thirds of the way up. I reached a ledge that at first looked like a 5 foot stretch. No way would our dogs have made it up that.

5 foot + climb, Palo Duro Canyon

The ledge

I haven’t rock-climbed in several years, and was never more than a novice. But I tried to look at it with a climber’s eye. When I thought I had a way up, I threw my cameras gently to the top of the ledge, and thought, “I’d better get up there.” Fortunately, my sequence of hand- and foot-holds got me up, and I continued on. My wife opted to stay where she was and watch me.

That was probably the smartest approach. But I was bound and determined to go higher.

Scrub or Boulders?
I hiked up a bit more, but getting to the top started to look pretty sketchy. So I decided to push ahead to a (hopefully) obvious place to head down.

The bench - heading down, Palo Duro Canyon

The bench – heading down?

I hiked what at first looked like a continuous bench. It shortly became discontinuous, and intensely rugged. The canyon edge seemed to slope down gradually where I’d ended up, so I decided to go down. Faced with descending through dense scrubby forest or a boulder-filled chute, I chose the chute. I’d hiked down the rocky escarpment at Petroglyph National Monument’s Mesa Prieta several times. How much harder could this be?

The (easy) way down? - Palo Duro Canyon

Through the chute – The easy way down?

Carefully Through the Rocks
It turned out to be much harder, mostly because it was longer. I made my way around or over several large red sandstone chunks, testament to the silent power of water to crack them off and tumble them down. I felt my own fragility – especially after contouring through them for a couple hours.

Prickly pear trail hazard

Prickly pear trail hazard

Avoiding spines from prickly pear and other cacti made it more challenging, especially when they were growing across the easiest way down. After awhile my legs began to shake with fatigue, and I started looking for easier routes through the rocks. Fortunately, hazards were decreasing in the ravine I ended up in. A couple mountain bikers and I mutually startled each other – they were on the bench above me. That was my clue I was close to the bottom.



Over the rocks …more like the hard way down

After breaking out onto the road, I arrived back at our RV – almost five hours after starting out. My wife had been a bit worried after not hearing from me and not knowing how long it would take me. After feeding our dogs and driving out of the canyon, we discovered the RV campground we’d counted on had gone out of business. There were other places to stay in Amarillo, but we decided to drive on to Elk City, Oklahoma.

Prarie BOMB! stout

Prarie BOMB! – you can tell I hated it…

It’s a good thing we did – I got to discover Prairie Artisan Ales’ BOMB!, a thick double imperial stout aged on coffee, chocolate, vanilla beans, and ancho chili peppers. I highly recommend the Prairie Fire brewpub in Elk City, and this beer. It’s a nice balance of coffee, chocolate and heat from the peppers. Just be sure someone else is driving if you plan on having more than one. At 13% ABV, you may not be walking out of there.

Shot Notes
Except for the Texas horned lizard and the Prairie BOMB! beer, I shot everything you see here with a Canon EOS 5D mk II and 24-70mm f/2.8L. On the trail I carried only that combination and a Fuji X-E2 with Canon FD 100-300mm f/5.6L, but the Fuji and long zoom spent most of the time in a holster case as I made my way through the rock-filled ravine. I don’t usually use the ‘normal’ focal lengths around 50mm, and most of the shots were made near either the 24mm or 70mm ends of the range. Since most of these were near-and-far landscapes, I stopped down for depth of field.

More Information
1. The Geologic Story of Palo Duro Canyon, accessed from www.lib.utexas.edu/books/landscapes/publications/txu-oclc-191416/txu-oclc-191416.pdf
2. Texas horned lizard, accessed from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_horned_lizard
3. Palo Duro Canyon State Park Campsites, accessed from tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon/fees-facilities/campsites
4. Palo Duro Canyon State Park Trails Map, accessed from tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/park_maps/pwd_mp_p4506_0007p.pdf
5. BOMB! accessed from prairieales.com/index.php/bomb/

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