You may already know that Texas is home to the second-largest canyon in the country, but did you know that canyon is home to one of America’s top state parks? Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located about 30 miles from Amarillo in the Panhandle Plains region of Texas. This historic park was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and most of the original CCC structures, bridges, and trails are still in use today. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, people have inhabited the canyon for at least 12,000 years. Native Americans used the canyon, which I’m sure comes as no surprise, but Palo Duro also holds the distinction of the location where one of the last significant battles between native tribes and the US Army took place. Following that battle, cattle ranching took over the canyon where many ranching practices were created that are still used today. The chuckwagon was invented there, which made the first cattle drives possible. Did I mention this place is historic? Palo Duro Canyon State Park has been on my Texas bucket list for quite some time. We got to check it off this summer and I’m going to share with you what we loved about the park and what we learned during the 4 days we got to spend there.
Where We Stayed
You can certainly go to Palo Duro Canyon State Park for just a day visit. If all you had time to do was take a drive through the park just to see the canyon, I would say take the drive. But with over 28,000 acres of rugged beauty and miles upon miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian trials, there’s just too much exploring to be done in this state park to do it all in one day. Plan to stay awhile. Like most state parks, RV and tent campsites are plentiful. They also have equestrian campsites for those traveling with their horse. And recently they began offering glamping accommodations. But if you’re really into the history of the park (like I am) you should try to reserve one of the original CCC cabins. There are 3 cabins on the rim of the canyon and 4 cabins on the canyon floor. The rim cabins have panoramic views of the canyon and a few modern amenities that were later added. The cabins on the canyon floor are a bit more primitive with no bathroom, but facilities are within a short walk.
We stayed on the rim of the canyon in the Goodnight Cabin (named for Charles Goodnight) pictured above and in the gallery directly below. And let me tell you, our stay in that cabin felt like we were living in a fairytale. It almost seemed as though the cabin was just carved out of the side of the canyon. One hallmark of CCC construction is utilizing materials found on site and building their structures in ways that blend into their environments without taking away from the beautiful views. And those views! I would be lying if I told you I didn’t spend hours gazing at that view during our stay. The rim cabins sleep 4 and have full bathrooms, a mini fridge, microwave, coffee maker, central heat/AC, fireplace, outdoor grill and picnic table. You should know that if you want to stay in one of these cabins you need to plan ahead and book early. Up to 5 months in advance in most cases. But if you can secure a reservation you should do it!
Reservations for either day use or overnight stays at Palo Duro Canyon State Park can be made online.
What We Did in the Park
Palo Duro is a hiker & biker’s paradise. With more than 30 miles of incredible trails to suit all skill levels, you’re sure to find a trail to conquer. Our family really enjoys hiking and biking and we were excited to do both on our trip to the canyon. We brought our bikes with us and fully intended on getting a few miles on the trails, but a popped front tire on Taylor’s bike took those plans off our agenda.
So with biking no longer an option, we set our sights to one of the most popular hikes the park has to offer. The trail that leads to the most recognizable formation in the park, the Lighthouse Trail. This trail is 5.5 miles round trip and not very difficult, but if you visit in the summer like we did you really have to take some precautions to ensure a smooth and safe hike, especially with little ones. Even with the precautions we took, it still wasn’t totally “easy” for our girls, but they pushed through and made me so incredibly proud that day! Thankfully we had our GoPro with us to capture this video of the hike.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park also has equestrian trials and as I already mentioned, they have equestrian campsites. For those of us who don’t travel with horses but would still like to experience a Palo Duro trail ride, there is Old West Stables located on the canyon floor. This was Christine’s favorite activity of the entire trip. She loves horses. The trial ride was easy and lasted about an hour ending at just the right time to go have lunch at The Trading Post, which is also on the canyon floor. Both of which I highly recommend.
Another activity worth mentioning is the Texas Musical which has run each summer since the 1960s in the Pioneer Theater on the canyon floor. The Texas Musical was something we really wanted to see, but the 2020 season was cancelled due to the pandemic. If we ever get a chance to go back during the summer we will definitely try to see it.
What We Did Outside the Park
As much as there is to do inside the park, there’s plenty to do outside of it as well. Just before you reach the entrance of the park you will find Palo Duro Canyon Adventure Park where you can zip line between a few towers as well as a really long zip line across a small canyon. If you’ve been following along on Instagram you would know Taylor’s the daredevil in the family and it would not surprise you that zip lining was her favorite activity of our trip. By the last zip she was showing off and flipping herself upside down. She would have zipped all day long if we would have let her. Next we went super road trip touristy and visited the Cadillac Ranch to make our mark. And although the kids didn’t really appreciate it as much as mom and dad did, we made sure to check out the roadside arrows in the area that honor the important spots on the Quanah Parker Trail. Did I mention I really love the history of this area?
Another activity we saw near the park that looked fun but we didn’t try was jeep tours. And there are several museums in Amarillo that looked interesting, but with the pandemic, we chose to not visit.
What We Learned
Palo Duro Canyon is a place that commands respect. If you don’t keep certain things in mind like the temperature and weather, you’re really putting your safety at risk. I’m really thankful that I follow the park’s Instagram account because they frequently post safety tips to consider in the park. It’s for that reason that in the months leading up to our trip I purchased several items that made our hike to the Lighthouse possible. Here’s what else we learned during our stay that I think will help you in your future visit.
- Make sure you have the right gear. Especially if you’re hiking and biking. A good pair of hiking boots & the right socks are almost a must for most of the trails, but good sturdy closed toe footwear is an absolute necessity if you don’t have actual hiking boots. Some trails are so rugged that trekking poles are very helpful. And never head out on a trail without protection from the sun and proper hydration.
- It’s hot in the canyon. The temperature on the canyon floor can reach 120 degrees with a ground temperature closer to 175 degrees! Plan your activities early and know your limits. When we hiked to the Lighthouse we hit the trail before dawn because we knew the hike would take us a few hours. I’m so glad we did because it was almost high noon when we were done. Setting out early and having the proper gear to combat the heat and keep us hydrated were what helped us complete that hike safely. The park frequently has to make rescues and sometimes even recoveries that are often related to heat and dehydration. So plan your activities early, know your limits, and properly hydrate so you can handle the canyon heat.
- Never take your eyes off the canyon. I mean that literally and metaphorically. Literally, as in take every opportunity to gaze at the beauty of the canyon. There are tons of scenic overlooks and other spots in the canyon where the views are simply breathtaking, so spend some time taking it all in. Metaphorically speaking, never take your eyes off the canyon because this place is wild and you should always watch where you step. Outside our cabin we saw dozens of centipedes, a black widow spider, and a little baby snake which I wasn’t able to identify but I’m fairly certain was venomous. You should consider wearing sturdy close-toe footwear in most parts of the park. But just stay on the trails and watch where you step and you should be fine.
I hope this helps you plan your trip to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Send us an email if you have a great memory there or if you discover an activity that we should try. And follow us on Instagram for more adventures.
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