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The Gradn Canyon Of Texas

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Towering Mountains & Rushing Rivers: Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Holding Over 15,000 Acres Of Land For Exploration And Reminiscing On The 240 Million Years Of History That Created The Canyon 

The Beautiful Palo Duro Canyon State Park [Courtesy/Palo Duro Canyon State Park]

The most dominant aspect of any place in the west is the sky.  As Georgia O’Keefe said in a letter,” and the SKY… you have never seen the SKY, it is wonderful.”  The next tier of drama in the west is, without a doubt, the landscape.  Towering mountains, rushing rivers, and astounding caprocks.  The most popular display, with good reason, is the Grand Canyon, though there is another canyon system that is overlooked by many, a canyon that is near a road traveled by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, every year.  Right off of Interstate 40, in the Texas Panhandle, lies the second largest canyon in the United States, the “Grand Canyon of Texas” - Palo Duro Canyon.  

Though much of the canyon is in private hands, Palo Duro Canyon State Park holds over 15,000 acres of the system for exploration and reminiscing on the 240 million years of history that created the canyon.  Included in that land is an amphitheatre, which showcases the musical Texas in the Summer, and 30 miles worth of trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.  Before getting into that, let’s start with the history.

Palo Duro is a popular place for archaeologists and geologists as the park has rocks that represent four geological eras and fossils from long-extinct animals.  “The phytosaur is found throughout the park,” says Jeff Davis, park interpreter and volunteer coordinator, “you find their teeth a lot.”  The phytosaur is a crocodile-like reptile that lived over 210 million years ago.  The slot canyons and cap rocks, formed by the famous wind of the plains and flash floods from the rain, are numerous and rival the best one could find in the canyonlands of Arizona and Utah.  

The Cow Camp Cabin [Courtesy/Palo Duro Canyon State Park]
Turkeys As Seen At The Park [Courtesy/Palo Duro Canyon State Park]

The first known human inhabitants are from 10,000-5,000 B.C.  “They were Clovis Paleo-Indians from at least 12,000 years ago,” Davis says, “they were nomadic and hunted giant bison and mammoth.”  It has been a popular attraction ever since, relatively speaking, due to the “availability of wood, water, game, edible wild plants, raw materials for weapons and tools, and shelter from harsh winter winds,” according to the Texas State Historical Association.  The first Europeans were probably from the Coronado Expedition camping on the way to the distant lands filled with gold and treasures.  Fast forward a few hundred years and the famous Charles Goodnight set up his JA ranch in the canyon.  

Of all the famous people from the panhandle and Palo Duro, Charles Goodnight, along with perhaps Bob Wills, stands out as the most influential.  Known as the father of the panhandle, he was a rancher who moved from Illinois to be in the west and set up one of the biggest ranching operations in history.  In fact he, along with others, invented the ranching industry.  Goodnight led an interesting life, which historians and novelists alike keep alive in the present.  In Larry McMurtry’s famous Lonesome Dove, Goodnight is represented by the character Woodrow McCall.  Goodnight and his friend, Oliver Loving, drove cattle upward from the panhandle and Loving, who was represented by Gus in Lonesome Dove, was attacked and mortally wounded by Indians on one of the cattle drives.  Goodnight took Loving’s body back with him to Texas, like McCall does for Gus, to be buried.  Deets, the African-American cowboy played by Danny Glover in the mini-series, is based on Bose Ikard, Goodnight’s right hand man, a man he “trusted farther than any living man.”  

White Tail Deer At The Park [Courtesy/Palo Duro Canyon State Park]
Prairie Dog Town Fork Of The Red River [Courtesy/Palo Duro Canyon State Park]
Hiking At Palo Duro Canyon [Courtesy/Palo Duro Canyon State Park]

Goodnight and John Adair, a Irish rancher, set up the JA ranch in Palo Duro, which is still run by the descendants of Adair (Goodnight did not have any children).  “They used to lower supplies down the canyon walls via ropes,” Daivs says.  At it’s peak, the ranch was over 1.3 million acres, with land bought in the late 1800s for 75 cents an acre.  Adair was also an interesting character.  A wealth Irishman, Adair built a castle in the likeness of his castle back in Ireland.  While looking out from his castle, Adair couldn’t stand the sight of the normal homes in the distance so “he hired people to evict all the residents near him,” Adair says, “then they bashed in the roofs of the homes so people wouldn’t be able to move back in.”

The people are not as mean and the land is not as cheap and, because of places like the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, mainly not for sale so all who come can enjoy the beauty of the canyon.  It is a place, like many places in the west, that needs to be seen to be believed.  Michael Grauer, curator of Panhandle-Plains Historical museum, as quoted by Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine, states when speaking of painters of the canyon, “it is not a place for beginners….the colors and landforms in the West could not exist” in traditional paintings.  And, thus, it has to be seen in person.  

From the 50s-90s the Sad Monkey Railroad, named after a cliff face that looks like a grumpy monkey, operated on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon in the park.  Here, park rangers were able to take excited visitors on an informational ride discussing rock structures and fauna through three miles of the park.  Unfortunately closed due to “it needing repair and the park not having enough money,” Davis says, visitors must utilize other ways to see the park.  

Luckily there are many.  One can explore on horseback, mountain bike, or on foot winding up and down the canyon.  Davis’ favorite is hiking.  “I’m a hiker.  You see all sorts of animals like deer, turkey, roadrunners, and more.”  For the less adventurous, there is an amphitheatre for performances, plus many of places to park and take in the cliff-structures, like the famous “lighthouse,” and enjoy this truly grand and magnificent canyon: The Grand Canyon of Texas.  


Andrew Malo

A graduate of Northeastern Illinois University in Education, Andrew has taught for the past decade in Chicago, New Mexico, and Japan.  He  enjoys tinkering with trucks and motorcycles, woodworking, reading and computer programming. 

Palo Duro RV Park

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Palo Duro RV Park, here to serve all vacation needs. Over the years they have taken guests away from the stress of everyday life and created a relaxing and fun respite. They are there to serve and guide tourists to the many attractions in the area.


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