Known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest Canyon in the United States, and offers amazing scenery, wildlife, hiking and biking trails as well as an incredible glance back in time when Texas was truly wild!
Check out my Mommy Tips for making the most of your visit to this amazing place!
Before You Go
Be sure you have EVERYTHING you need before you go, including a full tank of gas.
Pack a lunch, and plenty of water. The Trading Post in the bottom of the canyon sells bread, drinks and “World Famous Burgers” I’m going to tell you I was a little skeptical.
The closest town is Canyon, about 12 miles away. They have numerous restaurants, stores and even a Walmart for any last-minute necessities.
The Pay Station at the front of the park gets very busy during the summer, and on weekends. If you can, park and go inside, especially if you have many questions. They will give you a map, and tell you the best places to hike and visit, depending on the amount of time you have in the park!
The Pay Station is one of the many buildings built in the park in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp.
The park offers FREE wi-fi, but we could only access it at the top of the canyon, near the pay station and visitors center. Down in the canyon, we didn’t even have cell phone service.
At the pay station, there are 3 Longhorns from the Texas state herd, T-Bone, Omelet and Brisket! The longhorns, whose descendants originally came from Spain and once roamed wild across Texas, have persevered thanks to the efforts of J. Frank Dobie, who donated a herd of the cattle to Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1942. Fort Griffin State Historical Site in Albany is now home to the official herd.
Your first stop after entering the park is the Scenic Overlook on the canyon rim! From here, you get an incredible view of the valley below, a perfect photo opportunity!
Hiking and Biking Trails
One of the oldest (and one of my favorite) Trail Heads is also at the top of the canyon rim, the CCC trail. It is rated difficult, at 1.43 miles, one way, and takes you down over 500 ft. to the canyon floor! The CCC used this trail to enter and exit the canyon while they were building the roads, and the trail crosses over several of the original CCC bridges.
There are numerous hiking, biking and equestrian trails throughout the park. The most famous is the Lighthouse Trail, named for the iconic stone feature that resembles a lighthouse.
The Paseo Del Rio Trail is an easy, 2 mile round trip.
Be sure to take plenty of water on your hike.
On the rim, there are 3 cabins with amazing views down into the canyon!
The Cow Camp Cabins are located down in the canyon. They are all situated together and would be great for a small family reunions or function.
Make reservations early for cabins, and campsites, especially for holiday weekends.
The El Coronado Lodge Visitors Center
Also located on the canyon rim is another CCC historic building, the Visitors Center, originally known as the El Coronado Lodge. It’s a must stop to learn more about and appreciate more fully the unique and dynamic history, geology, flora and fauna of the canyon! There is also a nice gift shop located inside.
Driving in the Canyon
During the drive down into the canyon, which is beautiful, a sign tells you to use a low gear. This means to switch to second gear just while driving downhill, and you can switch back once you reach the bottom.
Inside the park, there are over 16 miles of paved roads.
The State Park offers guided Van Tours of the Park. They are included with your park admission and they do not take reservations. At the time of our visit, they opened registration at 8am, and when I called at 8:05am, they were booked, so set an alarm!
There are several camping options in the park for both tent and RV camping, and also several cabins built by the CCC.
Unlike the Colorado River which runs through the Grand Canyon, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River is normally quite shallow and not suitable as a paddling trail. The red water is terribly messy and because of the elevation change, when it does rain, the water moves very quickly. We also weren’t able to find a good place to fish. It’s okay, because you could spend a year exploring the park and still not see it all.
So, what’s a vacation without taking the kids swimming? Visit the West Texas A&M’s Activity Center in nearby Canyon (12 miles), with an indoor recreational pool with a slide and lazy river. Click HERE to read more about it.
The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon
A historical marker at the end of the park will tell you an overview of the Red River Indian Wars and the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, but before you visit, I suggest you pick up a copy of Empire of the Summer Moon by S. E. Gwynne, which not only tells you a powerful story, but will also make you feel like you know the canyon before you even arrive!
The JA Ranch
The history of the Palo Duro Canyon continues with the formation of the J A Ranch in 1879 by Charles Goodnight, who rounded up wild Texas Longhorns to be contained in the walls of the canyon. The J A Ranch was over 1,336,000 acres (compared to the 800,00 King Ranch in South Texas or the 3,000,000 acres of the XIT Ranch to the west) and although much smaller today, is still a working ranch owned by one of Adair’s heirs.
Click HERE to read more about the J A Ranch.
Geology of the Canyon
The canyon walls expose over 250 million years of rock. My kids love the white gypsum found in layers in the red clay. While it’s fun to look at, remember you can’t take anything out of a state park, including rocks, plants and animals.
The Pioneer Amphitheater and Texas!
During the summer, the canyon is home to the largest outdoor musical, Texas! Get your tickets in advance.
Old West Stables
From March through October of each year, the Old West Stables does hour-long trail rides on the canyon floor. Make reservations in advance, as the rides fill up quickly.
The State Park only comprises a small portion of the Palo Duro Canyon. Okay, 26, 000 acres isn’t small, but the canyon is HUGE! Here are some of the other ways you can explore it!
More Things to do in Canyon
There’s a lot to do around Palo Duro Canyon State Park!
Panhandle Plains Museum is the largest historical museum in the state, and has so many amazing exhibits!
Just a few miles from the West Texas A&M Campus at 500 Twentieth is the previous home of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, while she was a professor at the then Texas Normal College from 1916-1918.
My husband and son had a blast with Prairie Bomb Outfitters Hunting Guides on a duck hunt just minutes from our AirBNB. I really love duck, and it was a great addition to our Thanksgiving dinner. They had originally planned a Sandhill Crane hunt, but the incoming cold front pushed the cranes out of the area. The numerous playas around Amarillo are a migration stop for thousands of ducks, geese and sandhill cranes each fall.
Palo Duro Stables has year round horseback riding in the canyon outside of the state park.
Palo Duro Zip Line offers zip lining, including moonlight and stargazer zip lining, an adventure park, and even repelling and bouldering climbing!!
The Palo Duro Ranch offers jeep and horseback riding in the canyon.
During our most recent visit over Thanksgiving Week, we stayed at an AirBNB in Canyon, 8 miles from the State Park. It was a great house, with 3 bedrooms/2 baths in a little neighborhood. While it wasn’t a great cabin overlooking the canyon, it was dog friendly and had a nicely laid out kitchen to cook almost all our meals, including Thanksgiving dinner.
Amarillo is about 20 minutes away, with restaurants, movies, Whataburger, Cadillac Ranch, The Big Texan Steakhouse, and we had a blast taking our jeep out to Lake Meredith National Recreation Area OHV trails!
Palo Duro State Park
11450 Park Road 5 Canyon, TX 79015
Click HERE to visit their website
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