Palo Duro Canyon is located in the West Texas Panhandle just east of Canyon and south of Amarillo. It’s the second-largest canyon in the United States – roughly 120 miles long, with an average width of 6 miles, and a depth of between 820 and 1,000 feet. It’s been called “The Grand Canyon of Texas” both for its size and for its dramatic geological features, including the multicolored layers of rock and steep mesa walls similar to those in the (real) Grand Canyon. Despite all this grandness, we’d never heard of it until the LovedOne stumbled upon it during one of her internet rambles. Backpacker magazine then ran a story on it in their March 2017 issue. Looked fascinating. So we made plans for a hiking roadtrip to go see it for ourselves.
After some blessedly uneventfully airplane and car travel, we arrived at Palo Duro Canyon State Park ($10/day entrance fee) on a warm, slightly humid, mixed clouds and sun kind of day. Lighthouse Peak is the park’s signature feature and it’s most popular trail, so we suspended free will and chose it as the destination for our first hike. We planned a loop out the Givens, Spicer & Lowry Trail to the Lighthouse Trail, then along that to the Lighthouse, then doubling back to the Paseo del Rio Trail, and taking that back to our car. These trails are well marked, with plenty of helpful signage.
We got our usual early start, which was good because afternoon temperatures were soaring into the high 80°Fs, which seemed really hot to us after a winter of wet gloom at home (it also allowed us to miss a lot of the other folks drawn to the Lighthouse). This was also the LovedOne’s first chance to try out her new ME2 pack, which is designed for people for whom shoulder straps can’t work. It performed brilliantly.
The park is characterized by stunningly bright red soil,
and banded redrock cliffs.
After almost three miles on the Givens et al. Trail, we passed through Cottonwood Flats,
where the cacti were flowering (and being seriously pollinated),
and where some of the other flowers had colors similar to those in the cliffs surrounding them.
We soon junctioned with the Lighthouse Trail and got a view of Lighthouse Peak ahead.
The official trail ends below the peak but, of course, there’s a very well worn use trail leading steeply up to it.
The use trail crests a rise that gave us a great view of the Lighthouse.
We worked our way up to and across the amazingly flat piece of erosion-resistant strata between the two peaks and then over for a look back between them.
We took a closer look at the peak itself and saw homemade anchor “bolts” (they looked like large nails driven through a chain link or two) running up a “crack” in its western face. Higher up, we could see a rappel and/or belay anchor. Having climbed our own share of consolidated mud passing as rock, we were impressed by the nerves required to climb this pinnacle. Yeeee Haw! On our way back, the sun came out more forcefully, which brought out the delightful range of colors in the cliffs.
The Lighthouse Trail goes to its own trailhead along the park’s main road, passing colorful Capitol Peak (with satellite hoodoo) along the way.
Once back at the road, we jogged a short ways north to connect with the Paseo del Rio Trail and followed that back to our car. This trail passes through some shady, cool groves of riparian trees, which were a welcome relief from what was (for us at least) becoming a hot, humid day.
Despite its name, this trail only comes close to the river – the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River – in a few places. Right now the river looked small and placid but, judging from the high water and flood signs set several feet ABOVE the main road, it’s quite capable of horrendous flash flows during the wet season.
All told, we did an 8 mile loop (with maybe 400 feet of elevation gain) through some of the prettiest country we’ve seen in a while. The colors in the cliffs were amazing, as were those in the wildflowers we saw along the trail. The Lighthouse is a striking feature well worth a visit. But an early start enabled us to beat the heat and most of the many other folks intent on visiting this landmark. Later, food and craft brews at the Imperial Taproom back in Canyon rounded-out a perfect day!