For our second hike at Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas, we zeroed in on what the March 2017 Backpacker article had said about the big views available from Fortress Rim on the east side of the canyon. The Rim is 800 feet above the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and from it you can see up and down almost the entire canyon. Unlike yesterday, with its constantly shifting mix of clouds and sun, today was utterly cloudless and clear. It was even a little cooler and less humid than the day before – perfect weather for taking in expansive views from the Rim.
Access to the Rim is via the well-graded Rock Garden Trail, which starts off through a jumble of boulders which are actually giant pieces of caprock that have broken off from the rim above.
The trail climbs only about 700 feet in 2.4 miles, so there are several sections where we were just strolling along through the still green vegetation. One assumes that summer will soon dry all this veg to brown twigs.
We could see a prominent “prow” jutting out from the rim above. It’s not shown or named on the old USGS map for this area, but it’s local name seems to be Fortress Cliff.
The Rock Garden Trail climbs up to 3,200 feet and then contours along the top of a hard rock layer.
From here we had a great, wide view to the northwest out over Palo Duro Canyon.
Soon we dropped briefly into an intermittant drainage where the brush was a little thicker and moister,
and where we had one of our few encounters with that special wildlife with rattles on one end and fangs on the other. No one wanted a confrontation, so we stopped dead (metaphor here) in our tracks, and waited as four feet of rattler crossed the trail and disappeared into the brush.
After breathing resumed and we got moving again, it was a short climb up,
to where we could see the sweep of the caprock that forms the Fortress Rim.
Up to this point, there had been trail markers every 0.1 mile telling us we were still on the Rock Garden Trail. But when we got to a three-way intersection at the top of the rim, there was no further signage and no indication of where the Rylander Fortress Cliff Trail might be. According to the park map, this trail was supposed to run along the mesa back from the rim, with spur trails going out to selected viewpoints. What we found was an unsigned, but pretty obvious, use trail going northwest right along the edge of the rim. So we followed that trail as it wound along the rim through scrub oak and grasslands.
Views out over the canyon and beyond where massively impressive from every foot of this trail. Views and more views. Continuous views!
There was a stiff breeze blowing over the rim and this provided a nice respite from what was working it’s way toward a hot day. We took a break here, snacked, and pondered our next move.
The March 2017 Backpacker article had suggested visiting the slot canyon at Duck Pond Spur which, according to the park map, was in the other direction from that three-way junction where the Rock Garden Trail reached the rim. So back we went to that junction and then east and up along what was marked once (back from the rim) as a continuation of the Rock Garden Trail. We soon reached an old two-track road, both tracks of which seemed to be serving as hiking use trails.
We followed this road along the boundary fence to where another old road angled off to the left (east). This one soon started steeply down a spur ridge into Tub Springs Draw. Below we could see a stock pond which we thought might indicate Tub Springs; the slot canyon was supposedly beyond that.
But by this time the day had heated-up considerably and the idea of a shadeless climb back out of the draw simply didn’t appeal, so we called the hike here and headed back. Along the way, we had a brief encounter with a much more approachable species of reptile,
and one of those wandering-in-the-desert visions that commanded us to go hence and refresh our dehydrated spirits at the closest craft brewpub.
All of our wanderings amounted to 8.8 miles with about 700 feet of elevation gain – a small caloric price to pay for the amazing views from the rim! We’re thinking that the Rylander Fortress Cliff Trail – while shown on the map – is still something of a work-in-progress on the ground and that a fully delineated trail with signage is somewhere in the future. It will make a nice addition to the park’s trail system when it arrives.