If you’ve driven across the Texas Panhandle and found it flat and boring, you need to go to Palo Duro Canyon and re-evaluate. My sister Julie and her husband Don raved about it many years ago, but Ruth & I didn’t make it there until winter, 2014. The day we planned to explore it, the temperature rose to 10º and ice fell steadily. The next day, however, the sun came out, the temp slowly climbed above freezing by late morning, and we were able to see Palo Duro’s snow dappled vistas.
Palo Duro is the 2nd largest canyon in the United States. It was formed almost a million years ago when the Red River’s Prairie Dog Town Fork was a raging torrent. The Grand one is 277 miles long, obscenely colorful, and 6,000 feet deep in places. Palo Duro is about 120 miles long, colorful in a slightly more muted way (at least in winter), and 600 to 800 feet deep. Its name means hard wood in Spanish, and its most abundant trees are juniper and mesquite.
Before we descended from Palo Duro’s rim to its floor, we stopped at its Visitor Center in the never completed El Coronado Lodge. Even though it’s a Texas State Park, the National Park Service declared it a work site during The Great Depression. Between 1933 and 1937, 6 companies of workers partially built the Lodge, put down much of today’s 16 miles of road, and created trails, 2 of which take healthy hikers from the rim to the floor when they’re not covered with ice. The Visitor Center looks like it hasn’t been updated since the workers left. It is however, fairly comprehensive and worthwhile if you long to see arrowheads, reptile bone fragments, fossilized dung, and Canyon flora like the weirdly tumescent Mexican Hat Prairie Coneflower. If you have several days and not much else to do, 2 hour long documentaries are viewable. The more interesting one contains scenes from Old Texas, a 1916 silent film produced by Charles Goodnight, the Ted Turner of the 19th century. Goodnight was an Army Scout and cattle trail blazer. His JA Ranch grew to 1.3+ million acres. When a young man, he smoked up to 50 cigars a day. He was, many say, the inspiration for a main character in Larry McMurtry’s epic Lonesome Dove.
Because of the weather, Ruth and I were virtually alone in Palo Duro Canyon, but it’s quite different in the summer when #2 is a magnet for campers, mountain bikers, etc. Many of them pack the Park’s amphitheater in the evening to thrill to TEXAS!, a dramatic musical during which actors on horses gallop full speed atop the rim with the Texas State Flag streaming behind them.