I owe big thanks to the rangers at Palo Duro Canyon for telling me about Caprock Canyons. This Texas State Park and Trailway north of the town of Quitaque is a 5 Compass experience.
CCSP resulted from land bought in 1975 to preserve some canyons on the edge of the Texas high plains. Although they are near the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon, Caprock Canyons is not part of it. Park Superintendent Donald Beard explained this to Ruth and me before telling us about its most interesting attraction, a bison herd.
Caprock teems with wildlife. In one short stretch of its paved road, we saw a javelina family, a prairie dog village, and mule deer. But no bison. The Park is also known for bobcats, grey foxes, more than 30 species of snakes, etc.
At road’s end we discovered an impressive canyon threaded with 4 trails for serious hikers. The descriptions of A,B.C, and D on our Park map often included the words steep and rugged, it was already mid-afternoon, and the day before we had been kept inside by an ice storm, so we didn’t hike. We also didn’t attempt to sample the Trailway, a 64-mile-long series of connected trails from South Plains to Estelline that follows an old railroad right-of-way. Texas Parks and Wildlife acquired this in 1992 and opened it to hikers, bikers, and horse riders the next year.
We headed back down to the Visitor Center and found the road to Lake Theo. Donald Beard told us that bison had been spotted near it. Ruth and I had been calling them buffalo until he told us they were both North American bison and descendants of the Goodnight herd. Buffalo live in Africa and Asia. Charles Goodnight, a legend in this part of Texas, once owned an area ranch totaling 1.2 million acres. We were soon thrillingly surrounded by Caprock Canyons’ shaggy herd that now numbered 85 with 25 pregnant cows. A new calf had been born 3 days previously.
There were, perhaps, 60 million bison in North America at the start of the 19th century. By 1895 there were only 541 left. Their slaughter peaked in 1878 and Mary Ann Goodnight encouraged her husband to start his own preserving herd, so Goodnight captured a few in the wild. By 1929 Charles and Mary Ann had grown their herd to about 250. Beginning in 1997 the 32 remaining descendants of their original bison were rounded up and moved to Caprock Canyons where they are now called the Official Texas State Bison Herd and number about 100. Total bison remain steady nationally at about 500,000 head and 90% are in private hands.
Like SUV’s on a busy parking lot, bison surrounded our car. Two days before a woman named Ann, who owns a ranch adjacent to Palo Duro, told us that she had ultimately decided not to adopt a bison herd threatened by drought because she feared they would jump her fences and wander into the Canyon. Thanks to a WARNING brochure, Ann, and Donald we now knew that bison are intelligent animals that can jump 6 foot fences, run up to 30 mph, and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. The brochure in my quaking hand said, “When bison become disturbed…they tend to hold their tails upward in a “question mark” shape”. We saw mild curiosity but no question marks. Nevertheless, we high-tailed it out of there.