With so much to see and do in this Texas Panhandle city, you’ll want to rustle up time “” and appetite “” aplenty.
By Nancy Baren Miller, F176955
In 2003 True West magazine named Amarillo to its list of the Fifty Most Western Towns in the United States. Encompassing everything from Western heritage, horses, and cattle to big sky and lots of land, Amarillo is a worthy recipient of this designation.
Start your visit to this city at the American Quarter Horse Heritage Center and Museum. Through videos, artifacts, artwork, and hands-on displays, this facility showcases the history and modern activities of America’s most popular horse breed. It’s part of and located adjacent to the American Quarter Horse Association’s headquarters. With 335,000 members around the globe, the association is the world’s largest equine breed registry and recreational organization.
You’ll learn that quarter horses were first bred by colonists who imported English stallions and mares to Virginia and put them with horses of Spanish ancestry. In Colonial times, the steeds were frequently raced in quarter-mile matches. As the country moved west, so did the breed. Eventually they became the choice of cowboys on Southwestern ranches.
As you enter the museum, take time to notice the huge mural illustrating the versatility of this wonderful horse. Next, head to the Theater of America’s orientation show, which provides an overview of the breed’s development and history. A gallery celebrates the American quarter horse both on canvas and in bronze.
Upstairs in the Performance Gallery, learn how “America’s Horse” is part of everything from racing and rodeoing to ranching and showing. You’ll see the original starting gates used for the first All American Futurity, the American Quarter Horse Association’s richest event. The gallery’s Hall of Fame salutes the horses and people who helped make this breed so popular.
In the Recreation Gallery, visit the stable to see brief videos about buying, feeding, grooming, and more. Notice the full-size cutaway horse trailer that displays equipment used in shows by the American Quarter Horse Youth Association.
Spend time in the Heritage Gallery to learn about the breed’s history. Chronologically arranged exhibits trace the quarter horse’s development from Colonial through modern times. You’ll be able to inspect an actual equine skeleton and a vintage chuck wagon, as well as saddles and tack from the 16th century to today. Look for the saddles of former President Eisenhower and his grandson, David.
After touring the museum, weather permitting, you’ll have an opportunity to meet a real quarter horse during horsemanship programs in the arena. These programs are offered daily during the summer and occasionally at other times of the year. Call the museum to learn whether any events are taking place during your stay. An option is to spend time in the facility’s extensive research library.
From September through May, the museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; from Memorial Day to Labor Day, it’s also open on Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $3.50 for seniors 55 and over, $2.50 for children ages 6 to 18, and free for children 5 and under. Call (888) 209-8322 or (806) 376-5181; or visit www.imh.org/imh/qhm/qhhome.html for more information.
For a different type of ranch experience, head for the Cadillac Ranch, located between exits 60 and 62 on Interstate 40. The ranch is the home of 10 graffiti-covered Cadillacs, model years 1949 to 1963, buried nose-down in a field. Visitors are welcome to add their own favorite paint color or design to the sprouting vehicles. These cars represent the “Automobile Golden Age” when Americans believed that “bigger was better” and Cadillacs in particular represented wealth and prestige. It’s quite a bumper crop, and admission is free.
Another free diversion is the Amarillo Livestock Auction, one of the state’s largest, which takes place every Tuesday starting at 9:00 a.m. More than 30 percent of the United States’ cattle pass through Amarillo area feedlots each year. You don’t have to buy a bovine to attend. The arena is located at 100 S. Manhattan St., next to the Stockyard Café, which serves breakfast and lunch.
Amarillo’s most renowned place to tie on the feedbag is The Big Texan Steak Ranch, a steakhouse thriving on excellent eats, Old West atmosphere, and entertainment. It has become famous for serving a free 72-ounce steak dinner to any visitor who can devour the meal within one hour. The gastronomical adventurer also has to consume a shrimp cocktail, a salad, a baked potato, and a dinner roll. The dinner costs $50 for contestants only (if they cannot finish it, that is). Almost 30,000 people have taken the challenge since 1960 when Big Texan founder R.J. Lee made his first offer. Nearly 5,000 people have succeeded. Not that hungry? You’ll find many other choices on the menu.
Family entertainment is part of the fun also. You can try your skill at the Arcade and Shootin’ Gallery. Each evening the Big Texan House Band serenades patrons in the main dining room. For most of the year on Tuesday evenings, the restaurant treats diners to a free performance of the Big Texan Opry. The show plays in the Big Texan Cowboy Palace during the summer season. From June through September on Thursday and Friday evenings, Cowboy Palace presents a variety of other concerts.
The Big Texan is located east of Amarillo off the I-40 Lakeside exit. Visit www.bigtexan.com or phone (800) 657-7177 for more information.
Take a 15-minute drive from Amarillo to the town of Canyon, home of West Texas A&M University. On campus you’ll discover the largest history museum in Texas. With a collection of more than 2 million artifacts enclosed in less than 200,000 square feet, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum has been nicknamed “The Smithsonian of the West.” Its focus is on the history of the Panhandle Plains, featuring everything from prehistoric fossils to 20th-century automobiles.
It’s like five museums in one, with entire sections dedicated to petroleum, Western heritage, paleontology, transportation, and art. What makes it fascinating for visitors is that they can delve into as many details about a subject as they like. They can read only the large signs; flip through books at the various exhibits; or, in some cases, browse through drawers or watch videos to learn more.
The journey begins at Pioneer Hall, where visitors are introduced to the museum through such exhibits as a bison; a stagecoach; and a 1909 Ford Model A with the serial number 28, the oldest known assembly-line automobile in the world. The room’s beautiful murals foreshadow your visit.
On this floor, you will find the temporary exhibit “Let the Good Times Roll.” The latest installment was scheduled to open November 19 and focus on cars from the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society. The oldest known automobile associated with the town of Canyon, a 1910 Zimmerman, is part of the lineup, as is a 1915 Detroit Electric sedan and a 1930 Buick coupe.
The museum focuses on lifestyles in an exhibit titled “People of the Plains: Experiments in Living.” It compares and contrasts how this area’s residents, from prehistoric man to modern cowboys, have solved their need for water, food, shelter, clothing, trade, and transportation over thousands of years.
The museum’s first floor is the place to travel through Pioneer Town, a re-creation of a late-1800s Panhandle town, complete with a Sears catalog home. The paleontology exhibit features a life-size meat-eating Allosaurus cast and examples of a ground sloth, a saber-toothed tiger, and a mastodon. You’ll also find a superb panorama of Palo Duro Canyon, which should be your next stop.
On the second floor, massive petroleum exhibits relate the oil boom years in Texas. A look at life in Borger, a Panhandle oil town, is illustrated through film and photographs. A 1930s filling station boasts hand-operated gas pumps, a vintage gas truck, and two Ford Model Ts.
The museum also contains antique textiles and historical furniture, as well as an extensive collection of firearms, carriages, and buggies. Western and Southwestern art is shown in five galleries; of these, the Texas gallery features the only permanent display of Texas art in the state. Look carefully and you’ll spot an early Georgia O’Keeffe painting of Palo Duro Canyon. Ms. O’Keeffe once taught art at West Texas State Normal School (now known as West Texas A&M University).
You may find that you’ll want to spend an entire day at this museum. It has a good-sized gift shop but no restaurant or snack bar. However, several fast-food eateries and cafes are within walking distance.
The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is open daily (closed on major holidays). Admission is $4 for adults and children age 13 and over, $3 for seniors over 65, and $1 for children 4 to 12. The museum is located at 2503 Fourth Ave. in Canyon, one block east of U.S. 87. For more information, phone (806) 651-2244 or visit www.panhandleplains.org.
From the town of Canyon it’s a short drive to the “Grand Canyon of Texas” “” Palo Duro Canyon State Park. With a length of 120 miles, depths varying from 800 to 1,000 feet, and widths ranging from 1/2-mile to 20 miles, it ranks as the second-largest canyon in the United States (the Grand Canyon tops the list). Palo Duro was formed less than 1 million years ago when the Red River carved its way through the Southern High Plains. The exposed rocks tell a geological story that spans approximately 250 million years.
Visitors will see a variety of wildflowers and trees. Wildlife ranges from cottontail rabbits and mule deer to aoudad sheep (wild bovines closely related to goats and sheep), bobcats, and coyotes.
Bird-watching is a popular park activity, too, with possible sightings of wild turkeys, roadrunners, painted buntings, canyon wrens, and red-tailed hawks.
A visitors center offers information about the park’s natural history and geology. It’s also the place to see videos depicting the human history that took place here. Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado may have been the first European to visit Palo Duro Canyon. American Indian tribes included the Kiowas, Comanches, and Cheyennes.
On September 28, 1874, during the Red River Wars, Colonel Ranald Mackenzie and the 4th Calvary led the fight against the Kiowas as well as the last major Comanche chief, Quanah Parker, and his tribe. The troops forced them to a reservation in Oklahoma by capturing 1,400 of their horses and burning their teepees and winter stores.
In 1876 Charles Goodnight opened the J.A. Ranch, the first in the Panhandle. By 1885 the ranch reached its peak, supporting more than 100,000 cattle on more than 1,325,000 acres. It occupied much of the canyon.
This state park offers much to see and do. Explore miles of trails on foot, mountain bike, or horseback. You can rent horses at the park’s Old West Stables or take wagon rides from this site. Once or twice a week throughout the year, the Lone Star Interpretive Theater offers programs. Camping with electrical hookups is available, and picnic tables are located at several sites.
Take time to drive the park’s 16-mile road, stopping frequently to observe and photograph the many beautiful rock formations. The vivid lavenders, yellows, reds, and whites of the “Spanish Skirts” rock formation catch everyone’s attention. The park’s trademark is the “Lighthouse,” a 300-foot pedestal rock. It can be viewed from the visitors center but is best seen by hiking a 5.7-mile trail. Other stops of note include Goodnight’s dugout, similar to the one he inhabited while establishing the J.A. Ranch, and the battle site historical marker.
Every day except Sunday from June through mid-August, an outdoor drama called “Texas Legacies” is performed in the park’s Pioneer Amphitheater. It traces the life of Colonel John Gray, a typical Texas settler, as he encounters historical figures such as Parker, Mackenzie, and Goodnight, as well as some fictional characters. It relates his struggles, defeats, and victories. Music is performed live, and special effects include a snowstorm, a lightning strike, a Civil War battle, and end-of-the-show fireworks. But perhaps the most intriguing is that the script is being presented in five chapters, each running for two years. That means whole new scripts, staging, and sets are used every two years. In 2005, Chapter Two begins.
On Sundays during the summer season of 2004 (2005 season information was not yet available as of this writing), the theater presented a play titled “Phil Price’s Heavenly Country,” a show about a New York fine arts critic with a dislike for country music.
Barbecue dinners starting at 6:00 p.m. precede the “Texas Legacies” performances, which start promptly at 8:30 p.m. Reservations are suggested for the dinners and shows. Call (806) 655-2181 for reservations or information about the 2005 drama season or visit www.epictexas.com.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park charges a daily entrance fee of $3 per person; children 12 and under are admitted free. As of 2004, campsites with electrical hookups were $15 per night; phone (512) 389-8900 for camping reservations. For general park information, phone (806) 488-2227 or visit www.palodurocanyon.com.
An alternative to driving through Palo Duro Canyon is taking a jeep tour. These excursions are offered year-round (weather permitting) by Elkins Ranch, located at the entrance to the state park. Your tour guide will inform you about the canyon’s geology and ecology, and relate stories of those who lived in the canyon. It’s also an excellent opportunity to see wildlife in their natural habitat. Tours range from 45 minutes to 2½ hours. The ranch also offers chuck wagon breakfasts and chuck wagon suppers, along with entertainment. Phone (806) 488-2100 or visit www.theelkinsranch.com for more information.
The Cowboy Morning Figure 3 Ranch also provides canyon tours and breakfasts, as well as “Cowboy Evening” tours that feature a steak dinner. A “Cowboy Lunch” is available on request. For more information, contact Cowboy Morning Figure 3 Ranch at (800) 658-2613 or visit www.cowboymorning.com.
If these attractions aren’t enough, most of the annual events in Amarillo have a Western theme, too. They include rodeos, horse championships, steer roping, and chuck wagon cookoffs, among others. A list of events is available from the Amarillo Convention & Visitor Council.
Yes, get to know Amarillo. In only a few days, you’ll discover for yourself why it’s called one of the “most Western” towns in the United States.
Amarillo Convention & Visitor Council
1000 S. Polk St.
Amarillo, TX 79101
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory, which is available online at www.fmca.com and in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching.
Amarillo KOA, C7066
Amarillo, TX 79108
(800) 562-3431 (reservations)
Amarillo Ranch RV Park
1414 Sunrise Drive
Amarillo, TX 79104
(888) 244-7447 (reservations)
Overnite RV Park, C7231
900 S. Lakeside Drive
Amarillo, TX 79118
(800) 554-5305 (reservations)
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Highway 217 E.
Canyon, TX 79016
(512) 389-8900 (reservations)
Palo Duro RV Park
5707 Fourth Ave.
Canyon, TX 79015
(800) 304-8700 (reservations)