Two state parks in the Lone Star State offer access to dramatic views and natural wonders.
By Donna Ikenberry
Texas is a big state with much to offer. It boasts 13 properties managed by the National Park Service, including two wonderful national parks: Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend. Plus, it has dozens of state parks. Two of my favorite state parks are Caprock Canyons and Palo Duro Canyon, both in the Texas Panhandle, southeast of Amarillo.
Caprock Canyons State Park And Trailway
I’ve been to Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway twice, and my second visit was quite mild in comparison to the first. During the first visit, a tornado warning was announced, and one of the park rangers told me to leave my RV for the safer confines of the rest room and shower building. I joined the only other campers in the park that evening, a couple who were camp hosting. We chatted about our travels while the storm passed to the north. After we said our good-byes, I returned to my RV to find it encased in a sheet of ice.
Caprock Canyons, located midway between Amarillo and Lubbock, is known for its extreme weather. The park is on the Caprock escarpment, a long, narrow, rocky formation with elevations as high ams 1,000 feet above the plains to the east. The higher plains of the Llano Estacado are to the west. Streams that feed the Red, Brazos, and Colorado rivers lace their way through the escarpment.
During our most recent visit, my husband and I explored the park’s bluffs and steep, colorful canyons, while searching for extraordinary scenes and abundant wildlife. We visited in May, and while we were hoping to see lots of wildflowers, a drought was occurring, so we didn’t see much in the way of those riches. However, we did find Engelmann’s daisies lining the roadways, and we are sure that the yuccas and cacti blossomed after our visit.
In addition to wildflowers, we search year-round for animal life, including mammals, birds, and reptiles, as well as insects. Caprock Canyons encompasses more than 15,000 acres and boasts a number of wildlife species. More than 12,000 years ago the region was home to the now-extinct woolly mammoth and giant bison. When the climate was cooler, it hosted camels and horses. Black bears and gray wolves roamed the area more recently, but people hunted them completely out of this region by the 1950s.
My husband and I searched for pronghorn; mule deer; white-tailed deer; coyotes; bobcats; gray foxes; raccoons; jackrabbits; and African aoudad sheep, an introduced species. We were fortunate to see a few bison, as most visitors do. Part of the Texas State Bison Herd, the woolly mammals roam in a semifree manner amid more than 700 acres near the park entrance.
As we hiked, I envisioned a time roughly 10,000 years ago when the region was inhabited by the Folsom culture. Items found in the park provide evidence that ancient peoples hunted the giant bison. You can explore the same area inhabited by earlier cultures via almost 90 miles of trails available to hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders.
While visiting Caprock, be sure to check out Caprock Canyons Trailway, a 64.25-mile stretch (between the towns of Estelline and South Plains) where tracks from a 1920s-era railroad once ran. In 1992 the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department received the track by donation, and the trailway opened in 1993 as part of the national Rails-to-Trails program.
The trailway crosses 46 railroad bridges, with the bridge spanning Los Lingos Creek being the most impressive. We enjoyed a morning ride on our mountain bikes to the 742-foot-long Clarity Tunnel. We chose it because it is one of the last remaining railroad tunnels in Texas. More importantly, it’s the summer home (April through October) for a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. Because the creatures are sensitive to traffic, noise, light, and humans, visitors must walk through the tunnel. More information can be found at park headquarters, three miles north of Quitaque.
RVers should note that grades can be steep in Caprock Canyons. In fact, trailers are not allowed past the Wild Horse Camping Area because of a 16 percent grade. The Wild Horse area consists of campsites with corrals, picnic tables, grills, and water for horses. Just before you reach it, you’ll find the tree-blessed Honey Flat Camping Area. Sites (some ADA) offer electric hookups, and other amenities include picnic tables, showers, water, flush toilets, and a dump station.
Palo Duro Canyon
Located approximately an hour and 35 minutes northwest of Caprock Canyons and much closer to Amarillo is another of my favorites, Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the United States. Though it’s not nearly as grand as the Grand Canyon most of us know of and love, it is 120 miles long, nearly 20 miles wide, and as much as 800 feet deep. Unlike the Grand Canyon, where access to the bottom is only by foot, mule, or raft, Palo Duro is accessible by RV.
The northernmost portion of the canyon, which includes the most scenic part as well, has been protected since July 4, 1934, when the state park officially opened. The nearly 30,000-acre park was mostly built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Young men and military veterans worked from 1933 until 1937 to develop road access to the canyon floor, as well as to construct the visitors center, cabins, shelters, and park headquarters.
We found Palo Duro Canyon State Park a definite must-visit for several reasons. First, it’s a wonderful place to view and photograph wildlife. Upon entering the park and looking for a campsite at the Hackberry Camp Area, I photographed a delightful golden-fronted woodpecker and a pair of wild turkeys. We knew right then that we needed to spend several days in the park.
In addition to wildlife, the park is a tree-filled landscape and a grand place to hike, mountain bike, or relax under the shade. Palo Duro, which means “hard wood” in Spanish, is what explorers called the tough juniper trees found here. Visitors also will encounter mesquite, cottonwood, salt cedar (an invasive introduced species), willow, hackberry, and western soapberry trees. Wildflowers and the blossoms of prickly pear cactus and yucca brighten the landscape, too.
Just as at Caprock Canyons, we missed wildflowers here because of the ongoing drought. Also, we were too early for one of the park highlights: the musical “TEXAS.” Each June, July, and August, the outdoor musical drama is presented in a natural amphitheater. For more information, call (806) 655-2181 or visit www.texas-show.com.
Canyons take millions of years to form, and Palo Duro, a National Natural Landmark, was no exception. A fork of the Red River eventually eroded 800 feet of rusty sandstone, pastel-colored mudstone, and milky gypsum. All these colors are revealed today, juxtaposed with the greens of trees.
Palo Duro saw human habitation for many years before Europeans arrived. Ancient treasures show that people have been living in the canyon and traveling through it for about 12,000 years. The Clovis and Folsom people were the first residents. Apache Indians lived there next; by 1874, Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne Indians resided there. That’s when the 4th U.S. Cavalry raided the canyon and killed several Indians. The rest fled back to the reservation at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, because food supplies and horses had been destroyed, and winter was coming.
RVers will find the park road paved, with access to several campgrounds. Trails are located near all of the camping areas, with most accessible by foot, horseback, and mountain bike. A few are recommended for mountain bikes only, and horses are prohibited on others.
Lighthouse Trail is the most popular path; it leads to a 310-foot-high rock formation called the Lighthouse.
We rode the Capitol Peak Mountain Bike Trail. Though the trail wasn’t well marked, we were able to find our way — and we discovered a western diamondback rattlesnake en route.
As you explore, be sure to keep an eye out for the endangered Texas horned lizard, the state reptile. Look for the palm-sized creatures in spring. You’ll most likely see them on warm days when the sun heats up their favorite food, harvester ants. Also look for another endangered species, the Palo Duro mouse, which is found only in the Red River canyon lands and not anywhere else. These secretive creatures emerge from their underground burrows and rock crevices mostly at night.
More abundant in this area are mule deer, cottontails, coyotes, African aoudad sheep, and bobcats. Bird species include roadrunners, wild turkeys, Mississippi kites, painted buntings, canyon wrens, and red-tailed hawks. When driving the canyon rim, look for longhorn steers, which are among the state’s longhorn herd.
We visited the park’s bird blind each day. Behind the Palo Duro Trading Post, water and feeders attract a multitude of birds, including painted buntings and golden-fronted woodpeckers.
Since you should not choose just Caprock Canyons or Palo Duro, decide to visit both. The experiences are different, but equally beautiful.
Spring and fall are usually the best times to visit, as these parks can be quite warm in summer. Camping reservations for both parks can be made at (512) 389-8900.
Separate entry fees are charged for each park. Both also honor the Texas State Parks Pass, which costs $70 per year. An additional pass, for a second person who resides at the same address, can be purchased for $25. Passes can be purchased on site at any Texas state park or by calling (512) 389-8900.
Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway
Quitaque, TX 79255
Admission is $4 per person age 13 and up.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
11450 Park Road 5
Canyon, TX 79015
Admission is $5 per person age 13 and up.