Palo Duro: A Fairly Grand Canyon

It’s hot. When Canada is on fire you know conditions on the continent are hot. And dry. Texas had the wettest May on record, enough to break the staggering drought that has gripped the state for years. As soon as the calendar flipped to June though…well let’s just say it’s been two months and parts of the state are already in mild drought conditions. I’ve been in Austin, Houston, Oklahoma City, and Lubbock in the past three weeks and I don’t have to check the weather. I know that no matter where I am the forecast is 100 degrees, 10% chance of rain (nice hedge weathermen), and that forecast stretches across the entire ten days.

So naturally I made the decision that this weekend we should hike Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the United States located just outside of Amarillo, Texas.

Due to the heat we wouldn’t be staying long. We planned an early morning hike to take advantage of the cooler morning weather and set off to hike the iconic Lighthouse Rock Trail.

We stayed with Whiskette’s friends in Lubbock for the weekend and left at approximately “way too early for this o’clock” in order to get to the park by 8 AM. The first thing you notice on the way is that it’s flat. Not just level but so  flat that when you get a good view of the horizon you actually can see the curveture of the Earth in the distance. The only thing that breaks up the endless sea of grass, wheat, and cotton are the houses of the farmers who own all of this endless land and rows of trees planted specifically to break wind gusts and prevent another dust bowl. That is until the land literally gives way to this massive crack in the Earth.

Wait? Where did this hole come from?

Palo Duro Canyon was formed by the Prarire Dog Town Fork of the Red River combined with wind erosion and geologic uplifting over millions of years and exposing gorgeous bands of red, white, and yellow rock dating back to the Permian and Triassic. The canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States (in its defense the Grand Canyon kind of wrecks the curve) and is sometimes known as the Grand Canyon of Texas. It’s 120 miles long and 20 miles wide at its widest point. The red slopes of the canyon cut 800 feet into the Texas Panhandle and give way to a gorgeous and varied canyon floor the combines peaks, cliffs, hoodoos, gullies, and prickly pear cacti, cottonwoods, mesquites, wild flowers, and Rocky Mountain juniper. The short hard woods give the canyon its name, Palo Duro being Spanish for “hard stick.”

Behold geology in all its rocky ancient glory. 

The park has numerous trails and seems like a mountain bikers dream with slopes, wide sandy trails, countless dry washes and creeks, and easily accessible trails. The signature trail though is the Lighthouse Rock Trail. A roughly 5.5 mile hike, the red dirt trail winds around Capital Peak and follows red rock cliffs to a rock scramble that takes you up to the base of the Lighthouse Rock hoodoo itself.

Headed towards Capital Peak from the trailhead. 

The view from the bottom of the Lighthouse is spectacular and displays a massive canyon vista in all directions. Bolder hikers can follow a short but steep trail to the peak adjacent to the Lighthouse and enjoy an even better view.

It’s because it looks like a lighthouse. Get it?

The hike isn’t too strenuous and the trail is fairly crowded, being one of the jewels of the Texas State Park system. Most of the trail is flat and sandy but climbing to the base of the Lighthouse does require some careful footing and rock scrambling.

A little rock scramble for a big view. 

You also have to be prepared for the climate. Me being the idiot I am and deciding to take us to the park during an August heat wave, we started to notice the heat by 10 AM as we approached the Lighthouse itself. The hike back was…rough to be polite. Most of the trail lacks shade and the sun was directly overhead. Scrambling down the rocks might be harder than scrambling up and bringing enough water is critical. We overpacked water and had only roughly 20 ounces left over. Whiskette’s shoes gave her blisters and the last mile and a half was especially rough for her between the full effect of the sun and the blisters. Form versus function I suppose. Also another blog post for another time.

Overall the trail and the scenery are beautiful. The heat detracted and kept our day short but that’s just part of being in Texas is August. This is definitely a park you can do in the summer with the right preparation but  it’s definitely more enjoyable in cooler weather. There are more trails than just the Lighthouse, more sites to see, and that says nothing of the park’s other amenities. Palo Duro offers $35 horse rides through the canyon and it’s most famous for its amphitheater which showcases the musical Texas on summer nights. Much of the park’s facilities and its roads were built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the care one sees that those men put into other projects like the national parks is present here as well. The drives in and out offered incredible vistas and despite being wiped by the heat I wanted to stay longer and take a longer look around. Between our combined exhaustion and the drive back to Lubbock we decided to head back after the Lighthouse Trail but we will be back…you know when it’s not a trillion degrees outside.

Gorgeous. And hot. Very hot. 

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