Texas is huge.
That was the astonishing observation I made as we were driving through the northern sliver of it known as the panhandle. Shattering, I know. But when you’re spinning through mind-numbing flatland towards a never-ending horizon, your mind goes a bit…numb.
It’s a landscape that changes with glacial swiftness. It’s the same thing. Over. And over. And over. There’s just not much to see between western Oklahoma and the central panhandle, except for a mural or two.
That makes for a pretty long four hours. It also makes the first glimpse of Palo Duro Canyon even more breathtaking.
The thing about canyons – and this is going to be another shocker – is that you don’t see them until you’re about to drive over the rim. They’re hidden treasures. You can look across the horizon and have no idea that, a quarter of a mile away, there’s a huge divot in the earth.
I know this, yet every time I get close enough to a canyon to see into its depths it’s like someone yanked back the curtain and yelled “Ta-Da!” We’d even been to this specific canyon before, but when we took the first switchback and caught glimpses of the rim on the opposite side, when we descended from a horizon of monotony to a landscape of variety, it was just as surprising as it had been the first time.
It was our second day just showing up at a park and hoping for a decent campsite, but since the last night had gone so well I wasn’t worried. The nice ladies at the entrance told us they gave us the best site, and said that even though it looked like it was right by the bathrooms it wasn’t.
Sounded good to us. We paid our entrance and campsite fees and headed into the depths of the second largest canyon in the United States.
Dropping 800 feet from rim to floor and stretching up to twenty miles wide, Palo Duro Canyon’s multi-hued layers are a vertical timeline of its geologic history. It became a state park in 1933 when the State of Texas purchased several thousand acres of the canyon for public use. The Civilian Conservation Corps, FDR’s Depression-era unemployment solution, built the roads and the buildings and in 1934 Palo Duro Canyon State Park opened to the public.
We took one of those CCC-built roads to Campsite #1 in the Hackberry Camp Area. It was, as the ladies said, by the bathrooms, but at the bottom of an incline so steep we couldn’t see the facilities at the top of the path.
The campground was gloriously, serenely empty of people and setting up camp was a little difficult because we kept getting distracted by our surroundings. There were the hardwood trees for which the canyon’s named, and hackberry trees, for which the campground was named. Cedar, cottonwood, a sloped canyon wall of striated colors topped by a sandstone covered cliff. A roadrunner. Wild turkeys hanging out by the restrooms. The sky was blue. Just blue. No clouds, no contrails. Just blue.
It was February, so the branches of the cottonwoods were bare. I’m sure it’s beautiful in the spring and summer, when they’re lush and covered in green, but the lack of leaves meant we could see through the branches. The open vistas were less obstructed, more…open.
Of course, I knew everything was colored by how thrilled I was to be there, how excited I was to be doing what we were doing; I would have loved it no matter what the conditions. Doesn’t matter why. It was perfect.
Despite the distractions there was still plenty of light left when we finished setting up, so we crossed the road and picked up the Paseo del Rio Trail, a short and easy 1.03 mile hike. We didn’t talk much. When you’re spending every day, all day, together for several days in a row, sometimes you don’t need to speak.
It was a companionable silence, the only sounds the rhythm of our trekking poles, the scuffling of our feet on the red path, and the trio of deer crashing through the undergrowth and leaping right in front of us, followed by a trio of mountain bikers racing in the opposite direction.
Just an easy walk in the canyon.
We continued following the path and came across the Cowboy Dugout, a replica of the cabin Charles Goodnight built when he was establishing the JA Ranch.
Sometimes you can enter the dugout and see what a rancher’s life was like in the late 1800s, but it was closed when we arrived. We read the plaque, walked on the roof (because we could) and then made our way back to our campsite. Sunset was near.
The panhandle was as dry as a bowl full of croutons and no fire was allowed, so we cooked over the Coleman. A rafter of turkeys flowed around our campsite. They didn’t pay much attention to us, but I had the distinct feeling we hadn’t seen the last of these “fowl” creatures.
Oh, how right I was. The next morning I got up before sunrise, again, grabbed my journal, again, and started my coffee, only to be interrupted by a deer, again.
This time it was a lone doe, and she investigated everything from our SUV’s grill to my battered up percolator. She hung out with me while I took a few pictures of the sun cresting over the canyon wall.
And then those darn turkeys came parading through. They were feisty, flat out surrounding our campsite, once again rippling around me like I was a rock in their creek. The toms fluffed their feathers so aggressively they doubled in size; I was an absolute affront to their dignity and way of life. I wanted to say “It’s February! You’re safe!” They just haughtily sauntered off to the empty campsites across the way, but not before looking back and glaring (don’t even try to tell me turkeys can’t glare. These suckers GLARED.). They took their own sweet time leaving the campground, though. Apparently I was not to be trusted.
They finally skedaddled once Jim awakened. I told him about my eventful morning over sunny-side up eggs and sausage (not turkey sausage, in case you were wondering) with some fresh fruit and we picked another trail we could fit in before getting back on the road.
By the time we took off the temperature was already in the eighties. I’d started the day in pants and fleece and hit the trail in shorts and tank top. We drove deeper into the park until we reached the Rojo Grande Trail, slathered in sunscreen and carrying a backpack full of water.
Considered a moderate hike, the path took us a little over a mile along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. On one side was the white-threaded red rock wall known as the Quartermaster Formation. It’s the oldest layer of the canyon, dating back about 250 million years. The red is from iron; the white is layers of gypsum.
On the other side was a narrow creek of mustard-yellow water. In some passages it rushed and churned. In others it took a benign, lazy stroll. It seemed like a tiny little piece of the grand landscape, an insignificant drain, but just like a minor toothache that consumes every thought, this creek, this tributary of a bigger river, carved out the entire canyon. It whittled away at the plains, taking a piece here and a piece there for almost a million years.
It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Something that small creating something that vast. The Prairie Dog Town Fork is the very definition of persistence. It takes the joke “how do you eat an elephant” to a whole new level.
We found a shower at one of the other campgrounds and washed off the rusty dust of this ancient land. By the time we headed back up and out of the canyon it was nearly one in the afternoon, and we needed to make Santa Rosa, New Mexico, before dark. Time to get back on the road – we still had a lot of Texas to cover and another night of camping ahead of us.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1, you should see the whole book!
Visiting Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Our visit to Palo Duro Canyon State Park was part of an epic southwest road trip from Chicago to San Diego and back.