Beneath the Bright Red Bluffs of Palo Duro—Texas Panhandle offers riders unexpected beauty in the nation’s second largest canyon.
Morning in the Panhandle dawns very bright and still. Hawks ride the air currents above bright red bluffs, swooping out of a clear blue sky as they search for breakfast and bask in their flight. Palo Duro Canyon beckons, and I’m on my way to ride its trails and meet its inhabitants.
I meet my guide, Sandy Smith, at the gate a few minutes before it opens at 8 a.m. We can see the dim edges of the far walls of the canyon in the distance.
Palo Duro Canyon slices through the Panhandle of Texas about 20 miles south of Amarillo. The road into the upper canyon, still largely held in private ownership, drops suddenly from away from the typical West Texas landscape, plunging into trees and waterways. But the big show is another ten miles southeast from this first taste of unexpected beauty.
According to the park’s web site, Palo Duro Canyon is considered to be the second largest canyon in the United States. It runs for 120 miles along the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River. It is 20 miles wide in places and reaches a depth of 800 feet. The state of Texas owns more than 26,000 acres of the most scenic parts of the canyon.
Once inside the state park, we are presented with many choices. The wide vistas provide excellent riding, walking, and biking trails. Camping areas are scattered along the main road, both for RV and tent camping. Horse trails are available in two areas of the park: the Equestrian Area and the Lighthouse Trail.
Sandy has brought two horses to the park this morning, a Quarter Horse named Tip for me to ride, and a retired endurance Arab named Dan. Sandy and her horses have clocked hundreds of hours on the canyon trails over the years in preparation for endurance rides.
“When I was doing endurance, I often went down into the canyon three times a week,” she tells me. She describes trails that are challenging, twisting paths, where it is safe to let horses move along at a faster clip because you will only meet other horses there. But we’ll be taking a more laid-back ride on a shared trail, heading our horses into the brush on a red path, turning right when the trail makes a Y at Capital Peak, and on for the six-mile round trip to the Lighthouse rock.
As we ride, Sandy tells me about the work the Panhandle Trail Riders Association and Crown of Texas Arabian Horse Club have done to encourage horse accessibility in the canyon. Over the years, these groups have developed trails and provided water for horses and their people. The American Quarter Horse Association also provided a grant for the development of trails in the Equestrian Area.
We encounter many of the typical residents of the canyon along the trail. Butterflies float across our horses’ necks; one enormous butterfly with a wingspan of nearly six inches takes a tour of the wildflowers. Collared lizards, ranging in color from light green to deep turquoise, sun themselves on the rocks while lark sparrows hide in the mesquite bushes.
Down in the deepest parts of the canyon, the waterways support cottonwood trees, but most of the greenery I see is what ranching people call “scrub.” These include typical desert plants such as mesquite and juniper, and cacti of several varieties. Wildflowers abound as well. In some meadows, the basket flowers cover the ground in a purple blanket. In fall the colors of trees and flowers will flame to gold and red.
The Canyon grows by an average of a foot each year. The deep, red arroyos along the path explain this continued growth. In some places, the arroyos are the path and, even on this sunny day, we cross them quickly.
The horse trail takes riders right up underneath the Lighthouse Rock, but hikers can go farther on a more challenging foot path. I can’t get far in my riding boots, so I point my camera at the view, then return to the waiting horses to wend our way back through this bright desert to our waiting truck.
In the Equestrian Area at the southeast corner of the park, there are more horse trails. Sandy tells me, “You could probably ride 20 miles if you did several loops.” Equestrians can also camp with their horses.
Entering the park with your horse will require a current negative Coggins with accurate markings. The park charges a daily entrance fee of $5 for adults, $3 for seniors. Campsites at the Equestrian Area are $12 each night in addition to the entrance fee and will hold a total of 8 horses and people.
Information on the park can be found at palodurocanyon.com. Visitors may also want to take the beautiful new virtual tour at visitamarillotx.com. Eric Miller, Director of Communications for the Amarillo Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that site visitors will eventually be able to view the park in every season on the 360 degree panoramic tour. My live visit has been all that the virtual tour promised and more.
At dusk, a blue haze blankets the bright red of the canyon walls as the slight humidity of the Panhandle gathers in the trees. Wild turkeys hardly bother to move from the trails and roads which have been their domain for thousands of years. Lizards and tarantulas scurry across the desert floor. Night will fall, and I will let the sounds of insect song carry me to sleep.