This Is the Panhandle?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Gone Summering, July 1998

This Is the Panhandle?
Southwest canyon country, where you'd least expect it
By Annick Smith

Deep in the Heart of Palo Duro

The history of human occupation in Palo Duro Canyon extends back nearly 12,000 years, but that's just a hiccup compared to the 200 million years of geologic time exposed along the canyon's cliffs. Camp on the chasm's floor and you can gaze upward past the Jurassic Period to the Tertiary and on up to last Tuesday, that being the new dusting atop the 800-foot walls.

Getting There: The park is 25 miles from Amarillo. Take Interstate 27 south to Texas 217, åhen drive eight miles east. The entrance fee is $3 per person, free for children under 12.

On Your Own: Palo Duro Canyon has 28 miles of hiking, biking, and horse trails. For starters, hike the Lighthouse Trail, an easy five-mile round-trip, and then rent a horse ($10 an hour) or mountain bike ($6.50 an hour) from Goodnight Riding Stables at the bottom of the canyon and explore the rest from the saddle. Bring at least a gallon of water per person — though summer is Palo Duro's prime time, temperatures do occasionally break the 100 barrier.

Outfitters: Goodnight Riding Stables, the only outfitter in the park, offers guided horseback tours to Lighthouse Rock and the canyon's myriad other geologic formations. The six-hour ride, which includes a sack lunch, costs $75 per person. For the same price, Goodnight offers an overnight complete with cowboy breakfast. Call 806-488-2231.

Bedding Down: Twenty-eight primitive campsites dot the canyon's floor; cost is $9 per night, first come, first served. For a dollar more, pitch your tent at one of 18 improved sites (water, but no electricity). If you'd rather not camp, two stone cabins ($65 per night) perched on the rim afford a mesmerizing view into the depths of the canyon and across the plains beyond. For reservations at any lodgings in Palo Duro, call 512-389-8900. The town of Canyon, 12 miles west of the park, has two B&Bs: Hudspeth House ($65-$110; 806-655-9800) and Country Home ($85-$95; 800-664-7636). Both have air-conditioning, a blessed amenity on many a west Texas summer night. — J.H.

Say you're driving south from Amarillo on the high plains of the Texas panhandle. The monochrome sky hangs darkly over the monochrome earth and a storm-bearing norther stirs dust devils across the prairie. If you are me, you sigh. This is not the panhandle of your imagination.

I expected great herds of cattle. Horseback cowboys. Grass. I didn't expect a plowed and irrigated landscape of cotton fields, straight-line roads, and farmhouses bleached colorless as the drifting skies. But then the dun-colored earth cracks open and I see a great declivity, brilliant with the colors of fire: Palo Duro Canyon.

At its widest, this fissure in the plains spreads eight miles across; then it turns northwest, cut by Palo Duro Creek into a gorge only two miles from wall to wall. The erosion-resistant caprock is sculpted into gigantic palisades mottled in eggshell whites. Softer layers slope below it in brick-red shales dotted with brush. And down in its dim depths are badlands striped in ochers, siennas, and the lemony hues of sandstone.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park marks the entrance to this gorge. From here, a two-lane road runs down a steep grade past the Goodnight Riding Stables, Goodnight Trading Post, and Goodnight Dugout, all named in honor of Charles Goodnight, who once ran 100,000 cattle here. But Goodnight's greatest fame was saving the buffalo. The members of the small wild herd that he corralled were the last on the plains. They became breeding stock for the iconic beasts we marvel at now all over the West.

No bison roam the park these days. It's a place to please people. You can bed down in campgrounds named Sagebrush, Hackberry, Sunflower, and Cactus. You can ride horses and bikes, run, hike. There's a rugged nine-mile trail along a high redrock ridge. And midway down the gorge, a maze of easy, sandy trails will lead you up a side canyon to Lighthouse, the great eroded stack that is the park's landmark formation.

One evening, I take a sunset hike along one of those trails. Water-carved walls enclose the box canyon, and the air is soft and still as I amble past peach-colored cones and striated humps of gypsum. Then I notice heaps of fresh, berry-rich scat piled among the junipers and willows along the creek's edge. Only a bear could produce droppings of such amplitude, I imagine. Suddenly, I'm alert.

The wind kicks up, reminding me of the ghosts who inhabit the canyon. They are Comanches, women, children, and old men trapped here in 1874 by U.S. Cavalry troops who burned their villages and slaughtered 1,048 horses. Imagine the screams. The bloody, broken, writhing piles — horse on horse. Soldiers ordered to shoot the animals are said to have turned away, vomiting in disgust. It was enough horror to break the spirit of tough Comanche warriors. Enough to end the Red River War.

I leave Palo Duro Canyon reaffirmed in my belief that there is no such thing as scenery. The beauty I encountered is a mix of rosy clay and red blood, of caprock and memory, of the spirits of Comanches and of Charlie Goodnight's resurrected bison. It is also a black bear who stands hidden in junipers, and a red trail that holds my footprints.

Annick Smith is a frequent contributor to Outside.

W h e n   I n   . . .
... the Texas Panhandle, play pioneer by pitching a lean-to on the 1,449 acres of honest-to-God untouched prairie at McClellan Creek National Grassland (405-497-2143). Early in the season you'll be treated to a rich palette of wildflowers ranging from bluebonnets to Indian paintbrush. Near summer's end, the spectacle turns avian, as hundreds of bald eagles stop by on their way south.

Illustration by Jason Schneider

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