Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas

Palo Duro Canyon State Park sits in the panhandle of Texas, south of Amarillo. The park spans the incredible Palo Duro Canyon, from edge to edge, and drops 800 feet to the canyon floor. Unlike the Grand Canyon where most visitors stay on the rim, visitors to Palo Duro travel down winding roads into the canyon to camp at one of several campgrounds, hike, or bike on the floor of the canyon. When I was researching this location, a few things became clear about this park. Being at the bottom of a canyon, the park is prone to flooding and portions actually flood fairly regularly. The canyon is so wide in portions that one might believe they are no longer on the floor of a canyon, but are instead just surrounded by mesas. Finally, the terrain varies, but this remains a desert with volatile weather conditions.

The Palo Duro Canyon from the rim at the visitors center. All camping, hiking trails, and the theater are inside the canyon walls.

We checked in at the entrance gate on arrival. The park was completely full, so reservations were definitely needed in the early summer. There are several campgrounds throughout the park with each offering different views and terrain. The Juniper Campground is newly paved with wider spaces for bigger campers and easy pull-through parking. The Mesquite Campground at the end of the canyon road is miles from the entrance, but provides very dark skies at night for stargazing. These sites are large and provide a fair amount of privacy, particularly on the outer loop, but one may encounter flooding in the lower spots on the road to access these back campgrounds during the rainy season. In fact, the Juniper Campground flooded a few years ago, leading to the area being re-paved with substantial road improvements.

Hackberry Site 24

I chose Hackberry Campground, Site 24 due to the loop’s proximity to trails and the Texas Musical location (more about that below). Site 24 was flat and far from other sites. Most sites provided some type of shade, either from trees or shade structures over tables. Our site did not have a shade structure, but the trees surrounding the table did a good job keeping us cool. Sites included water and electricity.

Turkeys behind site 24.
Sunset from the back of site 24.

Behind the Hackberry Loop was the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Until visiting this location, I was somehow unaware that the Red River was aptly named. Hiking along the river behind our campsite, one could look into the water and see nothing but red dirt. It still is a mystery how deep the water was in this vein of the river because it was so dark.

The trail between Hackberry Campground and the general store. The river to the left (which looks more like a stream) is so dark with red mud that it is difficult to see its depth. There are places where it becomes quite wide and it can overtake the nearby roads in a storm.

This park is sprawling and offers activities for everyone. We brought bikes and biked on various trails around the park. Hiking was abundant, including a nicely shaded trail from our campground to a small store and deli.

Trailhead near our campground.
House in the earth.

Another trail across the street from the campground lead to an old “house” that was built into the earth. The morning after we arrived, we hiked the Lighthouse Trail, a well-designated 2.72 multi-use trail to a rock formation that looks, not surprisingly, like a lighthouse. The morning was relatively cool at first, but quickly heated up. At the trail head, the park provided sunscreen and reminded people to fill their water before heading out. I thought this was a great way to encourage people to be prepared for this ever-changing environment.

A sunscreen station at the entrance to the Lighthouse Trailhead.

The Lighthouse Trail meanders through desert landscape with few trees, but provides interesting views of the vast variations of rock in the area.

Lighthouse from a distance as one gets closer to the destination.

It was also the place we saw our first snake of our stay at Palo Duro. In fact, we saw a different type of snake each day we were there! The great thing about the trail system at the park is that there are designated hiking and biking trails (some are shared access as well). Shade structures have been built at various points along the trail, slightly taller than the scrubby trees that dot the landscape. Lizards are prolific and fun to watch. At the end of the trail, the lighthouse rock looms ahead, up the steepest section of this hike. Leaving early in the morning is probably the best choice due to the heat in the open desert and the thunder storms that generally come in the afternoon.

This snake was easy to spot on the trail.
Hiking on the Lighthouse Trail. The trail is open with little shade.
These lizards were everywhere.

After our hike, we went into the town of Canyon to get lunch and go to a store for some water. As it turned out, there was an issue with the water main in the park and the ranger let us know that we no longer could use the water in any capacity. Luckily, we had showered already and had our own restroom, plus we had filled our tank with water back in New Mexico (though we could not drink that water because it tasted so terrible). We headed to town to buy drinking water and found a Braum’s and decided we also had to have ice cream. Our drive back into the park took longer than anticipated. The entrance does have a lane for people who have already checked in, but because it was Memorial Day Weekend, the line of cars backed up at least a mile to enter the park and was moving at a snail’s pace.

Ice cream from Braum’s in Canyon.

Once inside the gate, we stopped at the visitors center located at the rim of the canyon. It provided a good overview of the canyon’s history and the people who once lived inside the canyon. I strongly suggest going to this visitors center which also sells various items to support the park. The view from the visitors center cannot be beat.

Visitors Center was built by the Conservation Corps and clings to the side of the cliff.

As is usual for Texas weather in the canyon, a thunder and lightning storm started in the middle of the night that shook the camper and brought torrential rain. The areas that were marked as possible flood zones were flooded. Mud washed across the roads, campgrounds, and trails throughout the park and I was happy we didn’t have to drive through much of the mud to leave our campsite. We stayed inside and completed a puzzle one stormy morning after breakfast.

When the sun emerged around lunch time, it quickly dried the dirt and increased the humidity level. I went on a simple, shorter hike on the trails behind the campsite between Hackberry and Sagebrush campgrounds. The low-lying trees provide ample shade on this trail, while the high red rocks hug the beginning of the trail to provide an oasis from the road. While I saw few people on the trail, I did spot a snake slithering in the branches of a tree! I was unaware that snakes lived in trees, or could so easily access the upper branches of them. It was shocking to see this slithering creature higher than my head. It made the hammock at our campsite far less appealing.

I saw a snake slithering high on the branches of these trees near the trail.
Red rocks on the trail.

The next morning, we took a horseback ride in the canyon from Old West Stables. Old West Stables is located directly in the park and was a quick drive from the campground. They had an abundance of horses who were clearly well-loved. Our guide did a nice job trotting us through a canyon loop and explaining more history of the area. We could see the entrance visitors center at the top of the canyon from this ride. Riding is always a fun activity to get on trails or see areas one would rarely see by vehicle. The area traveled was different than the usual trails accessed by those in the park.

Horses at the stables.
Riding through Palo Duro Canyon.

The final night we were there, we attended the season opening of the Texas Outdoor Musical. This musical is the longest-running musical in the state. Being closed due to COVID in 2020, opening night was sold out with an excited crowd. The musical takes place in an outdoor amphitheater in the canyon and only a short drive from the campground. The background for the musical is the red rock wall and formations .

Stage for the Texas Outdoor Musical. The rocks act as the background.

A chuckwagon dinner is offered for an added fee before the performance and we enjoyed the copious amount of food they provided at the event.

Adults and children receive ample food at the chuckwagon dinner. Family-style tables are housed under shelters for bad weather.

This musical has occurred for generations every summer (except 2020) and describes the settlement west Texas. The costumes and sets are superior and the acting and dancing was superb. The musical ends with a huge fireworks display that rivals most small American cities. The show is an experience not to be missed by anyone going to this park or region.

The final act of the musical includes a fireworks show that rivals any small town in the United States.
The American Flag is projected on water that shoots out of the back of the stage and provides this final picture for the audience.

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