Hiking in canyon country, you can drive yourself nuts spotting phantom creatures among the cliffs. That bobcat skulking along a ridge? Actually a pile of rocks. The golden eagle eying rodents from above? Just a gnarled tree stump.
But on this walk in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, what I saw high atop a nearby mesa was no Texan trompe l’oeil: A Barbary sheep sat silhouetted against the midday sun. We trained our binoculars on the tan animal and its long, curved horns, gasping when a lamb scampered into view, leaping along the boulders. Two more adult sheep with even bigger horns emerged, sauntering close to the precipice. Later, a park employee told me that we had been very lucky — most visitors miss the well-camouflaged sheep, which are native to northern Africa and were introduced to the park in the 1950s.
Then again, we were doubly lucky, because many people never see Palo Duro at all.
Though the 120-mile-long canyon that cleaves the Panhandle’s plains into a bewitchingly rugged land is the nation’s second largest, locals consider it Texas’s best-kept secret. For one, it’s not a national park, and tourists tend to associate canyons with the southwestern geography of Utah and Arizona, not Texas. Only one person (a Texan) I told about my trip had heard of Palo Duro, so I wasn’t surprised to read in the park guest book that someone had written: “Never knew it was here.”
For much of the past 12,000 years, however, the canyon was prime real estate. Ancient Clovis and Folsom peoples hunted mammoth and giant bison. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers — including Francisco Coronado and his expedition — traveled through the region. They named the canyon Palo Duro, Spanish for hard wood, because of its numerous juniper trees, a contrast to the nearby plains.
In the 1700s, Native Americans such as the Comanches, Kiowas and Apaches lived in Palo Duro. Here, they made their last stand. During the 1874 Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, part of the Red River War between the U.S. army and southern Plains peoples, the United States attacked native sites in the canyon and captured 1,400 of the tribes’ horses, shooting most of them. Without them, the tribes surrendered, returning on foot to reservations in Oklahoma.
With the Native Americans pushed out, settlers began moving in, including 19th-century Renaissance man Charles Goodnight, who drove more than 1,000 cattle into the canyon in 1876 and later helped established the JA Ranch, which still exists. Among his many pursuits — he’s popularly known as the inventor of the chuck wagon — Goodnight, along with his wife, Mary Ann, saved bison calves from the mass slaughter that nearly wiped out the species. These survivors’ descendants make up the Texas state bison herd in Caprock Canyons State Park, at the southern edge of Palo Duro.
This is where my in-laws, Diana and Allan, and my husband, Brian, started our week-long camping adventure. After sidestepping plate-size bison “pies” for a few days, we finally came across the handsome beasts in the flesh. From a safe distance, we watched as furry calves nibbled bushes, and bulls with huge, woolly heads lay motionless in the grass. Mesas in brilliant brick red, like the backdrop of an old Western, towered behind the herd.
Caprock Canyons, I discovered, also look fabulous in black. At a ranger-led stargazing program, we looked through telescopes at the brightest stars I’d seen since camping in remote Africa. One of the state’s darkest night skies provided the perfect canvas for viewing some celestial gems: Mars positively glowed, and the volunteer astronomer told us when to watch the International Space Station scud across the sky, a tiny point of light amazingly toting humans all the way up in space. (I couldn’t resist waving.)
We arrived at Palo Duro Canyon State Park — the heart of the canyon — with a crush of day-trippers on Memorial Day afternoon, gawking alongside them at the main overlook. You can’t escape a geology lesson at Palo Duro, which the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River carved a million years ago, but whose colorful rock layers are much older. The white caprock, or Ogallala Formation, sits on top; then the reddish sandstone Trujillo; the lavender, yellow and gray Tecovas; and finally, the 250-million-year-old Quartermaster, a variety of red stones shot through with white bands of gypsum. Some of these layers cascade out in formations called Spanish skirts, named after the flowing garments. The rocks erode at different rates, creating hoodoos, tall and impressively balanced rock pillars — the most famous being the 310-foot-tall Lighthouse, a symbol of the park.
With so much to learn, I was bummed to discover that the park had no interpretive programs while I was there. I took some solace at the visitors’ center, in a small museum that houses information on Native American history as well as fossils of ancient residents such as the bone-crushing Amphicyon and three-toed horse. The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps built the visitors’ center — then called the El Coronado Lodge — in the 1930s with hand-cut stones quarried on site. You can appreciate their handiwork in bridges along the CCC Trail and gorgeous stone cabins available for overnight guests.
Our campsite under a cottonwood tree was quite the looker, too. At sunset, the cliff above seemed to catch fire, bringing to mind what artist Georgia O’Keeffe wrote on Palo Duro, calling it “a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” Critters paraded past, from a roadrunner with a beefy toad dangling from its beak to a bold foursome of wild turkeys. The river gurgled nearby, a comforting sound, especially mingled with the cooing of the doves.
On the six-mile Lighthouse Trail the next morning, wildflowers were in bloom, and we saw the golden-tipped petals of the Indian blanket and the fuzzy pink globes of the sensitive briar.
Less scenic was the surprising amount of trash around the trail. “We got a roller here!” Brian shouted as our group approached a fresh pile of scat (source unknown). Industrious dung beetles were scooting their prizes up a hill, only to tumble back down and patiently begin again.
Around us loomed tall, jagged ridges sprouting hoodoos of several shapes and sizes. The weather was mercifully cool and cloudy, although a sign at the parking lot had warned “High Heat Danger!” and instructed each hiker to carry a gallon of water. Even better, it was a Tuesday, so we had the trail mostly to ourselves.
Eventually, the Lighthouse appeared ahead, like a canyon beacon, and we scrambled up a steep hill to its base. Up close, this uber-hoodoo looked almost man-made, like it had been sculpted from clay instead of shaped by tens of thousands of years of wind and water. We lunched in its shadow, looking out over a wide valley of dark green junipers, the descending notes of the canyon wren bouncing off cliff walls. I felt, as Goodnight had described his pioneer days, “full of the zest of darers.”
The park closed the trails the next few days due to rain, and we took refuge in nearby museums. The incredibly thorough Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum housed Red River War artifacts, such as a Comanche war shield and steel-tipped lance, and many works by western artists, including O’Keeffe, who taught at a nearby university between 1916 and 1918. At the Charles Goodnight Historical Center, we toured Charles and Mary Ann’s folk Victorian home, nicknamed the Castle on the Prairie. That made sense when I saw an outdoor replica of the couple’s previous abode: a one-room dugout hollowed out of a hillside.
Our final morning dawned clear for a hike on the Rock Garden Trail, which winds through the remnants of an ancient rock landslide. A nearly 600-foot climb took us through a field of boulders, strewn about like a game of marbles. Stopping to catch my breath, I turned and took in the rows of magnificent cliffs that seemed to mirror themselves for miles.
Originally posted on The Washington Post