Palo Duro Canyon is our kind of place—a rugged wonderland of gorges, mesas and towering rock spires called hoodoos. It feels like the West with its mix of infinite vistas and narrow slot canyons cast in near-permanent shadow. Days here are still wild and play out beneath a big sky scrubbed clean by steady southerly winds.
“Palo Duro” is Spanish for “hardwood,” a reference to the juniper and mesquite trees populating the canyon along with cottonwood, willow, soapberry, hackberry and salt cedar. The wildflowers, cacti and grasses carpeting the canyon bear equally evocative names: Christmas cactus, Indian blanket, star thistle, little bluestem, black-foot daisy, sage and sideoats grama. You’re likely to see roadrunners, turkeys and bands of mule deer and maybe also coyotes, bobcat, diamondback rattlesnakes and the odd-looking aoudad sheep, a north-Africa native with broad curved horns introduced to Palo Duro in 1957.
The many-fingered canyon was carved out of a rainbow of strata—red Quartermaster shale, white gypsum and yellow, gray and lavender mudstone—during a million spring floods. Located 30 miles south of Amarillo, in Armstrong and Randall Counties, the canyon extends from the town of Canyon to Silverton. Formed by the headwaters of the Red River, the canyon begins on the high plains of the Llano Estacado and yawns eastward, tumbling past the Caprock Escarpment to meet the rolling terrain of the eastern Panhandle. Measuring 120 miles long, 20 miles wide in places and 800 feet deep, Palo Duro ranks second only to the Grand Canyon in size.
A Blink in Time
Humans have inhabited Palo Duro Canyon for about 12,000 years, a blip in the canyon’s geological history. Archaeological evidence points to the Clovis and Folsom peoples as the earliest dwellers. They hunted wooly mammoth and giant bison with stone-tipped spears. Much later, other cultures, including the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa lived in and around the canyon, leaving behind rock art and stone mortars used for grinding beans and roots.
Native Americans still inhabited the high plains of the Panhandle in 1836, when Texas gained independence from Mexico. Even by the mid-1870s, three decades after statehood, the western Panhandle contained no county boundaries. It was a lawless place, fought over by the southern Plains Indians and American settlers and merchants. The conflict came to a head in June, 1874, when the Red River War broke out between the Indians and the U.S. Army.
In September, 1874, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie led the 4th U.S. Cavalry in a dawn raid on a camp of Comanches led by Quanah Parker, the son of Comanche chief Peta Nocona and kidnapped and assimilated English-American Cynthia Ann Parker. The young Parker and the Comanche families fled into Palo Duro Canyon, leaving behind winter supplies and some 1,400 horses. MacKenzie’s troops shot most of the horses and torched the teepees. The Indians were forced to surrender and move to a government-designated reservation. The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon marked the Comanche’s last stand.
With the Indians gone, ranchers moved into the Panhandle. In 1876, former Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight drove 1,600 Longhorn cattle to the canyon, founding the JA Ranch with his English partner and financial backer, John Adair. By 1885, 100,000 head were grazing across more than one-million Panhandle acres. Adair descendants still run the ranch today.
Though a portion of Palo Duro Canyon is still in private hands, more than 27,000 acres lies within the boundaries of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, making Palo Duro the second largest state park in the Lone Star State. The park opened on July 4, 1936. Much of the original infrastructure, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression, still exists, including winding roads and trails, bridges, fieldstone cabins and wood and metal furniture.
From 1916 to 1918, when the painter Georgia O’Keeffe was cutting her teeth as an art teacher at West Texas State Normal College in the town of Canyon, she fell in love with Palo Duro Canyon. During her free time, O’Keeffe would leave her spare lodgings—a tiny room furnished with an iron bed and wooden fruit crate—and explore the colorful, twisting gorges, stopping to make charcoal and watercolor studies. Those majestic works, which O’Keeffe dubbed her Canyon Suite, laid the foundation for her more famous later paintings. Though O’Keeffe is most commonly associated with New Mexico, the American master first fell in love with the West at Palo Duro Canyon.