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Palo Duro Canyon State Park

History: Palo Duro Canyon State Park consists of more than 20,000 acres in Armstrong and Randall Counties, south of Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. The land was deeded by private owners in 1933. From 1933 until 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) sent six companies of young men and military veterans to Palo Duro Canyon to develop road access to the canyon floor as well as the visitor center, cabins, shelters, and the park headquarters. The hard work of these dedicated individuals was important in the establishment of Palo Duro Canyon State Park which officially opened on July 4, 1934.

Man has inhabited Palo Duro Canyon for approximately 12,000 years. The Clovis and Folsom people first resided in the canyon and hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison. Later on, other cultures such as the Apaches, Comanches, and Kiowas utilized the canyon's abundant resources.

Early Spanish Explorers are believed to have discovered the area and dubbed the canyon "Palo Duro" which is Spanish for "hard wood" in reference to the rocky mountain junipers that were once in abundance in the canyon. However, an American did not officially discover the canyon until 1852 when Captain Marcy ventured into the area while searching for the headwaters of the Red River.

In 1874, Palo Duro Canyon was a battle site during the Red River Wars. Col. Mackenzie, under orders from the US Government, apprehended the Native Americans residing in the canyon by first capturing 1,400 horses and then later destroying the majority of the herd. Unable to escape, the Native Americans surrendered and were transported to reservations in Oklahoma. Then, from 1876 until 1890, most of the canyon belonged to the J.A. Ranch and was operated by Col. Charles Goodnight.

CaƱoncita Ranch added to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Texas Parks and Wildlife has purchased 2,036 acres adjacent to Palo Duro Canyon State Park along the park's southern boundary.

Activities: Park activities include camping, horseback riding, hiking, nature study, bird watching, mountain biking, and scenic drives.

While in the park, stop by and enjoy our Visitor Center located on the Canyon Rim. This rustic native stone building was constructed by the CCC in 1934 and houses a Museum and Museum Store. The store is located in the Visitor Center and features books, pottery, jewelry, and educational items pertaining to the Canyon.

Outdoor Theater Productions:
TEXAS the outdoor musical drama and the Official Play of the State of Texas returns to the Pioneer Amphitheater in beautiful Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It will run Tuesday through Sunday beginning in June and ending in August.. In this family-friendly show, set against an authentic tapestry of history, the show's fictional characters bring to life the stories, struggles and triumphs of the settlers of the Texas Panhandle in the 1800's. Song and dance abound - and a generous helping of good ol' Texas humor too - with spellbinding lighting, special effects and fireworks. Come early and enjoy a delicious bar-b-que dinner served on our covered patio. For more information contact the Pioneer Amphitheater Box Office at (806) 655-2181 or go to the TEXAS Musical Drama web site .

Equestrian:
Come and experience Palo Duro Canyon up close and personal, the way the cowboys did: On Horseback. The Old West Stables, located inside the canyon, offers guided rides through Timber Creek Canyon. A snack bar and souvenirs are available for your convenience. Bring the whole family! Reservations are required. Please call Old West Stables at (806) 488-2180.

Contact Information:

  • Camping Reservations (512) 389-8900
  • Park Information (806) 488-2227
  • Educational Programs (806) 488-2227, ext. 226
  • Pioneer Amphitheater Box Office (806) 655-2181
    www.texas-show.com
  • Palo Duro Trading Post (806) 488 2821
  • Old West Stables (806) 488-2180

Area Attractions: Nearby activities include Caprock Canyons State Park , Storyland Zoo for Children, Nielsen Memorial Museum, Lake Meredith National Recreation Area , Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument , Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, West Texas A&M University, Wildcat Bluff Nature Center, and Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge .

For more information on this area visit the Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council web site at www.visitamarillotx.com.

Campsites & Other Facilities: Facilities include: 3 - cabins with two rooms (2 single beds, 1 Queen bed, linens and towels furnished); 4 - Limited Service Cabins (aka "Cow Camp Cabins" 2 bunk beds, table & chairs, no towels or linens, restroom/showers across road), 1 of these cabins is wheelchair accessible; campsites with water and electricity; campsites with water; a hike-in primitive area (1/2 to 3/4 miles in, no ground fires, containerized fuel only, water 1/2 to 3/4 miles away); a hike-in primitive, equestrian area (water and pens for horses, no tables or fire rings); backpack campsites (1/2 to 2 miles, potable water at trailhead, restrooms 1/4 mile from parking; pets allowed overnight); an overflow/late arrival camping area; and a trailer dump station.

Natural Features: Palo Duro Canyon is located on the southern high plains, an area called El Llano Estacado or "staked plains." The rim of the canyon is considered part of the short grass prairie while the elevated moisture of the canyon floor supports a greater diversity of plants including some medium and tall grass species along with shrubs and trees. Common plant species include sideoats grama, big bluestem, Indian blanket, star thistle, fragrant sumac, mesquite, and cottonwood trees. Several juniper species are also common.

Due to diverse habitats, Palo Duro Canyon contains many species of wildlife including the rare Texas Horned Lizard, and Palo Duro Mouse. Other species include wild turkey, white tail and mule deer, barbary sheep, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, roadrunners, and western diamondback rattlesnakes. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is known for its rustic charm, and for that very reason, we would like to encourage visitors not to feed the wildlife. On the canyon rim, longhorn steers which are a part of the official Texas State Longhorn Herd, may be viewed from the main road.

Geology: The canyon is approximately 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 800 feet deep. Extending from Canyon to Silverton, Palo Duro Canyon was formed primarily by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, which began to carve the canyon less than one million years ago. The slopes of the canyon reveal the colorful natural history of the area.
Dating back 250 million years, the oldest layers of rock, Cloud Chief Gypsum, can only be seen in a few areas in the canyon. The next oldest and most prominent layer of rock is the Quartermaster Formation which can be seen with its distinctive red claystone/sandstone and white layers of gypsum.

The Tecovas Formation is located directly above the Quartermaster and is composed of yellow, gray, and lavender mudstone and sandstone. Together with the Quartermaster, they form the colorful triangular slopes called Spanish Skirts. Above the Tecovas, the Truijillo and Ogallala formations can be viewed. The Ogallala is composed of sand, silt, clay, and limestone, which compose the hard caprock.

Weather: Average annual rainfall is 20.6 inches. Temperatures range from 19 degrees in January to 92 degrees in July. Flash flooding may pose a serious danger. Please monitor water levels during your stay in the park. If the water begins to rise past 6 inches on the water depth gauges at any one of our six water crossings, immediately seek shelter on higher ground. Elevation is 3676 ft.

Schedule: Open 7 days a week year-round. Busy Season: Summer months during the play season. Check the Calendar for events and access restrictions scheduled within the next 3 months .
Gate Hours:
October - March: Sunday - Thursday, 8 am - 6 pm; Friday -Saturday, 8 am - 8 pm
April - May: Sunday -Thursday, 8 am - 8 pm; Friday -Saturday, 8 am -10pm
June - August: Daily, 8 am - 10 pm
September: Sunday - Thursday, 8 am - 8 pm; Friday -Saturday, 8 am - 10pm

Directions: The park is located about 12 miles east of Canyon on State Highway 217. From Amarillo, take Interstate 27 south to State Highway 217, and go east 8 miles.

Current conditions including, fire bans & water levels, can vary from day to day. For more details, contact the park.

  • Camping Reservations (512) 389-8900
  • Park Information (806) 488-2227
  • Educational Programs (806) 488-2227, ext. 226
  • Pioneer Amphitheater Box Office (806) 655-2181
    www.texas-show.com
  • Palo Duro Trading Post (806) 488 2821
  • Old West Stables (806) 488-2180

Geology and Geography

The canyon was carved down by a river most people have never heard of: the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River, which is the main tributary of the Red River. In less than one million years, the river cut through the Ogallala, Truijillo, Tecovas and Quartermaster Formations down to, in some places, the Cloud Chief Gypsum Formation.

The most prominent layers, the Quartermaster and Tecovas, are also the most colorful. The Quartermaster consists mostly of red sandstone and red claystone with bands of white gypsum and quartz. The Tecovas is mostly sandstone, shale and mudstone and is easily distinguished from the Quartermaster stone by its bright yellows, grays, lavenders, maroons and oranges.

In several locations throughout the park there are formations displaying the multi-colored layers of rock known as the Spanish Skirts, which are exposed triangular shaped slopes of the Quartermaster and Tecovas formations protruding from the canyon walls.

The canyon is topped by the hard caprock of sandstone and siltstone in the Ogallala Formation, the same layer of rock that stores the Ogallala Aquifer that provides drinking water and irrigation water for most of the western High Plains from the Texas panhandle to Nebraska.

The head of the canyon begins near the appropriately named town of Canyon, Texas just south of Amarillo. The canyon ends when it meets the Caprock Escarpment at the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado's mesa.

Unlike the stark surrounding landscape, the canyon is comparatively an oasis, supporting mesquite, cottonwood and juniper trees, sumac, tall grasses and shrubs and a wealth of wildflowers. The mesquite is actually what prompted the Spanish to name the canyon Palo Duro, meaning hardwood. With this plant diversity comes wildlife. Today the canyon is home to wild turkey, white tail deer, mule deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, cottontail rabbits, roadrunners and rattlesnakes and countless kinds of birds including several species of raptors.

Native American Inhabitation

The Clovis people were the first known inhabitants of the canyon, approximately 12,000 to 11,000 years ago, hunting mammoths with their trademark large fluted stone point spears. The Folsom people with their shorter fluted point weapons, hunted bison up until about 10,000 years ago. More advanced native Americans from the Meso period hunted game and foraged in the canyon. About 2000 BCE, agriculture emerged and the nomadic hunter/gatherers settled down into village communities. The dominant tribe during the early days of Spanish exploration were the Apache, but by about 1700 they were displaced southward by the nomadic bison hunting Comanche. The Comanche became excellent horsemen once they acquired horses. When the Kiowa tribes entered the area they initially fought the Comanche for control of the region but a peace offering between the tribes in 1790 ushered in an era of toleration of each other and cooperation against their mutual enemies.

Relocation and Inhabitation by White Man

The most formidable of the Comanche and Kiowa's mutual enemies was the U.S. Army. In 1874, the Mackenzie expedition entered the canyon, surprising the tribes and forcing a hasty retreat by the people. The Army then set about capturing the natives' 1,200 head herd of horses, destroying the herd, the food stores and dwellings of the native Americans. With no horses, shelter and food supplies to sustain them in the coming winter months, the tribes surrendered and were relocated to reservations in Oklahoma.

Two years later, Col. Charles Goodnight and John Adair had established the JA Ranch in the canyon and surrounding area. Goodnight was an experienced cattle driver. A decade earlier, he and fellow rancher Oliver Loving had blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail from the Texas Panhandle to Denver, Colorado to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Adair, an Irish immigrant, provided the capital for starting the ranch and Goodnight ran it. He herded out the bison and brought in the cattle. The ranch reached 1.3 million acres of land and over 100,000 head of cattle at its zenith.

Movement Towards Park Status

By the late 1880's, ranching was beginning to decline and the canyon became a favorite place for campers to visit. In 1906, the local chamber of commerce for the town of Canyon proposed turning the canyon into a national park. Mind you at the time there were only 7 national parks in the United States and that list did not yet include the Grand Canyon. Efforts to have the canyon designated a forest reserve failed in 1908, 1911 and 1915 due to disputes between the Departments of Agriculture and Interior. Dispute over the land's proper ownership and the potential cost to the Federal government of acquiring the land also stood in the way of any park designation.

In this time period, the head of the art department at the West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) in Canyon began regularly visiting the canyon. Inspired by the view, she began painting what she saw, producing dramatic, colorful and abstract paintings and charcoals of the place she describes as "a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color." The artist was a young Georgia O'Keeffe. Her most famous work of Palo Duro Canyon, "Special No. 21, Palo Duro Canyon," was stolen from the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe in December 2003 and has not been recovered. While O'Keeffe's later works were much more realistic and detailed, taking on an almost photo level of detail, this piece was more abstract.

Locals in the area continued to push for a park in the canyon. In 1929, community and business leaders from 15 counties in the Panhandle formed the Palo Duro Park Association and began meeting to map out a strategy. Meanwhile, Chicago businessman Fred Emery purchased 15,000 acres of the canyon and offered to give it to the state in exchange for a loan to be repaid by income from the park's operation. Funding for park development was secured in 1933 through the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs working to improve national parks, national forests and state parks. The land was conveyed via liens to the state with the state repaying the debt to Emery through the park fees. On July 4, 1934, Palo Duro Canyon State Park was officially established and opened though CCC construction in the park would last until 1937.

The establishment of the small state park also laid to rest the much grander scheme the National Park Service had for a million acre "National Park of the Plains" centered around Palo Duro Canyon that was envisioned as a "Great Plains Yellowstone." A 1939 plan to convert the 15,000 acre state park into a 135,000 acre national monument was also scrapped for lack of NPS fund to purchased the private ranches that would constitute most of the monument.

The CCC in the Park

Seven companies of the CCC were dispatched to the new Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Four consisted of veterans of the Great War (World War I), two were "colored" companies of African-Americans and one was a youth company. The first order of business for the CCC was improving access to the canyon floor via a paved road. The CCC carved out the one mile switchbacked stretch of road descending 800 feet along the western wall of the canyon.

Modern Threats and Protection

Since the 1930's, more and more land has slowly been added to the park. In the 1960's, a scenic area with several hoodoos, including the park's signature natural formation, the Lighthouse Rock, were acquired.

In the early 2000's, the opportunity to acquire two ranches in the canyon presented themselves. In 2002, local businessman and philanthropist Peter Gilvin left the 2,036 acre CaƱoncita Ranch to the Amarillo Area Foundation along with a $1.19 million endowment to fund educational programs and maintenance in the park. The foundation provided the state with the money to add the acreage to the park. In 2005, the foundation again stepped forward for Palo Duro State Park giving the park a $300,000 grant to purchase the 7,837 acre ranch that had belonged to the Harrell family for over a century, increasing the park's area by 43%. The ranch included the site of the 1874 battle between the U.S. Army and the Comanche and Kiowas.

But one of the most worrisome threats presented itself three years later. The city of Amarillo is growing and gobbling up ranch land for housing and subdivisions. While the city is still some distance away (15 miles), park managers and supporters were jolted in 2008 when the Tub Springs Ranch overlooking the eastern rim of the canyon was put up for sale and a prospective buyer expressed interest in subdividing the ranch for building multimillion dollar homes on the canyon rim. Luckily the ranch CEO was conservation minded and contacted conservation groups about acquiring the property. The Trust for Public Land responded by buying the land in cooperation with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department for $5.22 million. The 2,912 acre ranch was renamed the Fortress Cliffs Ranch and the most critical areas of the ranch were added to the park, increasing the park's size by 10%. The uplands of the ranch not added to the park are to be sold with legally enforceable conservation easements with the proceeds of the sale to be used by the Texas Park and Wildlife Dept to acquire properties of importance to the TPWD. As a result, the view from the canyon floor of the four tenths of a mile long cliff will not be marred with any visible structures. The land added brings the total area within the park to 29,187 acres.

 

 


 

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