For specific program information contact: Jeff Davis at (806) 488-2227, x2067
Bus Tours: Enjoy the beauty of Palo Duro Canyon from the comfort of your bus. Our Park offers over 16 miles of paved road. We will discuss interesting sites, wildlife, plant life, history and geology. Time Limit: 2 hours
Outreach: Palo Duro Canyon is a wonderful place for learning and recreation and everyone should experience it in person. If for some reason, your group cannot visit the canyon, we can bring the canyon to you. Travel may be limited due to long distances, but please contact us and we will see what can be arranged.
Park Interpretive Information
General Park Information: Palo Duro Canyon State Park opened on July 4, 1934 and contains about 28,000 acres of the scenic and northernmost portion of the Palo Duro Canyon. The Civilian Conservation Corp of the 1930's built many of the buildings and roads still in use by park staff and visitors.
Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long with a maximum depth of 800-1000 feet. The width of the canyon ranges from 1/2 to 20 miles wide, and it has an elevation of 3,500 feet at the rim. Many have claimed that the Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the U.S.
Palo Duro Canyon was formed primarily through water erosion caused by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. The water deepens the canyon by moving sediment downstream, while wind, rain, freezing, and other weathering and erosional forces help to widen the canyon.
History: Humans have resided in the canyon for approximately 12,000 years. Early settlers were nomadic tribes that hunted mammoth, giant bison, and other large game animals. Later, the canyon became the domain of the Southern Plains peoples. Apache tribes lived in the canyon, but they were replaced around the year 1700 by the Comanche and Kiowa people who resided in the area until 1874. During this time, the canyon floor was often used as a winter campground by the various tribal bands. In what would later be called the Red River War, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie was sent into the area to enforce the removal of the Native Americans to Oklahoma. During the Battle of Palo Duro on September 28, 1874, Col. Mackenzie and the 4th Cavalry were able to route the Native Americans from their winter camp, put most of their winter supplies and other belongings to the torch, and capture over 1,400 horses belonging to the tribe. After allowing their Tonkawa scouts to select the best of the horses for themselves, the remainder were taken south to Tule Canyon and destroyed. Cut off from their only means of transportation and having the majority of their possessions destroyed, the Native Americans soon returned to the reservations in Oklahoma territory. Two years later, in 1876, Charles Goodnight entered the canyon and established the JA Ranch, which eventually supported over 100,000 head of Cattle. Goodnight operated the ranch until 1890. Although a fraction of its original size, the JA Ranch remains a working ranch today.
Geology: Although the canyon is about 1 million years old, the rocks exposed on the slopes date back more than 250 million years. Cloud Chief Gypsum is the oldest rock exposed in the canyon and can only be seen in a few areas.
Immediately above this layer, the red claystone and the white layers of gypsum and shale from the Quartermaster Formation can be seen. The red color was created by the iron oxide present in the rocks. The greater the content of iron, the redder the color. The next ascending layer is the Tecovas Formation and is composed of gray, yellow and lavender mudstone. Together with the Quartermaster, the Tecovaqs makes up the colorful, triangular layers known as Spanish Skirts. Further up the canyon slopes, the Trujillo Formation can be seen. At this layer, red mudstone is predominant. The remaining layer, the Ogallala Formation, is located toward the very top of the canyon wall. This hard layer is composed of sand, silt, clay and limestone.
Wildlife: Palo Duro Canyon supports a wide variety of wildlife. Park visitors will see mule deer, white-tailed deer, roadrunners, wild turkey, cottontail rabbits and many species of birds. Less obvious wildlife inside the park includes coyotes, raccoons, skunks, aoudad sheep, bobcats, western diamondback rattlesnakes, several species of non-venomous snakes, and on rare occasion mountain lions.
Plants: Palo Duro is Spanish for hard wood in reference to the durable juniper trees found throughout the canyon. The larger species of these trees are not as evident as they once were in the state park since so many were cut down for building materials. Other common tree species seen in the canyon include mesquite, cottonwood, non-native salt cedar, willow, soapberry and hackberry. Wildflower and grass species also dot the canyon walls and floor. Commonly seen are Indian blanket, star thistle, tansy aster, sunflower, black-foot daisy, sage, and little bluestem.
Visitor Center: The Civilian Conservation Corp built the Visitor Center in 1934. They called it the El Coronado Lodge. In 1978, the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum developed exhibits pertaining to park geology and history, which can still be seen there today. A gift shop and restrooms are also located in the Visitor Center. The Visitor Center is operated by the Partners in Palo Duro Canyon Foundation and their volunteers.
Longhorn Pasture: The 100 acre pasture on the canyon rim currently contains three steers from the official Texas State Longhorn Herd based out of Ft. Griffin State Historic Site. Look for the boys, T-Bone, Omelette, and Brisket, in the afternoon between 2pm and 5pm near park headquarters. Park rangers usually feed them at some point during that time.
Civilian Conservation Corps Chimney: During the development of the park, the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps used this chimney located in the recreation hall. Although the building is gone, this lone chimney on the canyon rim reminds us of the people who built the park. You’ll spot this chimney to your left as you proceed along the rim of the canyon, shortly before you reach the point where the road begins to descend into the canyon.
Cowboy Dugout: Just past Water Crossing #1, an original line shack that was used on the JA Ranch in the 1880s stands on the Paseo del Rio Trail. While it has been reconstructed a couple of times in the past, it is an original structure used by working cowboys on the ranch. Many myths surround this humble structure, including that it was the actual first home of Charles Goodnight himself. However, this was simply a line shack used by the working cowboys of the JA.
Historical Markers: Three historical markers are located inside the park. The first is located near the park entrance and discusses the JA Ranch. The second marker is located just outside the Visitor Center and tells the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the canyon. The remaining historical marker is located at the south end of the park at the turnaround area. It discusses the 1874 Battle of Palo Duro.
CCC Trail: Originally used by the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps to travel to their worksite, this trail winds from the top of the canyon at the scenic overlook to the bottom at the Pioneer Amphitheater parking lot. It is rated as a difficult trail, with a steep climb and a lot of stepping up or down. Several historic CCC bridges lie along its length,
Pioneer Nature Trail: This is our most kid friendly trail. It is a short, easy loop of about one-half mile that leads you to the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.
Givens, Spicer, and Lowry Trail: This trail is approximately 3 miles long from the trailhead (across from Hackberry campground) to the intersection of the Lighthouse Trail (plus 1.5 miles to the Lighthouse). The Little Fox Trail is a 2- mile loop off the main trail. This trail is moderately difficult with several steep climbs and a total distance of 11 miles. Mountain bikers, hikers, and runners are allowed on this trail.
Paseo del Rio Trail: The Paseo del Rio or Riverwalk traces the Prairie Dog Town For, of the Red River beginning after Water Crossing # 1. This is a 2-mile hike with plenty of shade and an even path. This trail is considered easy and suitable for all ability levels. Mountain bikers, hikers and runners are allowed on this trail.
Comanche Trail: The newest in the park, this trail runs from the Mack Dick Group Pavilion parking lot to Water Crossing #6 - a distance of about 9 miles. It consists of mostly moderate difficulty hiking with some spots of difficult. It ascends about 400 feet above the canyon floor, and crosses a shelf beneath the Fortress Cliff Formation. The Rock Garden Trail is accessible from this trail about 2 miles from the trailhead. The views on this trail are stunning!
Lighthouse Trail: This trail leads to the Lighthouse (pedestal rock formed by erosion), which is 310 feet high and is a National Natural Landmark. This trail is considered moderate in difficulty with a total distance of almost 6 miles. It may have heavy traffic during the peak season. There are educational panels along the trail. Equestrians, hiker, bikers and runners are allowed on this trail. Due to the hot conditions and exposed nature of this trail, sun protection and at least a gallon of water per person and pet are vital!
Sunflower Trail: This trail offers plenty of shade and a beautiful view of satin spar gypsum (0.25 miles from trailhead). Sunflower is located before Water Crossing #5 and is 2 miles roundtrip. It is considered easy and suitable for all levels. Mountain bikers, hikers and runners are allowed on this trail.
Rojo Grande Trail: From the Lighthouse parking lot, this trail heads south for 1.5 miles and connects with the Sunflower trail. It is a moderate hike with plenty of shade. Mountain bikers, hikers and runners are allowed on this trail.
Juniper Cliffside Trail: This trail runs from the Lighthouse trail parking lot to Water Crossing #6. It is nearly three miles long, and it follows along near the canyon's wall. It also passes near the Big Cave, which can be seen from Alternate Park Road 5.
Juniper Riverside Trail: Located at Water Crossing #6, the Juniper Trail is 2 miles and intersects the Sunflower Trail. This trail is shady with several easy climbs.
Capitol Peak Trail: This trail is not recommended for hikers and runners. The trailhead is located on Alternate Road 5 and is 4 miles total distance. There are three levels of difficulty for various biking skills (Green-Easy, Blue-Medium, Black-Hard). Horses are prohibited.
Rock Garden: This is one of our most difficult trails. It begins near the Sunflower Picnic Area and climbs about 2.4 miles to the rim of the canyon, an ascent of about 800 feet. It leads to the Rylander Fortress Cliff trail, which provides some amazing views from the top of the canyon. This is a hiking and biking trail only.
Rylander Fortress Cliff: Located at the top of the Rock Garden trail, the Rylander Fortress Cliff trail winds along the canyon rim providing many amazing viewpoints into the canyon. This trail is about 3.75 miles in total length, and the terrain is flat and easy. There are also several spurs that branch off from the main trail that provide access to the amazing viewpoints.
Equestrian Trail: The trailhead is located at the turnaround area (South end of park). This trail runs parallel to Alternate Park Road 5 and intersects the Lighthouse Trail. It is 4 miles roundtrip. An open riding area is located south of the turnaround.
Flash Flooding: During heavy rains, Palo Duro Canyon can flood over a relatively brief period of time. In the event of flooding please take the following precautions:
- Always monitor the depth at the six water crossings. If the water is running over any of the bridges, DO NOT CROSS. Turn around, don't drown.
- Move to high ground. Please be patient. The water usually recedes fairly quickly.
- Always monitor the local weather stations and heed warnings of staff.
- Use common sense and never put yourself, family or friends in jeopardy.
Rough Terrain: Please be careful of rough terrain, loose rocks and steep slopes. Proceed at your own risk. Rattlesnakes and other wildlife may be present.
Heat: Texas summers are extreme, and heat related injuries are possible. Please drink plenty of water, bring sun protection and always use caution. We recommend that you hike only in the cooler mornings or evenings during the hot months.
Parking: Parking spaces are provided at the entrance, the Visitor Center, the Old West Stables and at each of the restrooms and day-use areas. PLEASE DO NOT BLOCK TRAFFIC.
Please abide by the following rules to insure that your visit is a pleasant one. Failure to abide by the rules may result in a citation and/or expulsion from the park.
- Do not harm, harass, feed, or catch any wildlife in the park.
- Do not remove, destroy or disturb any rock, earth, soil, gem, mineral, fossil, or other geological deposit.
- Do not remove, destroy, or disturb artifacts or cultural features.
- Do not willfully mutilate, pick, cut, or remove any plant life.
- Firearms, fireworks, and weapons are not permitted inside the park.
- No four wheelers, dirt bikes, or other off-road motorized vehicles are allowed to be used in the park. All vehicles must be driven on the road and must be street-legal per Texas law.
- All fires must be contained in campfire rings or waist high grills located at the various campsites and day use areas throughout the park. Fires are not permitted during fire bans.
- Do not use any camping areas unless you have paid the camping fee or have been granted permission to do so by park staff. Day use areas have been provided for your usage.
- Illegal drugs and the public display or consumption of alcoholic beverages are not allowed inside the park.