Off the Beaten Path: Palo Duro Canyon

“Texas' best kept secret,” said one Texas governor. He referred to “The Grand Canyon of Texas,” Palo Duro Canyon. We found it in a tourist brochure shortly before approaching Amarillo, Texas on our tour of historic Route 66.

The Canyon is a state park located south of Amarillo about 24 miles south on SR 1541 then 8 miles east on SR 217. It's the second largest canyon in the U.S. and noted for vibrant color, scenic views, history, hiking trails, and great camping. After driving hundreds of miles on flat to slightly rolling landscape, Lynn and Roger were surprised to see a miniature Grand Canyon out our Roadtrek windows.

What makes it unique is its scale. It is 800 feet deep and about three miles wide. This plus the vibrant color makes it breathtaking. Palo Duro Canyon is Texas's second largest state park. The canyon is 120 miles long below its flat rim. Unlike the ancient Grand Canyon, you can drive to the rolling bottom land on a paved road with magnificent views upward around every turn. Pull-offs and picnic tables are spotted for good views. Three campgrounds with utilities accommodate RVs and a tent-only campground is available. In summer an amphitheater is the site of a “Texas” musical.

Palo Duro Canyon BottomPrehistoric artifacts testify to some 1,200 years of early human use, and more modern Indians found the canyon a superb home because of its year around water supply, shelter from the coldest weather, and a hidden “secret” location from casual travelers. In 1874 the U.S Army was called in because the Comanche Indians were “stealing” horses and spiriting them away into the canyon, an activity also of the Kiowa and Cheyenne tribes–one cause of the Red River War, 1874-1875. Col. R.S. Mackenzie with his 4th U. S. Cavalry in September slipped down the narrow zigzag trail and attacked at dawn the first five encampments. Panic ensued! The Indians scattered, the soldiers burned the tepees, winter stored supplies, and they captured 1,400 horses. His men shot 1,100 horses as Army surplus after confiscating 300 of the best. Only four Indians were killed, but with winter, starvation loomed and the Indians walked back to the Fort Sill reservation. That effectively ended the native American hunting way of life.

A CaveHow can such a remarkable canyon be formed in less than one million years? A branch of the Red River cut down through a resistant rock bed underlain by beds of weaker rocks. The rampant erosion and collapse sculpted a canyon landscape in a relatively short time contrasted with the millions of years of erosion that created the world famous Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona.  We spotted a cave in the wall and had to investigate.  It didn't go!

Surprising off the beaten path places are sometimes so remote that today's high speed travelers never hear about them, let alone slow down to see the best. If you can spare a 48 mile round trip from Historic Route 55 or I-40 in Texas, Palo Duro Canyon will reward you beyond expectations.




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