Palo Duro Canyon State Park: A User's Guide

BEACON: The Lighthouse rock formation in Palo Duro Canyon State Park. (Photo: Mike Norton/Citizen Image).
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Sometimes being second is still pretty awesome. The Palo Duro Canyon south of Amarillo, Texas, is about 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 800 feet deep, making it second only to the Grand Canyon on the list of American canyons. Unlike Arizona’s Grand Canyon, the canyon floor is accessible by car so that visitors to Palo Duro Canyon State Park can gawk from the rim and from the bank of the river that cut the canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park has nearly three dozen miles of trails and is also the site of TEXAS, an outdoor musical drama that is the official play of the state of Texas.


Spanish explorers are thought to have trekked through the area, naming the canyon "Palo Duro" — Spanish for "hard wood" — in reference to the abundant mesquite and juniper trees. The state of Texas acquired the land in 1933 and Palo Duro Canyon State Park officially opened on July 4, 1934. Crews with the Civilian Conservation Corps worked in the park from 1933 until 1937 and built a road to the canyon floor, the visitor center, cabins, shelters and the park headquarters.

Things to do

The trail system at Palo Duro Canyon State Park offers something for hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. Horses aren’t allowed on some trails, however. The Lighthouse Trail is a 5.7-mile roundtrip trek to the Lighthouse Rock, the iconic formation that often serves as the emblem of the park. The hike proves geology isn’t dull: you’ll see layers of rock that are bright red, yellow, pink and lavender.

Mountain bikers won’t have to worry about horses on the Capitol Peak Mountain Bike Trail, a three-mile loop.

More than 10 miles of trail are open to horseback riding, including the four-mile Turnaround Equestrian Trail, which is for horses only. Old West Stables, located inside the park on the canyon floor, offers guided trail rides.

Why you’ll want to come back

western diamondback rattlesnake

TEXAS, a play as big as the great outdoors, is held outdoors summer evenings at the Pioneer Amphitheater. The family friendly musical tells the story of pioneers of the Texas Panhandle. The show features a cast of more than 60 actors, singers and dancers. And cowboys. (You’ve got to have cowboys.)

Flora and fauna

The mesquite and juniper trees that inspired the canyon’s name are still here. Visitors will also see cottonwood and willow along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. Other common plants in Palo Duro Canyon State Park include prairie grasses such sideoats grama, big bluestem, Indian blanket and star thistle.

Wildlife roaming the park includes both whitetail deer and mule deer. Visitors may also see coyotes, roadrunners and Barbary sheep, native to North Africa. And don't forget to keep an eye out for western diamondback rattlesnakes (at right).

By the numbers:

  • Website: Texas Parks and Wildlife
  • Park size: 29,182 acres or 45.6 square miles
  • 2010 visitation: 278,977
  • Funky fact: Seven stone cabins built by the CCC are available for rent. Three of the cabins are at the canyon rim.

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States.

Inset photo of rattlesnake: jbviper1 r w h/Flickr