I’m embarrassed to say I only recently learned of Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the U.S., and it’s right here in my home state of Texas. Just southeast of Amarillo, this massive canyon is fully equipped with colorful mesa walls, interesting rock formations, and heaps of desert wildlife. Oh, and heat. The title of this post comes from a description of the canyon by the well-known artist, Georgia O’Keeffe.
Hats off to my buddy Gordon Akinpelu for not only bringing this place of wonder to my attention, but also for being a fellow roadtripper out there! Roughly 375 miles from D/FW, the drive across the Llano Estacado of the Texas Panhandle is flat and, to quote the play we saw, “You can see further and see less than anywhere else in the U.S.!”. Good conversation filled the hours until we arrived in Amarillo, met a friend of Gordon’s in Canyon, had a couple of drinks, and crashed at the Best Western. I know, I know: the fans of this blog are thinking I’ve gone soft for sleeping in a hotel, but you’ve got to be flexible with your comrades. I’ll be back to sleeping in a car in a Wal-Mart parking lot on some future roadtrip before long.
We had a full-on breakfast, bought trail mix and plenty of water for our descent. $5 per person for an all-day pass to the canyon is well worth the money. We snapped a couple of pics upon arrival, applied SPF 50 Sunscreen (remember the backs of your legs!), picked our trail on the map and set off around 10:30am.
The Spanish Skirts – the red rippling patches of the canyon wall – are immediately eye-catching. Our pace was slow as we wound around, stopping frequently for photos. We joked along the way about snakes, the lack of shade trees, and the tragedy of being shot with an arrow in the belly and left to die out in the heat…the heat which steadily rose.
The capstone rocks made some very impressive formations along the path, but the Lighthouse Peak was ahead. It’s the icon of Palo Duro Canyon and for good reason. The climb to get to it started about 4 miles into our hike (we didn’t go the usual route) and while it’s not the toughest ascent, it’s enough to make you take a breather now and then.
We took one final rest in the shade of the Lighthouse before I climbed to the peak for some unrivaled views of the canyon – and to risk life and limb for photos to present to you, dear reader. 🙂 At this point, we met a group of home-school kids (the oldest couldn’t have been more than 11) whose parents or aunt had lagged behind a bit on the trail.
Without any adult supervision, they were climbing this towering peak without even the slightest look over their shoulders at the severe drop directly behind them. It reminded me a bit of myself and rather than squash their adventurous spirits with fear, I posted up to stop them from falling and helped where I could (telling them not to throw rocks off the edge when we got to the top).
With a few bottles of water remaining, we started back, but it was now 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the heat was fully on us. Those previous jokes about lack of shade were no longer funny. No more occasional lizards, just annoying flies. The thermostats on the trail read somewhere around 106 degrees F (41 C) and the last 3 miles back to the car were brutal.
My hiking boots, which were great for the climb up, became hot, heavy, sweaty bricks and I have the blisters to prove it. We found one capstone rock free of cactus and angled just right to provide shade for the both of us. At 2:30, we finally made it to the car; weary, sore, sweaty, and coated in red dirt.
That was how we appeared in an interview with a reporter at Cadillac Ranch an hour later. The artist of the famous embedded Cadillacs, Stanley Marsh, died a few hours before we arrived at the site and Laura Ness was there to obtain people’s reactions. In truth, I didn’t know the artist’s name until that day, but I had grown up hearing about this piece of art. It was strange to see a legacy of Route 66 cluttered with cans of spray paint (apparently that’s what you do when you go there – tag that Cadillacs and drop your cans).
After a good meal and a stop at Barnes & Noble, we freshened up a bit and returned to the canyon for the nighttime musical, “Texas”. Two hours of dancing cowboys and pioneering women portraying the hard lives of cattlemen and sodbusters on the Panhandle around the time of the first railroad. It’s an amusing, family-friendly show full of cool special effects, horses, fireworks, and a heapin’ helpin’ of good ol’ American patriotism under the Texas stars.
Our final adventure was in a castle! We stayed the night at Camelot Motel…unfortunately there were no maidens fair nor holy grails. Fortunately, there were no stray hairs or mystery stains. The next morning, we ate at Cracker Barrel and made our way East back to mildly varied terrain, traffic, and construction.
A great time had by all and yet another reason to love Texas!