As you drive toward Palo Duro Canyon from Amarillo, it suddenly emerges from the heart of the Texas Panhandle. First as a small gap, then a gaping, deep schism in the ground with deep red, brown, and tan layers. The locals call Palo Duro the “Grand Canyon of Texas”—and they aren’t far off.
Palo Duro Canyon is considered to be the second largest and longest canyon in the U.S. Formed by the Prairie Dog Town fork of the Red River, it is 120 miles long and 20 miles across at its widest point. Its highest elevation is 3,463 feet above sea level and its deepest point is over 800 feet from the rim. Early Spanish explorers probably discovered the canyon, naming it Palo Duro, Spanish for “hard wood” for the junipers and mesquite trees.
People have inhabited the area for around 12,000 years. The Clovis and Folsom peoples first lived in the canyon and hunted large herds of mammoth and giant bison. Other cultures, such as the Apache, Comanche and Kiowa, used the canyon’s plentiful resources more recently.
Visitors can drive down onto the floor of the canyon via Park Road 5, constructed in 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The most prominent feature is the Lighthouse, a 300-foot formation at the north end of the canyon. It is accessible from the road or by a three-mile trail. From June through August, you can also watch the musical “Texas” about early settlers in the park. You can bring your own horse to ride on trails.
Update April 2018: The Park Road water crossings have been replaced by bridges.