Hiking in the Panhandle – Palo Duro Canyon

With some time off, I wanted to get in a trip a little off the beaten path.

Somewhere I could explore that was new.

Using my usual methods of finding a new place, I saw a patch of green in the Texas Panhandle: Palo Duro Canyon.

Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the US. Some literature puts the canyon at 120 miles long, up to 20 miles wide and almost 1000′ deep in places. Not bad for something located in the Llano Estacado

Looking at the maps, I saw a mixture of day-use hiking trails and an intriguing area labeled “backcountry” per the park literature. A network of old 4WD roads was shown on the topo if not on the main map.

For my first trip to this canyon, I’d explore the marquee day hike trails mixed in with camping. And, time permitting, I’d do an extended day in the Palo Duro backcountry.

I left after work and made my way to the Texas Panhandle.

My first time in Texas.  And it would be hiking and camping.

Well, that is not entirely accurate. I did work as an IT Monkey providing support for a trade show in Dallas quite a few years ago. I don’t count this visit as I went from the airport to the convention hotel and back. I could have been Anywhere, USA.

This visit to Palo Duro was much more scenic.

A campsite was made across from the Fortress Cliff.  It was unseasonably warm at 90F!  Even for the Texas Panhandle, this was quite warm for February. A lot more people than usual, too.

I walked from my campsite along a trail and hiked the popular Lighthouse Trail.

The Lighthouse is the iconic rock formation that is on all the Palo Duro literature, websites and knickknacks found in the gift shop.

I scrambled up a nearby rock formation and had a panoramic view of Palo Duro Canyon with The Lighthouse in the foreground.  Stupendous!

After this great hike, I went up to the Canyon Rim by the Civilian Conversation Corp  (CCC) era  Visitors Center.  The CCC would walk down to the canyon bottom before the road was constructed.  In the late afternoon light, a superb view of the canyon proper was seen.

And I even saw a local inhabitant.

A road runner. Meep-beep!


After exploring the rim a bit, I drove back to the canyon bottom. After, I popped into a bird viewing area and was stunned by the local aviary population.

The warm day was coming to a close. The sunset colors added a memorable start to the evening.

The coyotes made a late night song that only added to the allure of the area.

The following day I wanted to explore the other side of the canyon. I’d walk up to and along the Fortress Cliff formation.  Though The Lighthouse formation was striking, I enjoyed the hike along the canyon rim more. Fewer people, visually stunning and felt more like a backcountry trail.  The weather was also a more seasonable 58F!

The view of the iconic Capitol Peak was memorable, too.

I made a descent back to my vehicle.

could see why the Fortress Cliffs received their name.

After the hike, I checked in the with the ranger. A cold front was expected to move in that evening. If the weather came as predicted, the steep road into the canyon would be icy. I would not be getting out!

The following morning, it started to rain. I quickly packed up and drove out of the canyon. As I was eating breakfast in a nearby town, the rain turned to sleet and then snow. A wise call was made!  The Palo Duro backcountry with its intriguing old jeep track on the map would have to wait for another time.

Overall, a great trip. And well worth visiting.  I love these unexpected gems found in tucked away places.  South or east is where I tend to go now for a bit of the unexpected.

All the photos


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7 years ago

Sorry you had to cut the trip short, but of course it is winter. . . . Beautiful photos, thank you!

7 years ago

Nice! Texas, who knew.

J Ramos
J Ramos
7 years ago

Next time you feel the urge, drive around the block (it’s a big block) and check out Caprock Canyon just to the south of Palo Duro. Much more private and a good long backcountry loop which is an easy overnight or a full day’s hike. It’s a dry county so byob and keep it under wraps in the park itself. Palo Duro is a beautiful place but I suspect you’d enjoy Caprock more. Oodles of cactus and loose soil so it’s tough to scramble off trail or find a tent spot but both are possible.

7 years ago

I’ve been looking for a reason to plan to another trip to Palo Duro Canyon and the 4WD sections has peaked my interest. What map(s) were you using when you found it?