The second best doesn’t always get acclaim. Palo Duro Canyon happens to be the second largest canyon in the United States. The canyon is 120 miles long and 20 miles wide with a maximum depth of 800 feet from the rim elevation of 3,500 feet above sea level.
You can get there driving about 40 minutes south from Amarillo, Texas. As you drive, you’ll notice the flat, barren, and windy plains. But once you’re past the park gates, it’s challenging not to be awed by the vast chasm revealing an oasis of rolling terrain, desert vegetation, and colorful rock formations.
The name “Palo Duro,” Spanish for “hard wood,” was tagged by early explorers and references the mesquite and juniper trees scattered throughout the canyon. Within lies a horde of incredible things to discover, especially the trails.
What Makes It Great
There’s a lot to explore in Palo Duro, and the trails really stand out here. In fact, many of these trails were created by pioneer trail runners. For example, the three mile Givens, Spicer, Lowry (or GSL) trail is named after runners who helped to build the trails with an eye for running through challenging hills and desert terrain. Lots of geologic formations will feature as runners move along the moderate Juniper/Cliffside Trail, which follows along caves carved by water erosion, or the easier Sunflower Trail, which is marked by rock streaked by white satin-spar.
For a climbing challenge, the CCC trail offers 500 feet of vertical climbing from the canyon floor to the canyon rim in less than 1.5 miles. The caves, the numerous geologic features including the Lighthouse rock formation, and the Texas vibe make this park a worthwhile visit.
If you are visiting Palo Duro for the first time, we recommend parking at the trailhead of the Lighthouse and Rojo Grande Trails. This parking lot doubles as the Lighthouse Aid Station in the Palo Duro Trail Run, a series of trail races between 20K to 50 miles held in October.
Following the course route will take you on a 12 mile loop following the Lighthouse, GSL, Paseo del Rio, Rojo Grande, Sunflower, and Juniper/Cliffside trails. The halfway point lies at the parking lot so you can refuel, rehydrate and get back at it. And when you’re finished, there’s a cool stream close by where you can soak and cool down.
Who is Going to Love It
Folks who love trails will love Palo Duro: hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. Most of the trails are multi-use, but there are some trails designated only for hikers, a three mile loop for bikers only, and an equestrian only trail at the south of the park. Many of these trails are also family friendly. The runners who will really love Palo Duro are those who like heat. Even in February, temperatures can be in the mid-80's, so go prepared with lots of water and sunscreen.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The park is located 12 miles east of I-27 running between Amarillo and Lubbock. From the town of Canyon, driving east along TX-217E will bring you to the park headquarters.
The park is open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. and the entry fee is $5 per person, but children under 12 years of age are admitted free of charge. The park can be accessed outside of operating hours, and visitors can pay the fee at a self-pay station located outside the Park Headquarters Building. Shortly after the park gates, drivers will come across a visitor’s center which has a museum, an information desk, and a gift shop. We recommend stopping here to get a trail map.
The park has on-site camping as well as cabin and horse rentals. There is also an interpretive center and an amphitheater which plays a historical music production called “Texas” throughout the summer.
If bringing pets, they must be kept on a leash and attended at all times. Public consumption of alcohol is prohibited.