Texas is Huge. Canyons are Deep. Turkeys are Jerks.

Palo Duro Canyon
Friday, June 16, 2017 - 7:51pm

Texas is huge.

That was the astonishing observation I made as we were driving through the northern sliver of it known as the panhandle. Shattering, I know. But when you’re spinning through mind-numbing flatland towards a never-ending horizon, your mind goes a bit...numb. It’s a  landscape that changes with glacial swiftness. It’s the same thing. Over. And over. And over. There’s just not much to see between western Oklahoma and the central panhandle, except for a mural or two. That makes for a pretty long four hours. It also makes the first glimpse of Palo Duro Canyon even more breathtaking.

The thing about canyons - and this is going to be another shocker - is that you don’t see them until you’re about to drive over the rim. They’re hidden treasures. You can look across the horizon and have no idea that, a quarter of a mile away, there’s a huge divot in the earth.

I know this, yet every time I get close enough to a canyon to see into its depths it’s like someone yanked back the curtain and yelled “Ta-Da!” We’d even been to this specific canyon before, but when we took the first switchback and caught glimpses of the rim on the opposite side, when we descended from a horizon of monotony to a landscape of variety, it was just as surprising as it had been the first time.

It was our second day just showing up at a park and hoping for a decent campsite, but since the last night had gone so well I wasn’t worried. The nice ladies at the entrance told us they gave us the best site, and said that even though it looked like it was right by the bathrooms it wasn’t. Sounded good to us. We paid our entrance and campsite fees and headed into the depths of the second largest canyon in the United States.

Dropping 800 feet from rim to floor and stretching up to twenty miles wide, Palo Duro Canyon’s multi-hued layers are a vertical timeline of its geologic history. It became a state park in 1933 when the State of Texas purchased several thousand acres of the canyon for public use. The Civilian Conservation Corps, FDR’s Depression-era unemployment solution, built the roads and the buildings and in 1934 Palo Duro Canyon State Park opened to the public.

We took one of those CCC-built roads to Campsite #1 in the Hackberry Camp Area. It was, as the ladies said, by the bathrooms, but at the bottom of an incline so steep we couldn’t see the facilities at the top of the path. The campground was gloriously, serenely empty of people and setting up camp was a little difficult because we kept getting distracted by our surroundings. There were the hardwood trees for which the canyon’s named, and hackberry trees, for which the campground was named. Cedar, cottonwood, a sloped canyon wall of striated colors topped by a sandstone covered cliff. A roadrunner. Wild turkeys hanging out by the restrooms. The sky was blue. Just blue. No clouds, no contrails. Just blue.

Empty Campground at Palo Duro Canyon
Camping at Palo Duro Canyon

It was February, so the branches of the cottonwoods were bare. I’m sure it’s beautiful in the spring and summer, when they’re lush and covered in green, but the lack of leaves meant we could see through the branches. The open vistas were less obstructed, more...open. Of course, I knew everything was colored by how thrilled I was to be there, how excited I was to be doing what we were doing; I would have loved it no matter what the conditions. Doesn’t matter why. It was perfect.

Despite the distractions there was still plenty of light left when we finished setting up, so we crossed the road and picked up the Paseo del Rio Trail, a short and easy 1.03 mile hike. We didn’t talk much. When you’re spending every day, all day, together for several days in a row, sometimes you don’t need to speak. It was a companionable silence, the only sounds the rhythm of our trekking poles, the scuffling of our feet on the red path, and the trio of deer crashing through the undergrowth and leaping right in front of us, followed by a trio of mountain bikers racing in the opposite direction.

Mountain biker at Palo Duro Canyon

Just an easy walk in the canyon.

We continued following the path and came across the Cowboy Dugout, a replica of the cabin Charles Goodnight built when he was establishing the JA Ranch. Sometimes you can enter it and see what a rancher’s life was like in the late 1800s, but it was closed when we arrived. We read the plaque, walked on the roof (because we could) and then made our way back to our campsite. Sunset was near.

Cowboy Dugout at Palo Duro Canyon

The panhandle was as dry as a bowl full of croutons and no fire was allowed, so we cooked over the Coleman. A rafter of turkeys flowed around our campsite. They didn’t pay much attention to us, but I had the distinct feeling we hadn’t seen the last of these “fowl” creatures.

Oh, how right I was. The next morning I got up before sunrise, again, grabbed my journal, again, and started my coffee, only to be interrupted by a deer, again. This time it was a lone doe, and she investigated everything from Mae’s grill to my battered up percolator. She hung out with me while I took a few pictures of the sun cresting over the canyon wall. And then those darn turkeys came parading through. They were feisty, flat out surrounding our campsite, once again rippling around me like I was a rock in their creek. The toms fluffed their feathers so aggressively they doubled in size; I was an absolute affront to their dignity and way of life. I wanted to say “It’s February! You’re safe!” They just haughtily sauntered off to the empty campsites across the way, but not before looking back and glaring (don’t even try to tell me turkeys can’t glare. These suckers GLARED.). They took their own sweet time leaving the campground, though. Apparently I was not to be trusted.

Early Morning Doe at Palo Duro Canyon
Turkeys at Palo Duro Canyon
Turkeys at Palo Duro Canyon State Park

They finally skedaddled once Jim awakened. I told him about my eventful morning over sunny-side up eggs and sausage (not turkey sausage, in case you were wondering) with some fresh fruit and we picked another trail we could fit in before getting back on the road.

By the time we took off the temperature was already in the eighties. I’d started the day in pants and fleece and hit the trail in shorts and tank top. We drove deeper into the park until we reached the Rojo Grande Trail, slathered in sunscreen and carrying a backpack full of water. Considered a moderate hike, the path took us a little over a mile along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. On one side was the white-threaded red rock wall known as the Quartermaster Formation. It’s the oldest layer of the canyon, dating back about 250 million years. The red is from iron; the white is layers of gypsum. On the other side was a narrow creek of mustard-yellow water. In some passages it rushed and churned. In others it took a benign, lazy stroll. It seemed like a tiny little piece of the grand landscape, an insignificant drain, but just like a minor toothache that consumes every thought, this creek, this tributary of a bigger river, carved out the entire canyon. It whittled away at the plains, taking a piece here and a piece there for almost a million years.

Prairie Dog Town Fork at Palo Duro Canyon
Prairie Dog Town Fork at Palo Duro Canyon
Prickly Pear Cactus at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Prairie Dog Town Fork at Palo Duro Canyon

It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? Something that small creating something that vast. The Prairie Dog Town Fork is the very definition of persistence. It takes the joke “how do you eat an elephant” to a whole new level.

We found a shower at one of the other campgrounds and washed off the rusty dust of this ancient land. By the time we headed back up and out of the canyon it was nearly one in the afternoon, and we needed to make Santa Rosa, New Mexico, before dark. Time to get back on the road - we still had a lot of Texas to cover and another night of camping ahead of us.

Palo Duro Canyon - pin this


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Theresa Carter - The Local Tourist Founder and Publisher, a.k.a. the boss
About Theresa

Hello Fellow Traveler! I'm the Emmy-winning founder and publisher of The Local Tourist. I've got insatiable curiosity, wanderlust, and an incurable need to use my words. In fact, I

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How I wish I could use emojis in blog comments! This had me LOLing. And I know what you mean about realizing Texas' enormity—it hits me every time I drive cross country and am stuck on the I-40 corridor for what feels like daaaaaays.

I-40 is the bane of any southern road trip! I'll be lamenting that beast in my next post :-) Glad to make you laugh!

Those turkeys are SAVAGE and HUGE!! The canyon was worth it tho. If you haven't already you must check out Big Bend!

Oooh - no, I haven't been there! Adding to bucket list now :-)

I hate turkeys. I always think about getting one for our homestead so we can have a super fresh one for Thanksgiving, but, yeah, no. Beautiful photos! I drove the length of Texas or the shorter part of it, from Chicago to Houston a couple of years ago, and still have PTSD!

I finally flew over the Grand Canyon during the day time, and I marveled at it from that far up. I can ONLY imagine driving next to a gorge that large and beautiful. I've seen my share of them too. Now I have to drive back to Texas...again. LOL!

Natasha, somehow it does not surprise me that you'd have a strong opinion about turkeys - LOL! I get the PTSD. When we realized we were going to be driving through the panhandle again we wanted to cry!

Oh, when you first drive down into the canyon, it is breathtaking. I've got video I'll share (eventually). Thanks for the compliment on the photos! If you want to go to Palo Duro, I suggest flying into Amarillo :-)

I've never heard of this canyon, but it's so pretty! Especially with that blue sky! And I hate turkeys too, you're not alone!

It's really a beautiful place, Julia. The colors in person are just stunning. Turkeys are brats.

I just had to drop by as I'm a native Texas and I absolutely love exploring this country of Texas, lol. Great post of Palo Duro Canyon - I always drive in the area, but never actually stayed and camped. I'll have to keep it in mind the next time I'm in North Texas!

Well, we enjoyed visiting your "country" - LOL! The campsites in Hackberry were nice and spacious, and I liked that campground because it had trees. (Shade is a good thing when you're a redhead!).

First off: the title cracks me up!! I haven't been to Texas ever, but it's on my bucket list for sure. And honestly I had no idea canyons like this existed there! So that makes me wanna check it out even more! =)

:-) The panhandle is the only part of Texas I've visited, so I need to add more to my own bucket list! Yeah, that canyon is pretty mind-blowing, and is definitely worth a visit.

Really lovely post! It's rare to see so much description in travel writing (strangely enough...) so reading this was really pleasant. Palo Duro seems amazing - I had no idea that the second largest canyon in the US is in Texas! Also, love the shots of the turkeys :) Enjoy your travels!!

Thank you! I'm writing a book, so I tend to be verbose. I'm posting excerpts here, like a serialization. It is amazing, and it's one of those hidden gems in plain sight. Thanks!

Omg, those turkeys DO look haughty AF. We used to have a wild turkey that hung out in the parking lot at work. At first it was funny, like a weird little quirk. "That's the parking lot turkey," we'd say when we saw him from a distance. But then he got ballsy. He started sitting on people's cars ... and he wouldn't move when it came time for them to actually USE their cars. You could yell and scream at him all you want, he'd just sit there and GLARE at you challengingly. Once he even stood in front of the shuttle to the train station, just staring us down, waiting for us to make a move. Turkeys are JERKS!

That's hilarious! And they DO glare! I have a short video that I have to post of them actually hissing at me. I'm gonna have no problem at Thanksgiving this year...

The title of this drew me in!! So funny. Great post what an awesome place to explore!

LOL! Good! I think the titles are the hardest part of writing :-)

Best blog title ever! I've never explored out west but would love to one day!

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