Saturday, April 5, 2014

Palo Duro Canyon, TX

Continuing east from Tucumcari, NM the terrain remains open plains dotted with scrub junipers and small mesquite trees.  Distance mountains and mesas shrink from the horizon and it becomes flat with 20 mile vistas.  I-40 becomes a straight line running to the eastern horizon.   We see an occasional ranch, a few cattle, old wind mills, and a crumbling building every few miles.   It goes on like this for 100 miles.

As we approach Amarillo, the prairie grass and scrub trees give way to cultivated land and grain elevators sprout up.  It’s another windy day with a steady 35 mph winds.  And with the wind, the dust starts to pick up.  By the time we roll into Amarillo, there’s a brown fog limiting visibility to less than a mile.

The wind gusts pick up and start to shove the RV around.  Tumble weeds blow across the road.  One gust sets off the skid alarm in the RV.  At one point the visibility is less than 100 ft.  Later we’ll find out that this is a typical day in the Texas panhandle.  Luckily, we’re off the highway and driving a few miles south of Amarillo to Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

Dust over Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the US.  It’s called the Grand Canyon of Texas.  That description is not an exaggeration.  It’s over 120 miles long and 800 ft deep.  The canyon was a home base for the Quahadi Comanche’s for several hundred years.   In 1874, it was the site of the battle that resulted with the Comanche surrendering and moving to a reservation in Oklahoma. Until that battle, the Texas panhandle was unsettled due the hostility of the Comanches. 

The state park, covering over 18,000 acres, was developed in the early 1930’s by the CCC.  Several hundred CCC workers built the initial canyon road by hand along with many of the buildings in the state park.  I had heard about the park only recently from various blog writers as a must see stop if you’re in the panhandle.  We had been driving for the past 5 days and needed a break from the road, so we decided to spend 2 nights at the state park. 

The land all around the canyon is flat treeless grass land, but as you approach the canyon large crevasses open up and become wider revealing multi colored rocky strata.  The park entrance is at the top of the canyon.  A 10% grade switch back road takes you down into the canyon opening up a totally different landscape.  White cap rock sits on top, then brown, and then red stone.  Scrub trees dot the canyon walls.  The Prairie Dog Town branch of the Red River runs thru the bottom of the canyon.  It’s a small stream while we were there, but can quickly become torrent when it rains.

Campsites at Mesquite Camping Area
There are three developed campgrounds in the canyon.  All have water and electricity and bath houses with showers.  The sites are paved and well spaced.  We stayed at Mesquite Camp Area, the smallest (19 sites), the most remote, and the one with the best views.  It’s like camping in the bottom of the Grand Canyon – a million dollar view out of every window.  By far, it’s the prettiest place we’ve camped on this trip.  Here are some pictures.

It’s quiet in the canyon.  There’s no cell service, no internet, and no TV signals.  We saw small deer as we drove into the canyon.  Coopers hawks could be seen circling above doing their hunting.  Coyotes started howling behind the RV as we went to bed that first night.  Here's short video of the Canyon at the Mesquite Camping area.

The next day the wind and dust had disappeared giving us a clear sunny day. We spent it just hanging around the campground, taking short hikes along the base of the canyon walls, taking pictures, catching up on some reading, and enjoying the great vista’s.  

It was a very relaxing stay and it felt good not to be driving.  I highly recommended Palo Duro Canyon if you’re passing through the Texas panhandle.

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