Experience the History and Beauty of Nature in Palo Duro Canyon State Park

View of the Palo Duro Canyon in March 2019
View of the Palo Duro Canyon in March 2019

For outdoor enthusiasts in the Texas panhandle area, a great place to visit is Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It is a ruggedly beautiful canyon, second largest in the United States, and is located approximately 25 miles southeast of Amarillo, Texas. It has a history that is just as varied as its vegetation and wildlife, worthy of exploring and studying. The beauty of the canyon is stunning, making it a beautiful retreat from a busy world.

The Canyon

The canyon name Palo Duro, which is Spanish for “hard wood,” is reflective of the trees and bushes that live there. The canyon is home to a wide variety of natural vegetation, as well as water, that has been critical for sustaining life for thousands of years. There are a variety of junipers including the Rocky Mountain juniper tree, red berry juniper, and one seed juniper. Other common trees and bushes include mesquite, cottonwood, western soapberry, hackberry, ash, willow, and Texas buckthorn. Wildflowers and a variety of grasses also found in the landscape including switchgrass, Indiangrass, sideoats grama, tansy aster, common sunflower, Indian blanket, Engleman daisy, paperflower, yucca, prickly pear cactus, and more.

Because of the wide variety of plant life and availability of water, the canyon was and is an ideal home for a variety of animal life. This has been the case for thousands of years. Fossils of plant and animals long since extinct have been found embedded in the Canyon’s rock layers. More recently, though, the canyon was home to the bison, black bear, cougar, black-footed ferret, and lobo wolf. These animals are now either gone from the area or extremely rare. Animals common there now include the raccoon, gray fox, porcupine, coyote, jackrabbit, opossum, white-footed mouse, woodrat, ringtailed cat, cottontail rabbit, striped skunk, mule deer, and bat. There are also a wide variety of birds found in the canyon, making it an excellent place for bird watching. A few of these include the golden eagle, nighthawk, canyon wren, meadowlark, painted bunting, lark sparrow, red-tailed hawk, roadrunner, and blue quail.

Inhabitants – Prehistoric & Native American

The availability of resources, edible plants, game, and shelter made the canyon a popular place for prehistoric peoples as well as more recent Indian tribes. Studies indicate that humans inhabited Palo Duro Canyon as early as 10,000 to 5,000 B.C. Some of the artifacts and stone weapons of these early inhabitants have been found, providing great clues about life during that time period.

Later, various Indian tribes also found Palo Duro Canyon a vast natural resource and often camped in this area. These tribes included the Apaches, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, and Comanche. For many years they successfully relied on buffalo as a significant source of food, shelter, and clothing. This would inevitably change for them in the early 1870s when the white buffalo hunters almost completely exterminated the buffalo.

If rocks could talk, I have no doubt the ones in Palo Duro Canyon would have plenty of stories to share. With a history spanning thousands of years, this beautiful wonder of nature is truly a sight to behold. I’ve already put this canyon back on my bucket list to re-visit and spend more time enjoying the beauty and learning about the Indians’ relationship with the land and its resources.

View of the Palo Duro Canyon, located in the Texas Panhandle.
View of the Palo Duro Canyon, located in the Texas Panhandle.
Red River War (1874-1875)

The mid-1800s brought greater conflict between the white man and the Indian. More pioneers and gold hunters migrated West, continually crossing and settling on what had been Indian territory. Buffalo hunters also brought conflict by killing thousands of buffalo a day, the critical food source for the Indians. The Indians, then, fought back against the threats to their way of life. And the West became the new battleground.

To diffuse the situation, the federal government arranged the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 with some of the tribes. In the treaty, the federal government would agree to provide provisions to the tribes, along with guns for seasonal buffalo hunting south of the Arkansas River. In return, the people of those tribes would relocate to designated reservations and agree to stop all raids. It only took months for the federal government to fail in delivering on its end of the treaty, leaving the Indians without the necessary resources to feed and care for themselves. Some of the Indians remained on the reservations, frustrated and hungry. Others did not; they left the reservation with their families and went back to raiding and plundering for supplies.

It was during this same time the buffalo hunters were causing more frustration for the Indians by nearly exterminating the buffalo. The confrontation between the Southern Plains Indians and the White man reached its peak in June 1874 when the Comanche Quanah Parker led an attack against the buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls. Although the hunters successfully repelled the attack, it prompted the military to launch a full-scale campaign against those who had left the reservations. The campaign would become known as the Red River War of 1874-1875.

Although the war lasted about a year, the primary battle that defeated most of the Indians occurred on September 28, 1874. This was the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Army scouts had discovered the Indians had made a winter camp down in the canyon and reported back to Col. Mackenzie. At daybreak on September 28th, Col. Mackenzie and his soldiers surprised the villagers, chasing them several miles up the canyon, burning their entire camp, and killing more than 1,000 horses. The attack was so devastating the Indians, except for some renegade bands, had no choice but to head back to the reservations.

Throughout the following winter, the Army continued to hunt the remaining warriors who refused to return to the reservation. On June 2, 1875, about a year after he ignited the Red River War, Chief Quanah Parker and his warriors (the last remaining free band) finally surrendered at Fort Sill. Quanah Parker’s surrender ended the war and the way of life these Indians had known for so long.

Charles Goodnight Opens the Panhandle to Cattle Ranching

The year 1876 ushered in a new era to the Texas Panhandle and Palo Duro Canyon. This was the year Charles Goodnight drove about 1,600 head of cattle into the canyon and set up his first ranching operation. He initially built a dugout to serve as his living quarters. It was constructed from a combination of cottonwood and cedar log poles, as well as Indian lodge poles from camps abandoned just a couple of years earlier. I did not have the opportunity to see the dugout when I visited the canyon, but the Texas State Historical Association indicates it has been fully restored and can be seen from one of the trails today.

Goodnight developed a partnership with John Adair during the next year, and they worked together to create the JA Ranch. Over the next ten years, this partnership was incredibly successful with the herd expanding to over 100,000 in the Texas panhandle region, including Palo Duro Canyon. In 1887, Charles Goodnight decided to scale back his own ranching activities and did not continue the partnership with the Adair’s. The Adair’s retained the JA Ranch, which is still operated by their descendants.

Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle of Texas
Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle of Texas
Things to do

There are many ways to enjoy the beauty of the canyon, including hiking the numerous trails, mountain biking, horseback riding, and camping. There are about 16 miles of paved road that winds down to the canyon floor, which provides a fantastic way to tour the canyon by car. The access makes it a perfect place to take some time out of a busy schedule and have a picnic or do some bird watching.

During the summer enjoy a night out at the Pioneer Amphitheater watching the Outdoor Musical TEXAS depicting many stories in the Texas panhandle history. Check out their website for details. The Park’s visitor center, which is about a half-mile from its entrance, is worth a visit. It is small, but there is a good selection of beautiful Native American pottery, jewelry, knives, and art for sale. There is also a good selection of books that are very educational about various topics including Texas history, Native American use of herbs, and other related information. The visitor’s center also houses a small museum area worth checking out.

One note of caution: if visiting the canyon during the summer, make sure to be prepared for the heat and bring plenty of water. Always making sure to have water with me is something I’ve been quick to remember since moving back to the Southwest. It is incredible how fast you will find you need it.

Park Address:

11450 Park Rd. 5, Canyon, TX 79015


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