We were in Palo Duro in early November 2022, as part of Big Trip #4.
Did you know the second largest canyon in the US is in Texas? I assume I don’t need to say what the #1 largest is. We’ve had Palo Duro Canyon on our master map of possible camping locations for a few years, and it jumped out at us as we started mapping our trip home from Tucson. Our original itinerary for Big Trip #4 called for us to swing north from Palm Springs to Sedona and Albuquerque, and on toward Springfield, MO; instead, we rerouted to Tucson and stayed to the south through New Mexico. Palo Duro is a half-hour southeast of Amarillo, and worth the extra drive from the interstate.
Palo Duro (“hard stick” in Spanish) Canyon was formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River (maybe the longest river name I’ve come across) cutting through multicolor layers of siltstone, shale, limestone, sandstone, and conglomerate that were uplifted in the Pleistocene. The canyon was first inhabited about 12,000 years ago by early hunting cultures, and when the Spanish arrived in 1541, Apaches lived there. Comanches and Kiowas took over from the Apaches, and the US removed the Native Americans in 1874. The canyon was a private ranch until the 1930s when the state purchased the land and opened the park.
I mentioned this on our Tucumcari post already, but Cadillac Ranch, off I-40 just west of Amarillo, is a fun stop to stretch your legs and maybe spray paint some graffiti. The Cadillacs were stuck nose-first into the ground in 1974: ten cars with their tails in the air, lined up in order of age, and at the same angle as the Great Pyramid of Giza. Cadillac Ranch is free (unless you want to buy spray paint at the gate) and dog-friendly, and it’s easy to park a trailer on the shoulder of the road.
Palo Duro has four RV-friendly campgrounds. We chose to camp in Sagebrush because it’s the closest to the park entrance, but after driving by the lower campgrounds we thought they were more spacious and had nicer views.
Our campsite was great, though, other than the afternoon flies, but they were everywhere. When we weren’t hiking, we were hanging out at our picnic table. Sagebrush is the closest campground to the TEXAS Outdoor Musical, a summer song and dance performance about pioneer life in the Texas panhandle. It sounds like the musical thing in Medora. We were glad it wasn’t going on while we were living next door, but maybe it’s your thing, and if you stay in Sagebrush it’s an easy walk to the amphitheater.
All RV sites have power and water, and three of the four campgrounds have sites with 50-amp service. There’s no cell service anywhere in the park (at least for Verizon), but the little camp store next to Sagebrush has wi-fi, and they sell basic supplies.
We crammed in as much hiking as we could in a day, but you could also mountain bike or ride horses. The trails are dog-friendly, but keep your dog close as mountain bikes will likely be zooming by. We encountered a bunch of bikers–most were friendly, but a couple were downright rude–on our afternoon hikes, but not in the morning. It’s another reason, along with beating the heat and other hikers, to hit the trails early!
Palo Duro’s trails are on the shorter side, but it’s easy to string them together to make something longer. Most trails are open to hiking and biking, with a couple dedicated trails for horses and bikes, so be sure to confirm that your activity is appropriate for your chosen trails.
The Lighthouse Rock hoodoo formation was at the top of our priority list, so for our longer morning hike, we made a nine-mile loop of Lighthouse Trail, G-S-L Trail, and Paseo del Rio. It was a gorgeous and fun hike through the red rocks to the Lighthouse, the symbol of Palo Duro.
Go early for a chance of having the Lighthouse all to yourself (we got about ten minutes of solitude), and take lots of water, as this is the trail where most people get into heat-related trouble in Palo Duro.
Due to the heat, we kept our Bugsy hikes short and water-focused. Rojo Grande was a nice shady walk along red cliffs, but that’s where we encountered the most bikes. It’s about 2.5 miles as an out-and-back.
Juniper Riverside is another short out-and-back, about two miles total, with some shade and a scenic view of the river. We turned back early as Bugsy was losing enthusiasm so can’t report on the full length, but this trail seemed less bikey than Rojo Grande.
Bugsy’s third hike, after we got home from the Lighthouse, was from our campsite on the Kiowa Trail. It’s another shady, easy trail along the river, and we really appreciated that we didn’t have to drive to the trailhead. We passed the glamping area and the tents look really cool!
Palo Duro has a scenic drive eight miles down into the canyon, but our favorite part of the scenic drive was at the very beginning: the views of the canyon from the top are incredible. It’s so beautiful at sunset that we shared our vista point with two groups having professional photos taken–a bride and groom, and a family. Fortunately the rock we were all sharing was plenty big, and there are several other equally-bananas vista points along the park road, so sunset enjoyers can spread out a bit.
We had planned to stay in Palo Duro for two nights, but decided to shove off early to get some miles in toward Tulsa, our next target. The campsite was already paid for, though, so we were able to do the Kiowa Trail hike with Bugsy and have a leisurely lunch at our picnic table before leaving. Our plan was to drive a few hours and pick a town along the way that seemed somewhat interesting…