Palo Duro Canyon hike - The Empty Middle 2015 - CycleBlaze

September 22, 2015

Palo Duro Canyon hike

Today I visit Palo Duro Canyon in a car with my parents. The canyon rim is 10 miles east of our motel. The high plains terrain is gently rolling with so few trees that you can see the horizon everywhere. But to the east the high plains literally drops off a cliff.

Starting here and continuing another 100 miles south, the high plains suddenly drop 700 feet to prairie. Palo Duro canyon is the most spectacular and accessible of many eroded side canyons in the 100 mile long escarpment known locally as The Caprock and known by geologists as Llano Estacado. The canyon was eroded by wind and the Prairie Dog Town fork of the Red River. Usually just a trickle, but it has occasional big floods that have revealed a colorful geologic history.

First view of Palo Duro Canyon from the visitor center overlook.
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We spent a long time at the Palo Duro Canyon State Park visitor center on the rim of the canyon. The exhibits are very well made, mostly by curators at the Panhandle-Plains museum in Canyon. We watched a fascinating video about Quanah Parker, the half-white Comanche chief who led the tribe through a forced transition from nomadic hunting to farming on a reservation. The Comanches had no choice after white people destroyed their food supply (buffalo) and stole all their horses.

The park road and visitor center were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's. Palo Duro is Spanish for "hard wood", referring to the Juniper trees in the canyon.

The park road descends 600 feet into the canyon.
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We drove the entire park road and stopped several places to take pictures. Palo Duro Canyon State Park is one of the biggest and best state parks in Texas. The park has several campground loops and picnic areas but it was nearly deserted on a late September Tuesday with iffy weather.

Telephoto view of Capitol Peak from near the road. I increased contrast but didn't boost color saturation. Four geologic layers from top to bottom: Ogallala - gravel, sand, and pond deposits cemented with caliche (limestone clay). Caprock of the high plains (2-10 million years old). Trujillo - red sandstone layers separated by gold and gray shale (181 million years old). Tecovas - purple, yellow, and gray shale that looks pink from a distance (200 million years old). Quartermaster - brick red shale with layers of white gypsum (250 million years old)
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The park has a big tourist attraction, a 1700 seat outdoor amphitheater where a musical stage production called "Texas" is put on during summer evenings. It's closed for the season now.

Much of The Caprock looks similar to Fortress Cliff.
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The park road has nice views but I know the Lighthouse trail has better views. I hiked it once before during a 100F (38C) August day in 1990. Today it's overcast and only 70F (21C). At first I was disappointed that it was overcast. But the light was bright with soft shadows. Quite flattering for the colors.

My parents dropped me off at the trail head at 11:45. I told them to pick me up at 3 PM, allowing 3 hours 15 minutes for the hike.

Field of dried flowers alongside the trail.
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The Lighthouse trail is a 6 mile out and back round trip to a pair of rock pinnacles called Lighthouse peak and Castle peak. The gentle uphill trail winds among colorful rock formations.

For the first mile the trail wraps around the base of Capitol Peak, gently uphill.

The Lighthouse trail passes very close to Capitol Peak.
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The scenery is great in all directions. Lighthouse peak and Castle peak become visible in the distance at about the halfway point, after wrapping around Capitol peak.

Castle Peak and Lighthouse peak visible in the distance.
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Very distinctive formation.
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The Lighthouse is 500 feet higher than the trail head, near the rim. The final quarter mile to the base of The Lighthouse is a steep scramble. Not really a trail. But the view at the top was excellent. Both of The Lighthouse and looking back into the canyon.

View from the top of the steep scramble.
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See the people? Castle peak on the left, Lighthouse peak on the right.
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I was running short on time so I didn't scramble up to the ledge between the two rock formations.

Looking into the canyon from near the Lighthouse. I increased contrast but didn't change color saturation.
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From this angle it resembles a pyramid with a chimney.
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On the return hike there were a few instances when the sun shone for 30-60 seconds. I took advantage of the opportunities.

Awesome momentary sunlight.
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Back side of Capitol Peak.
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The return hike is mostly downhill. Easy and fast. I didn't stop much because I was behind schedule. I returned to the trailhead 15 minutes later than I said I would. The 6 mile hike took 3.5 hours.

During the hike my parents went to the huge Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on the campus of West Texas A&M University in Canyon.

Prairie Dog Town fork of the Red River. View from the park road.
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While driving out of the canyon we stopped again at the visitor center overlook. Possibly my last time to see Palo Duro canyon.

One last view of the canyon.
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I really enjoyed seeing Palo Duro canyon, especially the hike. I planned to bike into the canyon but the cancelled flight made that impossible. The Lighthouse trail hike was an excellent consolation prize. Surely the most spectacular scenery I will see until I get to the Black Hills.

Hiking: 6 miles (9.6 km)

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