Big Bend Conservancy
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Palo Duro Canyon State ParkBy MAGGIE GALEHOUSECopyright 2007 Houston ChroniclePalo Duro Canyon State Park, in Armstrong and Randall counties, is 12 miles east of Canyon (and Canyon is about 19 miles south of Amarillo).PALO DURO CANYON — At the edge of the grasslands that fold under the fierce winds of the Texas Panhandle-Plains, the earth suddenly splits apart.Palo Duro Canyon is a thick slice of Texas-size terrain, spanning 120 miles and dropping to depths of 800 feet. "You can see the layers of history where the canyon washed away," says Randy Ferris, superintendent of Palo Duro Canyon State Park.Home to American Indians for 12,000 years, the canyon was my family's final stop on a road trip through the Panhandle. Miles from rolling hills and Caesar salads, we had grown weary of stinky motels and each other. We worried that "the Grand Canyon of Texas," the second largest canyon in the country, would seem insubstantial compared to the Grand Canyon further west.It didn't.Once a major campground of the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, who were finally pushed out of the southern Plains by the U.S. Army in 1874, Palo Duro Canyon is now home to 40 types of mammals, dozens of species of birds and an epic theatrical production. Paul Green's Texas, performed Tuesdays-Saturdays through Aug. 18 in the park's Pioneer Amphitheatre, is billed as a "musical romance of Panhandle history."When asked about the accuracy of the popular play — this year marks its 35th season — Ferris smiled and said, "It's history like the musical Oklahoma is history."Yet visitors to the park need look no further than the cliffs to see the past.The canyon is carved from shale, sandstone and clay, still shifting and settling into a rich, textural tapestry. Different shades of red, purple and gold snake across the cliffs, each horizontal vein color-coded to its own geologic period. The walls bear witness to the past 200 million years."The canyon is changing all the time," Ferris said. "We don't have the granite and quartz and other hard rock like they do in the Hill Country. It's all soft rock. And when the rocks fall, they often disintegrate like mudballs."The LighthouseThe park's crown jewel is a rock formation known as the Lighthouse, a National Natural Landmark. Sturdy sandstone beds interlayered with softer shale have eroded over time into this abstract stone structure. You can't get to it — or get a good look — from a car. You have to hike, bike or cowboy it on a horse.The 5.75-mile round-trip journey winds through avenues of prickly pear cactuses, honey mesquites, junipers and yucca, whose stalwart white flowers can reach as high as 5 feet. The trail is wild, gorgeous and hard to anticipate, thanks to twists and turns around the park's massive walls. In mid-May, when we visited, Indian blankets and other wildflowers blazed red and yellow along the trail, while horseflies hummed and feasted on the tender skin behind our knees.I made the Lighthouse trek in the afternoon, passing only one couple on the way up. A moderate climb in terms of difficulty, it gives hikers a few tantalizing peeks at their final destination. When I reached the Lighthouse, still panting from scrambling up a steep embankment in the last quarter-mile, the drone of the horseflies stopped and a breeze stepped in. The smooth stone sculpture seemed cast in bas relief against blue sky. With no other person in sight, and a silence I have to call holy, I found myself whispering to loved ones who have been dead for years.Walking down, I stopped to speak with David and Suzanne Joseph, a retired couple from Virginia who were chugging water and munching on power bars after the steep, final ascent. The Josephs — who describe themselves as newlyweds, though they've been married 13 years — travel for months at a time in their Buick LeSabre, stopping to dance in different cities (they like to jitterbug) and hike in state parks. On Sundays at home in Falls Church, they walk 1.7 miles each way to their favorite Indian restaurant.David, 74, has a heart condition, so Suzanne, 59, keeps a close eye on him."This is a trail we'd recommend to anybody," said David, gazing at the Lighthouse and gripping his hiking stick. "It's well-maintained, and it's impossible to get lost."Suzanne interjected: "He's the champion trail loser."David continued: "And it's wide enough in many spots so a couple can walk side by side."The canyon lures all kinds. One evening, after a failed attempt to drive the 16-mile loop of the park — there are five water crossings so recent rains may cut your drive short — we passed a small group of friends unpacking their cellos and violins.Minutes later, we made the acquaintance of oil painter Orren Mixer, whose portraits of quarterhorses are legendary among horse circles and sell on eBay. From his trailer, which was stacked to the ceiling with paint supplies and colorful blankets, Mixer shot the breeze for a while and left us with a few signed prints.Yesterday and todayLike many of the largest state parks in Texas, Palo Duro was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Just half-an-hour's drive south from Amarillo, it's one of the few parks that makes a little more money than it spends. The 2006 budget was about $625,000; that same year, Palo Duro took in close to $1 million and welcomed 300,000 visitors.There are huge challenges to managing such large numbers. For one, the park must contend with the mountainous refuse left by visitors. Park interpreter Bernice Blasingame, who leads tours and educational programs, tried to get park goers interested in recycling last year but said her efforts "fell flat."Special bins for bottles got filled with other types of trash, Blasingame said. Since the park is already short-staffed, there was no way to monitor the recycling effort."Recycling is not part of the culture in the Panhandle yet," said Ferris, who picks a lot of plastic Wal-Mart bags out of trees in the park. "We've still got people burning trash who live in rural areas."What campers and other visitors can do, Ferris said, is reduce their power usage when they're in the park. Patrons pay a flat fee for electricity and water, but some people leave lights, stereos, TVs, even air conditioners on in their motor homes while they're out hiking."If people brought large water jugs and drank out of one cup rather than individual bottles of water, that would also be a big help," he said.A small staff means that many matters in the canyon do not get the attention they deserve. Ferris applauded the volunteers who work in the busy spring and summer season to keep the place running."We've got 33 miles of trails open, but we cannot have a ranger patrolling a trail twice a day, which would be ideal," Ferris said.Yet not everyone who visits the park ventures onto the trails."The number one question when people get to the park is: Will I be able to get reception on my satellite TV?" Ferris said. (The answer is yes, but only via satellite.)Many people who visit state parks never make it farther than 100 yards from their car, Blasingame said. So she's come up with a way to woo the reluctant hiker.The new Pioneer Nature Trail, which Blasingame saw to fruition, is a flat, serene loop, a little more than 1/2 -mile long, offering canyon views and a chance to meet some of the plants and birds that call Palo Duro home."When people come to see the musical Texas, they can start the trail near the overflow parking lot," she said.Ferris added: "To get somebody from a couch to a trail, it's got to be a baby step."email@example.comREPORT CARD• Recreational Highlights: Hiking, biking, horseback riding, camping, educational programs, playgrounds for kids. Sixteen miles of paved roadway.• Trails: Highlights include the Lighthouse Trail, a 5.75-mile round-trip hike; an 11-mile running trail; equestrian trails at the back of the park behind the mesquite campground; a few 2-mile trails; and the new Pioneer Trail, an easy loop that runs a little more than half a mile.• Bikes on trails: Yes, on every hiking trail. [-X • Trail map: Available at the Gate House entrance.• Wildlife: 40 different mammals including coyotes, bats, bobcats, deer, prairie dogs, beavers and the Palo Duro mouse.• Birds: Dozens of species including painted buntings, canyon wrens, red-tailed hawks, vultures, roadrunners and owls.• Tent camping: Yes.• RV camping: Yes.• Shelter camping: Cabins.• Visitor Center: Located on the rim by the overlook. Includes exhibits about the history, wildlife and geology of the canyon.• Gift shop: The Trading Post has T-shirts, jewelry, books, firewood, some camping supplies, ice, a restaurant, mountain bike rentals and more.• Staffing: 12 full-time employees; five seasonal employees• Pets: Must be on a 6-foot leash.• Wheelchair access: Limited; restrooms only.• Wi-Fi access: No.• Pay phones: Two, at the Trading Post and the Gate House.• Cell phone coverage: In some places, depending on your service. Sprint, Nextel and AT&T seem to do pretty well, says park superintendent Randy Ferris.• Food: The Trading Post gift shop includes a restaurant.• Laundry: No.• Gas: For sale June-September.• Special attraction: Evening productions of Texa s, a musical drama, continue Tuesdays through Saturdays through Aug. 18 in the park's Pioneer Amphitheatre. New this year, steak dinners are available before the show (or instead of the show), catered by the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, famous for its 72-ounce steak.• Overall rating: 4 stars. (This rating is based on park conditions and available activities, with four stars meaning excellent; 3 stars good quality; 2 stars adequate; 1 star reflecting a need for significant improvement.
I went in the winter, it was bitterly cold and deserted. We were the only ones in the loop we camped in...until this giant RV showed up and backed in right next to us. ](*,) I'd still consider it a Texas "Must See". however, I liked Caprock Canyon SP better.
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