Exploring the Second Grandest Canyon – Palo Duro Canyon in Texas

Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon system in the United States. Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is on many bucket lists, and well it should be. It’s everything a national park in the United States should be and a phenomenal creation of Mother Nature’s.

But if you’ve been there/done that, how about the second grandest canyon? And you don’t have to be a super-hiker or ride a smelly mule to get to the bottom of this one.

Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo Texas is America’s only drive-thru canyon and almost as big as the more famous one in Arizona.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You don’t have to ride a mule or walk 5,500 feet down (and back up)  to see the bottom.
  • BBQ dinners available when you get there.
  • Good for those who like mountain biking, rock climbing and outdoor theatre.

 Grand Canyon vs. Palo Duro Canyon

If you’re the kind of person who likes to amaze/annoy your friends and strangers with statistics and trivia, take note of these goodies:

  • Length:  Grand Canyon – 277 miles long.  Palo Duro – 120 miles long.
  • Width:  Grand Canyon – 18 miles wide.  Palo Duro – up to 20 miles wide in some places.
  • Depth: Grand Canyon – 6,000 feet.  Palo Duro – 800 feet
  • Acreage:  Grand Canyon – more than a million.   Palo Duro – 29,100 acres
  • Elevation at rim:  Grand Canyon – 2,000 to 8000 feet.   Palo Duro – 3,500 feet.

OK, so the Grand Canyon is quite a bit grander, but it had a 2.5 million-year head start.

Palo Duro is breathtakingly beautiful in its own right, yet much more accessible and hands-on than its more well-known counterpart. You camp, hike, climb rocks, ride horses and mountain bike at the bottom of Palo Duro Canyon. And, it’s possible to drive your personal vehicle to the bottom of the canyon.

Yes, getting to the bottom of the canyon is as simple as getting in your car. A switchback black top road takes you to the bottom of the canyon where the view looking up is spectacular.

A Bit of Palo Duro History

Native Americans used Palo Duro Canyon as hunting grounds for generations and later the Apache made a permanent home here.  The Battle of Palo Duro tells the painful story of how the U.S. Army eventually removed the Apache from the canyon. It was the final Indian battle in Texas. The first white settler was Colonel Charles Goodnight, a retired Texas Ranger who established a cattle ranch here in 1876.  He is famous in Old West lore as the inventor of the chuckwagon, a staple of every cattle drive and now many a touristy experience throughout the West.

In 1934, Palo Duro Canyon became a Texas State Park.

Things to do in Palo Duro Canyon

The canyon is popular with mountain bikers. The 30 miles of marked trails cover a variety of topography, but one of the most popular is the 5-mile Lighthouse Trail that leads to a phenomenal rock formation that looks like a lighthouse. The Lighthouse is probably the easiest, so seasoned mountain bikers might prefer the rugged Givens, Spicer & Lowry Trail, a 9 mile torture chamber for you and your bike.  Hands-down, the Givens, Spicer and Lowry Trail is the most scenic, so bring your camera along if you are on foot, wheels or horseback.

Other options for exploring the canyon are off-road jeep rides, horseback rides, hiking and just cruising in your own vehicle. Although Palo Duro Canyon receives more than 350,000 visitors a year, on a day hike along the Fortress Cliff trail, we didn’t encounter another human being, but did see lots of wild turkey, porcupines and other critters I couldn’t identify. The freshness of the mesquite, the vastness of the canyon and tranquility of the region touched my senses.

My visit was in December and look at the temperature at this trail head! Photo by Diana Lambdin Meyer

Whatever you do, if it’s between April and October, do it earlier in the day because temperatures easily surpass 100 degrees in this part of Texas this time of year.  Or come to spend the night in one of three CCC era cabins on the rim.  Of course, there’s plenty of camping as well, for people of all comfort levels.  On the nights surrounding a full moon each month, check out the ranger led night hikes.

One five letter word is the key to enjoying any outing in Palo Duro Canyon State Park: Water.  You’ll see thermometers at all of the trail heads, and despite the fact that this part of Texas experiences all four seasons, it is always dry and seems to always be hot here.  Bring twice as much water as you think you might need, and then double that.

Texas, the Musical

At the time of our visit, the widely renowned theatrical performance “Texas” was closed for the season. The show runs five nights a week from mid-June to mid-August and has been since 1965. The story traces the history of Texas, which is as colorful as the canyon in which this show occurs.  Everyone I’ve talked to about the musical says it’s fabulous, so that now is on my bucket list, along with a return visit to Palo Duro Canyon.


  • Water.  Let me say it again:  Water.  Take a lot, drink a lot.
  • Shoes. Even the least aggressive explorer will benefit from having close-toed shoes with good grips. The gravel around picnic areas and restrooms is slippery in places. And if you’re going to hike even a few hundred feet along a trail, you’ll not want to be wearing flip flops.  There are rattlesnakes and other critters out there who would just love to nibble on your toes and ankles.
  • Check the park calendar before your visit to see what else might be happening in the park that day. Some of the bike races and ultra runs bring thousands of people into the park at once, usually in the autumn months. If you’re not into that event, the energy and traffic they create could minimize your enjoyment of the canyon.

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