Backpacking in Texas’ Grand Canyon: Palo Duro Canyon

QUESTION:
Dear Hiking Lady,

I am interested in a 1-2 night backpacking trip in Palo Duro Canyon state park in Texas. Most of the info I can gather online involves small day hike trails around the State Park. Can you refer me to any web sites or literature regarding more extensive hiking in the canyon?

Thanks in advance.

Dave, Grand Prairie, TX

ANSWER:

Hi Dave,
You’re going to have a great time in the Grand Canyon of Texas: Palo Duro Canyon! I haven’t been, but I’ve heard a lot about it. Palo Duro Canyon is 21 miles south of Amarillo, TX, and 362 miles northwest of Dallas in the Texas Panhandle, and is known for being a badland of breathtaking rock formations. With 29,000 acres to explore, there is a lot for both day hikers and backpackers to enjoy.

Lighthouse Rock at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas.
Lighthouse Rock at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas. Photo courtesy Texas Parks & Wildlife

You sure are right that there isn’t much information about backpacking at Palo Duro. I even called the park and they couldn’t point me to any guides or books!

A book you should take a look at is The Story of Palo Duro Canyon. It was published in 2001, and there are limited copies available, but it has a detailed review of the history, geology, and hiking in Palo Duro Canyon.

Backpacking is allowed in Palo Duro Canyon, as long as you hike in for at least 30 minutes (kind of a funny rule because everyone hikes at a different speed)! The starting point is the very end of the park, circled in red on the map to the right:

Palo Duro Canyon Park Map
Park at the area circled in red, and start backpacking from there.

If you do find any backpacking trip reports, please share them! Also, you can use the USGS map of Palo Duro Canyon to plan out routes. Keep in mind that it was last updated in 1977!

Popular Day Hikes in Palo Duro Canyon

While you’re there, you may want to check out some of the popular day hikes in Palo Duro Canyon:

  • Lighthouse Trail. The most popular day hike in the park, where you can see the famous Lighthouse Rock. It is a 6 mile round-trip hike.
  • Givens, Spicer & Lowry Running Trail. This is the longest trail in the park at 11 miles RT, that passes through the badlands and various parts of the canyon.
  • Paseo Del Rio. An easy 2 mile RT hike along the Red River.
  • Triassic Trail.
  • Fortress Cliff Primitive Camping. For car camping. This is a drive up camping spot that is close to the 2 mile RT Sunflower Trail.

Palo Duro Canyon vs. Grand Canyon

For those of you who love facts, here are some that I’ve dug up about Palo Duro relative to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Both are impressive places that are worth exploring!

  • Length: Palo Duro is 120 miles long, while the Grand Canyon is 277 miles long!
  • Width: Palo Duro Canyon is 20 miles wide in some spots; the Grand Canyon is narrower at just 18 miles wide!
  • Depth: The Grand Canyon is far deeper than Palo Duro Canyon. Palo Duro is just 800 feet deep while the Grand Canyon is up to 6,000 feet deep!

Be sure to watch out for snakes and flash floods, and always take a lot of water! Have a great time exploring Palo Duro Canyon.

Happy trails!
Hiking Lady

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26 comments

  1. John C says:

    A bit off the subject, but in 1957 while working on a geophysical crew,we were doing exploration in the Palo Duro canyon. I happened to see a wagon wheel hub half buried in the sand and dug it out. The spokes were long gone. It was well preserved and was solid oak, with metal rims on each end. I put a coat of varnish on it and then set it aside for almost fifty years. My wife had the idea of making a lamp out of it, including a night light that would shine through the spoke holes. Turned out beautiful. Recently while reading a great book about the Comanches (Empire of the Summer Moon) and another about the wonderful life and adventures of Palo Duro cow man, Charles Goodnight, I realizeed what an impact this area was for the entire panhandle area. I have often wondered where the wagon wheel hub had come from, and how it ended up in the canyon. A question to you would be, do you ever come across articacts like this in the canyon? Most interesting.

  2. Debra Dean says:

    Hi Hiking lady,
    I am a member of Couchsurfing.org It’s a cultural exchange travel group. FREE to join and free to Couchsurf at a Locals home throughout the world. My part of the world is Amarillo, TX. I recently took a Couchsurfer there to see the Canyon and she hiked for 2 hours while I sat in the “Turnaround ” parking lot in a folding chair, enjoying the whispering breeze on the vibriant green mesquite trees, the lustful gobble of Tom turkeys and Hens, Playing “gobble gobble” catch me if you can in between the cedar trees / bushes and watching the first glimpses of butterflies as they lit upon the tiny flowers on the Canyon’s floor. As I sat in the shade of the SUV. I realized I’d never just sat in silence alone in a canyon I’ve visited often. The play TEXAS is great (make reservations@ http://www.texas-show.com/tickets.html) during the summer. Late spring nice too but that day I was there in early spring was PERFECT! There had been a FLASH FLOOD 3 days earlier and it was really cool to see the force of Mother Nature and the damage it can do in a usually nearly dry stream bed.
    I invite you to check out Couchsurfing.org. fill out a profile and then come CS with me and I might take you to the canyon. I don’t hike but you could, I’d see the play again in the cheap seats Dutch Treat on a weekend if you’d like.
    WATER CAN NOT BE MENTIONED ENOUGH. Canyon,Tx lost an Exchange Student Alumni last year due to the heat. Please heed the warnings the temp in the canyon in early spring was about 90* at 11:00 am. ( Most of the reason I didn’t hike) Debra

  3. Hiking Lady says:

    Great to hear about your Palo Duro hike! Thanks for sharing your contact info with the readers. Happy trails!

  4. jbeedy says:

    I just returned from hiking in Palo Duro Canyon on January 14, 2012. It was an absolutely gorgeous day. We bushwacked from the end of road 5 up to the top which is the far southwest side of what used to be Tub Springs Ranch. How do I know that? My grandad owned that ranch and when he sold it, the next owner named it Fortress Cliffs Ranch. I know that country like the back of my hand. I just wanted to hike back up on our ranch for old times sake. We then went north about 1/4 mile and then made our way back down, but I can tell you we were up were the auodad sheep roam! It is very steep in places and you have to be very careful. I plan on going back before it gets too hot, but we never saw anyone. It was so nice and peaceful to set up on top and enjoy a PB&J sandwich and look at God’s beauty! If anyone needs any info on that part of the world just email me at jbeedy@ptsi.net and I will answer any questions that I can. I just stumbled on to this website so I don’t know how often I will check back, but I have enjoyed reading everyone’s comments.

  5. Hello,

    I would like your permission to use your picture of the Light House Rock in a book that I am writing. I am writing an autobiography and our trip through Palo Duro is a tiny piece of the book, but it is important because we stayed there and watched the play. Some how I don’t have any scenery shots from their and I would really like to include one. My blogsite that the book is based on is us2germany4newspine.blogspot.com.

    Regards,

    Libbi Stovall

  6. Hiking Lady says:

    I’ve heard so much about how great it is to see the musical there! Glad you had fun in Palo Duro Canyon!

  7. Teresa Conkel says:

    I just got back from Palo Duro Canyon to watch a relative perform in the musical, TEXAS. Scenery was breathtaking. If you are ever in The Canyon, it would be worth your while to see the TEXAS production, and partake of the meal that is provided before the play.

  8. Hiking Lady says:

    Thanks for all your input, Joe!

    John, if you want Joe’s email I can give it to you. Please email me at Carol”@”hikinglady.com and I’ll put you guys in touch!

  9. Joe B says:

    All of the creek beds in Palo Duro offer some shade, until you get close to the top, where the drainage area widens out. Most of the way, the creek beds are 30-80 foot wide, with hundreds of feet elevation above you on either side, so there is some shade along the way. The problem with most of them is, it is difficult to climb out of one of these until you get close to the top, so most loop hikes consisting of the creek bed hikes are a bit longer than your preference. But, I have taken loop hikes up/down Tubb Springs; it Y’s up the creek bed a ways, and you can hike up one creek bed and jump up and loop and get down into the other one and come back. Each has one ~60-80 sheer drop which has to be bushwacked around. From the turnaround at the end of the park road, this is like a 6 mile loop; part of it is along the river before you cut up into Tubb Springs creek bed. This is not an “official” trail, although the trail along the river itelf is well defined (until the grass gets waist high, then you have to look carefully at times). It gets quite a bit of horseback traffic from people who bring their own horses into the canyon.

    I am not familiar with Mills Canyon in NM.

    The backcountry part of the park – you take the same trail as you get to Tubb Springs, and it keeps going past Tubb Springs, to at least past Rush Creek (probably on Pony Flats quadrangle, I use Garmin Mapsource/Basecamp, so I don’t fool with quadrangles very often). I have .gpx tracks of most of my hikes, if that would help you any; if so, let the moderator (Carol) know you would like my email, and could shoot you gpx tracks from my GPS; they can be viewed in Google Earth, I think. Garmin Mapsource/Basecamp intertwine nicely with Google Earth, so I am not familliar with viewing raw gpx tracks in Google Earth, but I know it can be done. May have to convert the .gpx tracks to .kmz files, or something along that line.

    Joe

  10. john t says:

    Joe,

    Thanks…I think I’m going to need to get to pick up Fortress Cliff in order to figure out these routes.

    We don’t actually need to go the Lighthouse…the creek beds you’ve suggested sound interesting enough. Of the the routes you’ve mentioned (Sunday Creek, Little Sunday, Tubb Springs and Red Canyon) are there any that receive partial shade from a canyon wall or is the walking completely in the open? The creek bed routes sound like they must have some beautiful scenery … out of the group you suggested, do you have a couple of favorites?

    We’ve never been to either Palo Duro or Caprock. I’ve been assuming the terrain is at least somewhat like other High Plains canyons that I’ve hiked in neighboring states – such as Mills Canyon in New Mexico. Deep, but very open.

    The backcountry where all the backpackers have to go to camp – south of the turnaround… is that area traversed by any of these routes you’ve mentioned? The Park map doesn’t show any official trail going into there… I was curious if there’s an interesting 4 to 6 mile loop that could be bushwacked in that direction.

    Thanks,

    John

  11. john t says:

    Thanks Joe. I doubt we’ll be venturing that far into the backcountry during late Aug but I’ll save your very helpful info for a future trip during a cooler time of the year. It sounds like there’s plenty of moderate length hikes in the park to choose from (that we can do first thing in the AM).
    We’ve been to the Big Bend area many times, but haven’t been up in the Panhandle for years. Looking forward to it — hope you get some rain there soon, it sure sounds like you need it!

    Thanks again,

    John

  12. Joe B says:

    John T,

    Forgot to mention other day hikes to get away from the crowds. I have hiked from the Lighthouse trailhead up Sunday Creek bed to up on top of the plains, then back down Little Sunday creek bed back to the Lighthouse trailhead. Long hike (16 miles), but guaranteed very small chance of seeing anybody once you are in these creek beds; most people stick to the trails – so boring…

    Other non people hikes are to go up Tubb Springs creek bed, or up Timber Creek, or take Capitol Peak trail and bushwhack to Red Canyon and come back down, there really is a wide variety of ways to go. The bushwhack up Capitol Peak trail (or Lighthouse Trail also) to North Cita Canyon is also crowdless, as is going south of the park, along the river. Many of these creek beds do have sheer drop offs that have to be bushwhacked around, via very steep and potentially treacherous footing – good challenge, but you want to use wisdom here…

    Enjoy!

  13. Joe B says:

    John T

    Fortress Cliff quadrangle has most of the park, although the eastern fringe is in Pony Flats quadrangle. Not sure about Pony Flats, but the new (2010?) version of Fortress Cliff includes hi-res picture; got it off the USGS site, best I remember. It looks to be higher res than what Google Earth has. USGS says the ranch by North Cita Canyon is the Reynolds Ranch; I have seen several different names; maybe it has changed ownership several times.

    If you are used to Utah’s 95+F weather and like it, you might be ok. The humidity might be the same as Utah (really dry), but the winds here are higher on average – that makes for good evaporative cooling off the body, but that means you really have to guzzle water down. If you hit a hot spell here in the Texas Panhandle, temps. can be 100-105F, and add in 4-10 extra degrees down in the canyon, since it is 700-800 feet lower than surrounding plains. Elevation in the canyon is 2700-2800 feet, on top is more like 3500 ft. Temps around in late summer (July/August) are nearly always 90-105F at the peak; it does cool down nicely into high 60’s-low 70’s at night due to low humidity.

    Hope you have a great time!
    Joe

  14. john t says:

    Joe,

    What quadrangle has these areas?
    We’re hiking in southern UT every summer where the temps are typically 95+. Would you say the TX panhandle hotter?

    John

  15. Joe B says:

    John T,
    The canyon I think you are refering to is North Cita Canyon. North and South Cita Creeks both dump into the Prarie Dog Fork of Red River on state park land. North Cita Creek usually dries up before this junction; South is a little more robust of a stream. The eastern part of North Cita Canyon is in the state park, but the more scenic western part is on private land; I am not sure of the current ownership; probably your best bet would be to call the park and inquire of them. Don’t know if they would tell you or not. FYI, late summer is the usually the very hottest time to visit this canyon; fall or winter (pick a good day) is the best time, unless you really like heat stress. The shortest hike to North Cita from Park land is about 5 miles of primarily bushwhacking (figure on a 700 ft elevation gain, then about 500 foot down on the way there) to reach it, then add in your hiking there and the distance back. There are no official trails to North Cita. If you hike along the river and creek beds from inside the Park to N. Cita, you are talking 6-10 miles one way, depending how far you go. Hope this helps. There a some fresh water springs (I would filter it), plus the water in the river itself, which is treated water from the city of Amarillo (filter it also). I usually take up to 2 gallons of water with me on day hikes; I guzzle about 20 oz. per mile in warm to hot weather. Hope you have fun!

    Joe

  16. john t says:

    We’re going to be visiting the park for several days late in the summer and are interested in taking a few hikes in the least visited areas. Solitude is what we’re into more than scenery, so to speak…although it’s nice to have both! I’ve read about the area south of the park that Joe mentioned – I believe it’s the N Rita Canyon area? Haven’t been there – I was wondering if you (or Joe) know how to contact the Lighthouse Ranch folks to get permission for a day hike..

    Any other suggestions for getting away from the crowds would be welcome!

    Thx!

  17. Hiking Lady says:

    Thank you so much for the detail on Palo Duro Canyon, Joe! If any Hiking Lady readers want to take up Joe on his offer of .gpx tracks of his hikes, go to the Contact Hiking Lady page and then I will get you in touch. Thanks, and happy trails!

  18. Joe Banest says:

    I have day hiked very extensively in (and around, :)) Palo Duro State park. It is, of, course surrounded by private ranch land. The Lighthouse formation is the most famouus, deservedly, sight in the area. But, the most scenic mile of hiking in the area is in Norht Cita Canyon, which is just south of the State Park, and is actually on the Lighthouse Ranch property, so beware. I have been there several times, and have never seen a soul, but by observation of horse droppings and two small corrals, they do conduct horseback rides through there, on an unknown frequency. Many of my hikes are of the bushwhacking type, including the above. I plan all of my hikes using Google Earth and Garmin’s MapSource/BaseCamp GPS mapping software. Following creek beds is one of my favorite tactics, although in this area, most creek beds contain 1-3 sheer cliff dropoffs of anywhere to 10-80 feet, which must be bushwacked around, until you a find suitable place to scramble up/down around it. Of course if you are handy with rapelling, you would not have to necessarily hike around.. I also scale many of the steep hillsides to get to where I want to go; beware a lot of the steep terrain can be treacherous footing (clay-like) and vertical.

    There are many suitable places to pitch a tent south of where Park road 5 ends, and there are some fresh springs in this area, if you explore for them. Not to mention the ever flowing river that runs through the canyon (think treated water from Amarillo).

    It is very true that PD has very few backpackers and back-country day hikers, I seldom see any, except on the trail to the Lighthouse, which I usually avoid. There are many more mountain bikers than hikers in the canyon.

    I have .gpx tracks of many of my hikes, if any are interested.

  19. Brasky says:

    Good job! We are a hiking team of 2 people and we love learning more about the trails. Can’t wait to hear more about the trails! Let us know ok? Our last trip was to Enchanted Rock. It was beautiful I recommend you take your trip out there! Next up, Palo Duro! Who knows what we’ll get ourselves into there! Hope we see more sunsets than rattlesnakes! See you soon!

  20. Jenna says:

    Great info on Palo Duro Canyon. I have hiked in on a day trip, and really didn’t see many people backpacking… it is pretty remote.

  21. Hiking Lady says:

    More info from Chris on Hiking Lady’s Facebook page:

    “I don’t know (and am too lazy to look it up) where Grand Prairie is, but if he’s close to the Wichita Mountains NWR he might find more enjoyment there…certainly more privacy and wildlife. It’s near Lawton, OK just north of Wichita Falls,… TX. They offer backpacking in a 5000 acre wilderness area (although the majority of the 59000 acres feels like wilderness anyway once you get 50 feet from the pavement) for $2 per person. There are a few trails, and plenty of bison/elk/deer trails to follow, but going cross country out there is sublime and easy and will get you anywhere you set your sights on. Just a serving suggestion if he’s nearby. :)”

  22. Hiking Lady says:

    Tips from Chris on Hiking Lady’s Facebook page:

    It’s a great place…can get *very* busy and populated but it’s still worth a visit. I have a friend who works there and she gave me the same park info about backpacking. After visiting the first time, I can say that there is room to put …a tent but it’s a rough place.

    The area where backpacking is allowed sees some horse traffic (not a lot) and is less picturesque to a degree than the upper canyon where the day hiking trails and features are.

    Caprock Canyon State Park is an hour or so south of Palo Duro Canyon and is much much more private. They have a loop that you can backpack, although you’ll probably want to use the two established campgrounds because there is very little ground area that isn’t covered with cactus or some sort of evil thorny plant. 15 years ago we found places to put our 2-man tents but now it’d take a bit of searching.

    Both are certainly carry-all-of-your-water-with-you destinations. I like Caprock better, but they’re both great to explore. Palo Duro makes cross-country walking possible but at Caprock it’s difficult except in the far lower canyon. If he needs more info feel free to get him in touch with me.

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