Texans I meet keep telling me that they don’t have places for outdoor recreation. They lie. They have this insignificant little place called Big Bend National Park, for one thing, and then Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Hueco Tanks State Park & Historic Site, Government Canyon State Natural Area. And I’ve heard for some time about Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It was time to go.
In competition with college students on spring break for one of the premiere state parks of Texas, we arrived after dark with 3 novice Giants and a bad ass Specialized Epic racked on top of our roof. The park staff was terse but kind and made an exception in allowing us to backpack after dark into the walk-in campsites.
I enjoy coming in ‘blind’, that is, arriving after dark to set up camp. The following morning you wake up to this wonderful surprise! Not so my companions. They were more than a little freaked, and wanted to set up camp every 5 feet from the parking lot.
“How ’bout here?”
“Here looks good.”
So we set up camp, me in my hammock, the others in their bivies beneath the cottonwood and willow along the Red River. The eyes of Whitetailed deer reflected our headlamps back at us. We stayed up a while, catching up on news, but certainly not drinking, which is illegal in Texas State Parks. Unless, that is, you’re in personal property, like your vehicle. (Think about that.) Finally, motivated by the temperature that had sunk to freezing, we turned toward our sleeping bags.
Palo Duro is the 2nd largest canyon in the United States. While only the Grand Canyon is larger, that is by a very significant margin. But that’s no slight against this place. As anticipated, we woke the following morning to these amazing horizon lines, rising and plummeting with each cliff and mesa, bands of beige, orange, red and green along the surrounding canyon rim. Who knew you would be surrounded by all this splendor?
Well, yeah, a quick tour on Google Street View might have clued us in. But anyway…
Palo Duro is north Texas’ premiere site for mountain biking, which was why we just traipsed from Indiana, Colorado and those of us from Arkansas. But we only had 4 hours. So we put in at Hackberry Camp Area to fly down Park Road 5 to Paseo del Rio Trail and for a mile rolled over slopes and meandered left and right along the Red River.
The trails (check the map) were well crafted and pretty much within our capacity to remain on our pedals. So we popped out on the road and crossed a bridge to access the trailhead on the other side. From here we started out on the Lighthouse Trail then connected with the Capitol Peak Trail, which we rode in it’s entirety.
In arid landscapes like this, a crusty top layer on the ground is critical for regulating watershed, minimizing dust, retaining and cycling nutrients to native plants, and other important functions. That mycrophytic crust breaks up when you step on and roll tires over it, and it takes decades to centuries to replace. In the mean time, you have dirtier water, more dust blowing, stressed and dying plant life. Bikers, hikers and horseback riders had trekked, tromped and rode off trail. As a result, there were some washouts and trail rebuilds that caused an unintended detour and backtrack.
But it was also a great celebration of Spring, the canyon life, and outdoor active lifestyle. As I mentioned it was spring break and a weekend, so the park was crowded as hell. Cars, bikes, horses, lizards. You name it. But everyone was happy and friendly. Even the horse. Well, the lizard was skittish.
And I, the only one of us to have actually lived in a desert and well studied on navigating this dangerous environment, was also the only one to back into a prickly pear cactus while snapping pictures.
— For more information on Palo Duro Canyon State Park, click here!
— For more information on Microphytic Soil Crusts, click here!