As an avid hiking family, we have always wanted to travel out to Amarillo and visit Palo Duro Canyon State Park. As the second largest canyon in the country, it was a must-see on our bucket list. Since we live in Denton, Texas we knew that we would have to make travel arrangements, as we were planning on staying in the local area for several days. After work on a Friday, we headed out on the 5-hour drive and looked forward to the adventure that awaited the next day! Now, let’s talk about the Canyon!
Rafter J’s & Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Since we left on a Friday night around dinner time, we made a stop at Rafter J’s Texas BBQ (serving Cajun and Creole cuisine) in Iowa Park, Texas about 2 hours into our drive. This restaurant is right off the highway and has a gas station next door if you need to fill up! One of the must-have items on the menu is the Corn Nuggets. These are cheesy, a little spicy, corn filled, deep fried nuggets served with a ranch dipping sauce. I am not one for spicy food, but these truly were amazing and worth ordering. After finishing up dinner, we continued the drive and arrived in Amarillo around 11PM.
The next morning, we woke up early, as we like to start our hikes before 7:30AM to avoid the late-afternoon Texas heat. This is especially important to us since we do all our hikes with our 3-year-old daughter. There is one road to the park entrance where you will reach a ticket booth to show them either your day pass or camping reservations. Since we went during the COVID pandemic, it is important to make your reservations ahead of time through the state park website. You cannot purchase tickets to the park at the gate. Refer to their website for the most up-to-date information regarding this policy. At the gate, we showed them our Veterans state park pass, which if you don’t know gets you into all Texas State Parks for free, and they proceeded to give us maps and a window sticker for our car showing our reservation. We were now in the park and ready to hit the trails!
Scenic Overlook & CCC Trail
As you drive into the park, follow the map to park at the entrance of the CCC trail. Where this trail is located, you will have the opportunity to see panoramic scenic views of the canyon and take amazing pictures. This is also where the gift shop is located, down the hill, where they have souvenirs and a lot of books about the park. After enjoying the view, we decided to start with the CCC trail. This trail is difficult, is 3-miles roundtrip and descends 500 feet into the canyon floor. There is not much shade on any of the trails, so proper clothing and sunscreen is a must. They have sunscreen stations along the trail if needed but they might be empty, so come prepared. What we loved about this trail was the views, the cliff edges and challenge. We made sure we wore sturdy hiking boots and packed plenty of water on this adventure.
Disclaimer: this trail is not for the faint of heart and is very strenuous. There is a sign at the start of the trail that states that this trail has caused heat related injuries and death. If you prepare well, you should be fine, but know your limit. Ok, now let’s talk about it. This was my favorite trail from our trip. This trail is 6-miles roundtrip, does not provide much shade and ends with the breathtaking lighthouse rock formation. For this hike, we made sure we lathered on the sunscreen, packed plenty of snacks to keep our energy up and a gallon of water each to ensure hydration. I also packed a microfiber cloth soaked in cool water to wrap around my neck when I got too hot, since the sun was beating down on us the whole time. When you near the rock formation, there will be a picnic table shaded by some trees before making the ascent to the rock formation. This is a perfect place to rest and eat, but when we went it was already taken. After making the ascent, we finally reached the rock formation. It was beautiful and unlike anything we had seen in the park so far. We got to take some pictures, enjoy a snack, and then make the trek back towards the parking lot. This is the most popular trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, so make sure you start early and come prepared. You won’t regret doing this trail and will feel so accomplished once you reach the end.
Rock Garden Trail
This was the last trail we did on our trip, and we loved it just like the others. It is a 5-mile roundtrip trail that had us climb 600 feet from a field of boulders at the bottom of the canyon up to the canyon’s rim. The views were breathtaking and there were cool boulders to explore and take pictures under. Don’t miss out on hiking this family-friendly trail!
TEXAS: The Outdoor Musical
I must mention this here, even though we did it on a separate trip to Palo Duro. Texas: The Outdoor Musical is a production that takes place during the summer months at the amphitheater in the canyon. This is a must-see musical if you are planning a trip here. You can purchase your tickets online in advance, make sure you do, as it sells out, and you are in for a treat as you enjoy a musical all about the history of Texas. This musical is witty, funny, family-friendly, engaging and even has a firework spectacular at the end. They have concessions available for purchase, a pre-show meal if you chose and make sure you pack a blanket as it gets cool in the evening. Add this to your list and enjoy a show like none other, on the canyon floor. One thing to remember, you cannot take pictures during the production, only of the fireworks at the end.
HOW TO: Palo Duro Canyon State Park
TO DO BEFORE YOU GO:
Make sure you make day pass or camping reservations on the online state park website. You cannot get passes at the gate as reservations are required and this park can sell out fast.
Hiking boots, sunscreen, camelbaks, child carrier, water jugs to fill up your packs, snacks, and hats.
Music, books, coloring pack, window stickers, I Spy game, stuffed animal, blanket, pillow, small toys, tablet (only if needed). We like to interact with our daughter and ask her what she is excited to see and explain to her what she may see as far as animals, local to the area.
Rafter J’s Texas BBQ on the way to Amarillo. This place has great food and if you are leaving after work, it is a great place to stop for dinner.
There will be parking spots at all trail systems you plan on doing. The only busy parking lot we encountered was the Lighthouse Trail. We had to park on the road. Arrive early and you should not have a problem getting a spot. Also, you can camp in the canyon, just make sure you make your reservations ahead of time.
We like to bring solar chargers with us to make sure our devices have a full charge for adventuring. We also pack a lot of wipes and pullups in the car in back seat organizers to keep everything easily accessible during the trip. This also helps to organize toys and snacks so our little one can see what is available and can ask for items as she wants them. We don’t have to shuffle through bags which can be frustrating on the road. Lastly, fill up as often as you can ensure you have a full tank as some of these places are remote and not easily accessible when you are in or near the canyon. Enjoy the wander everyone!
This article was written by Aleaha Willey. You can find more helpful adventure tips and tricks on Aleahas Instagram (@the_atlas_travelers) and her Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/theatlastravelers16)