Postcard from Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon
In the Texas Panhandle you'll find the second largest canyon system in America, Palo Duro Canyon (the Spanish name "Palo Duro" means "hardwood" and refers to the hardwood shrubs and trees found in the canyon). At 70+ miles long, up to 1,000 feet deep and up to 20 miles across, it is known as the Grand Canyon of Texas. 

Humans have been living in and around the canyon for 15,000 years, but the first Europeans to lay eyes on it were members of the Coronado Expedition in 1541. At that time, the Apache Indians were the dominant tribe, but in the mid-1600's, the fierce Comanche and Kiowa drove them out. These nomadic people were kings of the plains until 1874 when the American military rode into the Texas Panhandle with the intention of driving the Indians onto reservations in Oklahoma and making the land safe for the white man. It was in the Palo Duro Canyon where the Comanche and Kiowa were finally defeated and driven from the area. 

On that fateful early morning of September 28, 1874, a column of blue-uniformed soldiers under the command of Colonel Ronald S. Mackenzie made its way silently down the canyon’s steep walls and just before sunrise, attacked a large Indian camp. The Indians were still asleep as they had been told by Maman-ti, a Kiowa medicine man, that no bluecoats could possibly penetrate the canyon. Startled into a panic, the warriors tried desperately to protect the women, children and their large horse herd, but it was too late: Mackenzie’s men killed several of the warriors and captured 1,400 animals. The fleeing Indians were forced to leave behind their clothing, lodges and all of their winter food supplies. Mackenzie ordered 1,100 of the horses killed and gave the remaining 300  to the Tonkawa scouts who led them to the Comanche and Kiowa camps. Without food, winter supplies, shelter or horses, the Indians were forced to accept defeat and moved to the Oklahoma reservations. A huge pile of bleaching horse skeletons remained for years to document the end of two hundred years of Comanche dominion and still to this day, sounds of a herd of phantom ghost horses galloping through the canyon are reported.

After the Indians left, cattleman Charles Goodnight laid claim to the canyon to raise his vast cattle herds. He co-founded the Panhandle’s first ranch—the JA Ranch—and erected some of the first buildings in the region. Within a few years he had acquired more than a million acres, much of it in the canyon, along with a herd of 100,000 cattle. Soon he was stringing barbed wire in the draws and side canyons where the Comanche had once hunted buffalo. 

Though most of the canyon and surrounding area is now private land—including part of the still prosperous JA Ranch—the 28,000 acres that make up Palo Duro Canyon State Park are breathtaking, an abrupt, uneven landscape made all the more dramatic by the layers of rocks that vary in color: the bright reds of the Quartermaster shale, the yellow and lavender mudstones, the sculpted sandstone that has been stained over millions of years by iron oxides.

Palo Duro amphitheater
Most of the Texas Panhandle is dead flat, but Palo Duro State Park has become a mecca for people who enjoy the outdoors and the beauty of nature. Hiking is the main activity in the park along with horse riding, camping and cycling. For off trail exploration the park has a sizeable backcountry area. An excellent summer musical pageant, Texas, is presented annually in the outdoor amphitheater. The pageant has become so popular that reservations are required weeks ahead of time and even longer for holiday performances.

Plan a camping trip and before you go, read Empire of the Summer Moon, S.C. Gwynne’s interesting history of Quanah Parker and the Comanche. As you drive across the High Plains, listen to songs by Don Williams who was born in nearby Floydada. Most places in the Texas Panhandle are so far from anywhere that you have to take a bus to catch a bus, but when you are sipping your coffee early one quiet, peaceful morning on the canyon floor, listening to the whippoorwill's morning song and watching a hawk soaring overhead, you'll find bliss.