Located in the Texas Panhandle you will find a unique geological gem, the Palo Duro Canyon.
It is the second largest canyon in the country after the majestic Grand Canyon in Arizona.
This Texan wonder is 120 miles long and over 20 miles wide. Its depth at the deepest point is over 800 feet.
Because of its immense size, it is famously known as the Grand Canyon of Texas.
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The canyon in West Texas was formed by the erosion work carried out by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and the strong wind in the Caprock escarpment of the High Plains.
It has been in the making for millions of years. Erosion work continues to even this day.
The canyon and the area around it compromise the Palo Duro Canyon State Park, one of the most visited state parks in Texas.
Visitors from all over the Lone Star State come here to enjoy the canyon’s striking beauty.
With its rugged nature and spirit, the canyon embodies the wild Texas landscape.
The canyon is not just a symbol of Texas but of the American Southwest.
Things to do in Palo Duro Canyon State Park
The Palo Duro Canyon is said to be around 90 million years old.
The canyon wall has layers of sedimentary rocks that have been compacted through the ages, quite similar to the Grand Canyon.
Here you can see preserved geological records for the past millennia.
However, the canyon is not just a geological wonder but also a historic site.
It has been inhabited by indigenous people for a long time.
Within the park, you will find historical markers, sites, trails, unique rock formations, and picnic tables.
There are a variety of outdoor things to do at Palo Duro State Park for visitors.
Hikers, mountain bikers, and wildlife watchers especially love this Texas gem.
Here are our favorites that you must add to your trip.
Enjoy the view at the Canyon Gallery and Visitor Center
The impressive Canyon Gallery and Visitor Center is perched on the canyon rim near the park entrance and offers stunning views of the canyon from its large windows.
This structure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933 from Native stone and is photogenic.
Visitors can go inside the center, get park maps, and learn about the hiking trails from the rangers.
The Visitor Center has videos, exhibits, and is like a small museum dedicated to the canyon.
It is also an excellent place to learn about the canyon’s geology and formation.
See fossils and learn the natural history of the area
Palo Duro Canyon and the area surrounding it has been inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years.
You can learn more about their history as well as about the prehistoric animals that lived here at the Visitor Center.
The center has a small museum that has exhibits of fossils and bones of wildlife, photographs, and other historical artifacts.
Walking through the exhibits and reading the informative plaques is a great learning experience.
Learn about the Battle of Palo Duro
What to do at Palo Duro Canyon for history lovers? Know about the Battle of Palo Duro!
Inside the park visitor as well as in the museums in the panhandle area, you will find references to the Battle of the Palo Duro Canyon.
The Canyon was where the Comanche tribe made their last stand against the US troops on 28 September 1874.
The raids by the Comanche were a significant detriment to the growth of Texas.
The raids began in the Republic of Texas days and went on for years.
The wars between Texas and Comanche were violent and intense: they resulted in a lot of losses for the US.
Hence, the Comanche needed to be defeated.
The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was decisive in ending the conflict.
It was won by the US military and the last of the indigenous people of Texas agreed to move to the Indian Reservation in Oklahoma.
It was the last of the Texas Indian wars on the southern plains and hence is significant in the state’s history.
A historical marker marks the exact site of the Battle of the Palo Duro Canyon and can be seen on the park loop road.
Buy souvenirs and more in the Visitor Center
The Canyon Gallery also has a big gift shop area. This is the perfect place to shop for unique items.
You can purchase souvenirs like Native American pottery, handcrafted items, jewelry, hunting knives, Southwest themed apparel, Navajo rugs, postcards, and magnets here.
It also has an excellent collection of books about Texas.
You will find beautiful paintings by local artists too.
We love spending hours inside the store area and purchasing unique souvenirs.
Go hiking or mountain biking inside the park
This is one of our favorite Texas state parks when it comes to hiking.
The park has over 30 miles of hiking trails.
One of the top favorites is of course the iconic Lighthouse Rock formation hiking trail.
Mountain biking the Lighthouse Trail via the 8 miles long Givens, Spicer, and Lowry Trail is a popular thing to do in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
But the park also has many other trails including the 1.5 miles long CCC Trail which begins near the visitor center.
This trail descends all the way to the floor of the canyon.
On the trail, you can see some of the original bridges constructed in 1934.
Another popular trail is the Cowboy Dugout trail.
A short walk at the end of the Paseo Del Rio Trail, you will find a historic cabin built into the side of a hill.
Palo Duro Canyon with its uneven terrain and desert landscape of junipers and mesquite is a paradise for those who love to mountain bike.
Its dramatic features and remote areas make mountain biking in the park memorable.
Capitol Peak Trail is a favorite with many mountain bikers because of its terrain and amazing views.
Hike the iconic Lighthouse formation
The striking Lighthouse rock formation within the Texas park has become the icon of Palo Duro Canyon in Texas.
The formation itself is 300-ft high.
You can easily see this formation depicted in postcards, souvenirs, and everywhere in the town of Canyon.
Visitors can access the trailhead on the Canyon Loop Road.
There’s a parking spot for visitors. The trail is three miles long one way and takes about three hours to complete.
The well-marked trail even has benches to rest at intervals.
It is a relatively easy trail but can seem moderately difficult during summer because of the high heat.
Some people find the section at the end difficult where it involves direct ascent to the top of the rock formation.
The trail goes through the desert landscape and has amazing views of the surroundings.
Once you reach the lighthouse formation, the views of the canyon from the top are just stunning.
Taking in the views, you can understand why this is one of the most popular hiking trails inside Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
If you do not have time to hike the trail, you can also see the formation from the parking lot at the trailhead located on the loop drive.
See the canyon on a scenic drive
One of the best ways to experience the stunning beauty of the Palo Duro Canyon in a short time is to take the scenic drive.
The Palo Duro Canyon loop road is about 16 miles long and goes from the canyon rim to the floor and comes up again to end at the Visitor Center.
The scenic drive loop road descends about 800 feet deep into the canyon and provides spectacular views from within your car.
You can admire the high Canyon cliffs and the colorful sandstone formations including the hoodoos.
The scenic road has sweeping turns and twists and is great for seeing the desert scenery.
The drive may be short but it has a lot of historic markers and trailheads along the way and so we recommend keeping about 2 to 3 hours for the drive if you plan to get out of the car.
Take lunch along and enjoy it at a picnic table within the park.
Keep in mind that the road can be closed at the bottom of the canyon due to flooding after heavy rains, so make sure to check the status at the Visitor Center before you go.
Enjoy TEXAS outdoor musical at Pioneer amphitheater
Did you know, that Palo Duro is the only one among Texas parks that has an outdoor performance venue?
Seeing a show of TEXAS the musical here is definitely one of the best things to do in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
The outdoor musical drama is performed on a beautiful stage surrounded by the canyon walls and is an amazing experience.
The musical takes place during the summer and is great for couples as well as families.
The musical takes place at the Pioneer amphitheater from Tuesday to Sunday in the summer.
The amazing musical, dedicated to the Texas Panhandle’s history, describes the settling of the region.
It narrates the stories of the earliest settlers and pioneers of the canyon and their unique struggles in the landscape.
Along with singing and dancing, the musical also includes loads of humor.
The fireworks show is the perfect end to the exciting performance.
Visitors can enjoy not just the Musical but also a Texan barbecue dinner at the amphitheater prior to the show.
Go birding or wildlife watching
There is an immense diversity of wildlife inside the Palo Duro Canyon.
You can see birds and animals including quails, wild turkeys, woodpeckers, roadrunners, sheep, bobcats, coyotes, mule deer, white-tailed deer, skunk, and rabbits.
The canyon is also home to reptiles including snakes so be careful while hiking.
The Canyon and its diverse environment are also home to two of Texas’s threatened species: the Texas horned lizard and the Palo Duro mouse.
You can see the wildlife on hiking trails, while camping, and even on scenic drives.
A bird blind is located behind the Trading Post.
Because of its many wildlife opportunities, it is one of the favorite Texas parks for nature photographers.
See the famous Texas Longhorns
The Palo Duro Canyon State Park is also home to the official State Longhorn Herd.
They can almost always be seen near the park headquarters in the Longhorn Pasture.
The Longhorns have an interesting history.
In the 1800s the wild cattle roamed all of Texas.
Settlers hunted them for game and on cattle drives.
The wild longhorns have been instrumental in bringing the earliest settlers to the canyon.
Gaze at the night sky
The Texas Panhandle has some of the darkest night skies in the nation.
The clean air and lack of light from major cities make the Palo Duro Canyon a paradise for skywatchers.
While the Texas state park is not a true Dark Sky Park, it does have a lot to offer for astronomy enthusiasts.
The views on a dark new moon night are especially superb.
The Milky Way looks beautiful in the backdrop of the famous lighthouse rock formation.
The state park occasionally holds stargazing events as well as full moon hikes to see the night sky.
Photograph the stunning landscape
The canyon’s beauty is legendary. Sunsets and sunrises are specially spectacular here.
Formations like the lighthouse are a photographer’s delight.
The canyon is a favorite with photography enthusiasts.
Along with the landscape, you can also photograph the wildlife and the night sky.
Some of the great places to photograph are on the Lighthouse Trail and on the Canyon Scenic Loop Drive.
You can see various hoodoo formations on the trails and can see four distinct geologic layers on the drive.
We also recommend bringing a telephoto zoom lens to capture the area’s wildlife.
Have a meal at the Trading Post
Tired from hiking inside the canyon? Stop at Trading Post on the canyon floor for a quick meal.
They have amazing burgers as well as souvenirs.
You can also purchase supplies here if you’re camping in the park.
A bird bling located behind the Trading Post is good for watching roadrunners, woodpeckers, and other natural life.
Ride the equestrian trail within the park
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is one of the most horseback riding friendly Texas parks.
The park has established equestrian trails as well as dedicated horse camping sites.
Horseback riding within the park is great fun.
If you can’t bring your own horse, then you can opt for a guided horseback riding tour from Old West Stables.
The tours are family-friendly and popular with kids.
Things to do around Palo Duro Canyon
Besides the things to do inside the state park, there are many other attractions surrounding the Palo Duro Canyon area.
Here are some of our top favorites that you can see if you have more time in the area.
Spend a day in Canyon
There are many things to do in the town of Canyon which provides an excellent base for exploring the state park.
A major attraction is the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.
Here you can see artifacts from the Battle of Palo Duro.
The museum also has dinosaurs and a replica pioneer town.
You can also visit ranches and learn about the life of cowboys, enjoy a chuckwagon meal, or go horse riding.
Another attraction in Canyon is businesses giving jeep tours of the area.
Go zip lining near Palo Duro Canyon
If you want to go adventuring in the area surrounding the Palo Duro Canyon, then consider the Palo Duro Zip Line & Adventure Park.
This attraction is great for families.
You can get an amazing view of Palo Duro Canyon on a zipline.
You can also choose other adventures from bouldering to rappelling.
The friendly guides are experts and great at ensuring safety; they make the experiences fun for all types of visitors.
They also have an on-site RV campground as well as tent sites and other amenities.
Book a campsite for your stay and enjoy the adventures here.
See Caprock Canyons State Park
Located about 90 miles away from Palo Duro Canyon State Park, you will find another one of Texas’s panhandle canyons.
Caprock Canyons State Park has beautiful red rock scenery and great hiking.
The desert landscape at Caprock Canyon is much greener and diverse than in Palo Duro Canyon.
The park is also home to the Texas Panhandle Wildlife including bison, prairie dogs, and coyotes.
The bat cave here is also popular among wildlife lovers.
The state park is one of the best things to do in the Texas Panhandle area.
Enjoy the cultural attractions of Amarillo
Amarillo, located 25 miles away from Palo Duro Canyon, is the biggest city in the area.
There are many things to do in Amarillo including amazing architectural architecture and Spanish revival style buildings.
You can enjoy the Amarillo Botanical Gardens or the Texas Air and Space Museum or the Amarillo Zoo.
The city also has a great children’s museum where they can enjoy interactive hands-on activities.
Amarillo also has great restaurants and eateries.
Read more: Best Things to do in Amarillo, Texas
Road trip Route 66 in Texas
The iconic Route 66 passes through the Texas Panhandle.
On the 200 mile long Lone Star section of the Mother Road, you will find incredible attractions such as the Amarillo Historic Route 66 District, Cadillac Ranch, and the Midpoint Cafe in Adrian.
On the road you will see amazing displays of vintage neon signs, deteriorating motels, and small town America.
You can easily combine a road trip on Route 66 of Texas with a visit to the Palo Duro Canyon.
Related: Best road trips in Texas
Take a photo at Cadillac Ranch
The iconic Cadillac Ranch is a major attraction of the Route 66 road trip.
This artwork, located just 30 miles away from Palo Duro Canyon State Park, can be easily seen together with the park.
At Cadillac Ranch, you can see 10 Cadillacs half-buried in the ground with their tail fins pointing up in the air.
Visitors have spray-painted the cars in every color imaginable.
The result is a unique artwork that has become an icon of Texas.
Today visitors can visit this free attraction west of Amarillo and leave their own spray paint on the cars.
This is definitely one of the best places to visit in Texas.
Best time to visit Palo Duro Canyon State Park
When is the best time to visit Palo Duro Canyon?
Weather-wise, we recommend a visit during the spring and fall. Temperatures are mild during this time and hiking is pleasant.
In fall, you can see light foliage – nothing dramatic – and in the spring, you can see wildflowers in the park.
If you are looking for an outdoorsy spring break, then head to Palo Duro!
Summer in the park is also popular but hot and intense.
Highs of 120F on the floor are not uncommon.
However, this is the only time you can see the TEXAS outdoor musical at the park.
In the summer, you will also see pretty wildflowers in the park as well as lots of tourists.
Winter in the park is pretty severe.
Temperatures reach lows of around 30F and it can get very cold.
Occasional winter storms also cause snow in the park and road closures.
Activities near the park like ziplining are closed during this time.
Day temperatures hover around 50F, making it pleasant for hiking.
Things to know before visiting the canyon
Palo Duro Canyon is beautiful but wild.
You need to be prepared for a visit especially during the summer when the temperature hovers around 100F.
Visitors need to pack sun hats, sunscreen, hiking boots, and insect repellent for flies and mosquitoes.
Be careful of snakes, cacti, and unstable rock formations while hiking.
Get trail maps at the Visitor Center or download them here.
Carry enough water per person while hiking the trails inside the state park.
There are no reliable water sources inside the canyon.
Keep in mind the temperature variations.
The canyon floor is always much hotter than the rim.
Also, the weather at night can be chilly even during the summer.
So bring a light jacket especially if you are camping in the state park.
How long should you stay at Palo Duro Canyon?
We recommend spending at least 2 days in the state park to hike the trails including Lighthouse formation and take the scenic drive.
However, you can also see highlights of the park in half a day or a day by taking the scenic drive and seeing the visitor center.
Visitors need to pay park day-use fees of $8 per person.
Children under the age of 12 are free.
You can reserve day passes and campgrounds online; we highly recommended this during the busy season.
Camping costs extra.
Visit the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website to make reservations here.
Hotels near Palo Duro Canyon
Looking for Palo Duro Canyons Lodging? Here are your options for places to stay near Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
The best choices are off course inside the park, others are in the town of Canyon or in Amarillo.
Camp in the Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Camping inside the Palo Duro Canyon is an unparalleled experience.
The solitude and quiet that campers experience here is a transformative experience.
You are surrounded by nature and can enjoy the canyon without day visitors.
There are a variety of campsites inside the park including tent sites, RV sites, and equestrian sites.
You can also go backcountry camping inside the canyon.
Camping is definitely one of our favorite ways to experience the beauty of this Texas wonder.
Stay in a cabin on the canyon rim
Looking for cabins near Palo Duro Canyon?
The state park has seven cabins built by the CCC.
Three of them are located on the canyon rim and the rest are on the canyon floor.
The Palo Duro Canyon cabins have picnic tables, grills, and are sparsely furnished.
These rustic cabins are great to stay inside the canyon and explore its natural environment.
The rim cabin is by far our favorite because of its views.
However since the cabins are extremely limited in numbers, they get booked months in advance.
Go glamping inside the canyon
Where to stay in Palo Duro Canyon that is cheap and comfortable? Go glamping within the canyon!
The state park has a few glamping sites located on the floor of the canyon.
These luxury camping sites with porches and rocking chairs are an excellent way to enjoy the canyon.
The glamping sites are located behind the Trading Post.
Enjoy a stay in Canyon
The charming community of Canyon provides the perfect place to stay for exploring the state park.
It is located 14 miles away from the state park.
If you are not staying in the park cabins or camping here, then the town of Canyon is definitely the place to look for accommodations.
Make a day trip from Amarillo
A majority of Palo Duro Canyon hotels are located in the city of Amarillo.
You will find a vast range of options from hotel chains and motels to Palo Duro Canyon bed & breakfasts and more.
We hope you liked our detailed guide to visiting Palo Duro Canyon State Park as well as its surrounding attractions.
Did we miss any popular things to do in Palo Duro Canyon?
Let us know in the comments!