This past week, I had the opportunity to spend time in the Texas Panhandle, primarily Palo Duro Canyon State Park, as well as a few side trips around Amarillo, Texas. The late November weather turned out to be superb, and I was fortunate to enjoy some amazing sunrises and sunsets while exploring the canyon.
My family came with me on this trip, and that meant no camping. Instead, we stayed in Canyon, just ~ 12 miles from the park entrance. For my gear, I was shooting with the newish Canon 5DSr. I brought a few lenses, as well – the 11-24L, 16-35IIL, 24-105L, and the 70-200ISL. For a majority of the trip, I only used the 11-24 and the 24-105. We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express – 4 adults, 2 kiddos. It was not bad at all, though I’m not a fan of their breakfast. However, I was usually gone when breakfast started at 6am and by the time I returned to the hotel, I caught the tail-end of the morning service. So I stuck to my Apricot Kind bars for early morning food.
One thing to know about Palo Duro is that the entrance gates are closed overnight and don’t open until 8:00am. Having done some work for Texas Parks and Wildlife in the past, I was able to obtain permission to enter the park early in order to photograph sunrise. This made a huge difference, allowing me to photograph during the morning magic hour when light is soft and beautiful.
* I should add here that I stopped by the Visitor Center to ask a few questions about hikes and such when we first arrived at the park. An older woman who was working seemed to not particularly enjoy her job that much. She questioned all my plans, and even said she didn’t understand why I wanted to come into the park before 8am – the gates were closed for a reason! She went on to add that there was nothing to photograph before sunrise. “Why would you want to get here so early. There’s nothing here worth seeing that early!” I don’t think she should have been a front-person for Palo Duro, as she obviously didn’t appreciate the wonders this place has to offer.
Anyway, the flexibility of the park rangers with allowing me an early entrance each morning made the trip worthwhile. Otherwise, it would been not nearly as productive. The sunrise from the Visitor Center that overlooks the Canyon was colorful – a nice gradient from orange to blue about 40 minutes before sunrise, then transitioning to some nice clouds by the time the sun showed itself for the first time. But during this in-between, my hands were nearly frozen. The temperature was in the upper 20s at this location, and later as I drove through the valley floor, the thermometer read 21 degrees. Yikes!
After finishing up the sunrise shoot, I returned to the hotel to pick up the wife and kids, then came back to take them hiking. We explored the Big Cave (an easy walk for young kids that the Visitor Center Welcome Woman poo-pooed – and my kids loved it), and some other trails. I also came away with some late morning light on Capitol Peak, one of the well-known points in the park. Evening found my wife and me hiking to the Lighthouse. This famous landmark is by far the most popular trail it the park, and for good reason. It provides you a 6-mile round-trip walk on an orange clay path through magnificent and colorful canyon walls and rock formations. You finish the last .3 miles going uphill, scrambling part of the way, to reach the base of the iconic structure. From this vantage point, the views stretch for miles through the distant canyon. And sunset did not disappoint, either. Behind me, to the east, clouds lit up in pink pastels. In front of us, to the west, the sun turned the sky brilliant orange, complementing the orange rock of the Lighthouse itself. We lingered until nearly dark, enjoying the scene and solitude. And I should note that while we passed folks on our walk (all of whom were heading back to the start of the trailhead), we did not encounter another person for the last mile of our walk to the Lighthouse, nor did we see anyone the remainder of the evening. That peace and quiet was pretty special, for sure. Having a place like that all to oneself, even for a few hours, is hard to top.
But time moves us along, and eventually we were back on the trail, walking in the dark. I paused to shoot the Lighthouse from a distance with the Milky Way behind it, then again at Capitol Peak to take a long exposure of the mountain as the nearly-full moon had risen and was illuminating the red and orange rock in a wonderful soft glow.
The next morning found me back at sunrise again, but this time the temperatures rose into the high 20s and low 30s, so I guess it wasn’t too bad. Another glorious sunrise welcomed the day, and soon we were off exploring.
I would like to come back here again in the spring when the flowers are blooming, and perhaps in the fall when the trees are changing colors as they head into winter.
After leaving the Palo Duro Canyon area, we made side trips to the ecclectic Cadillac Ranch just west of Amarillo. This field that is on the old Route 66 has ten old Cadillacs that have been buried nose first into the dirt. Funded by an eccentric millionaire and created by a San Francisco art hippy group called the Ant Farm, this “exhibit” is free and open to the public – and spray-painting the old cars is welcome and even encouraged.
Heading east of Amarillo, I paused to photograph a few cotton fields. From the highway, the area looked like snow had fallen, but in reality the cotton was white and ready for harvesting. I met a rancher who welcomed me onto his land, so I spent a little time photographing this uniquely Texas landscape.
From here, another sunset found me shooting bales of hay under some wonderful skies lit up by the half-light of evening.
All in all, it was a fun, relaxing, and successful trip. What’s next?
Safe travels, everyone,