Another Palo Duro Canyon Adventure

Palo Duro Canyon

Finally, Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyons called me back. I enlisted the company of a friend and outdoor enthusiast (my friend, Ross) and we were off for a mid-week trip to these panhandle parks. I needed to update my catalog of prints for sale from Palo Duro and Caprock, as well as explore a few new areas and vantage points I hadn’t yet visited. This blog will cover Palo Duro. I have another blog for the Caprock Canyons portion of the trip. Some of the highlights of this quick trip included:

- the Lighthouse (an often visited hoodoo)

- South Brushy Draw (a Plan B)

- an unnamed slot canyon

The seven+ hour drive to Palo Duro from the Hill Country is long and tedious. After exiting the rolling hills, miles of wind-turbines await as the road winds its way to a Mad-Max landscape of flat, dry land. When not driving, this is a good place for napping. I don’t remember much of the uneventful drive, but I did take a photo of a car jacked up on a pole. Seems like you’d only see this in Texas, or maybe in the south. I’m not sure why it is there, but if you want to see it, it is at the intersection of North Date and 24th Street in what I think was the outskirts of Plainview. I took the photo with my cell phone through my windshield bc I wanted Ross to see it (he was asleep at the time).

After that brief wtf moment, we plodded on, finally reaching our destination around 5:00pm. Thunderstorms were in the forecast for the evening, unfortunately. When we pass through the park headquarters, I asked the park ranger about the possibility of bad weather. He definitively said, “no way.” So, I reiterated, confirming we did not need to worry about lightening or storms on an evening walk out to the Lighthouse. "Absolutely not."

Well, ok, then.

The winds were howling above the canyon, but by the time we followed the park road down in the shadows of the walls, the winds had dropped to perhaps 20mph with still-strong gusts. We found our camping spot beneath Fortress Cliff, staked Ross’s tent into the ground, hoping it wouldn’t blow away while we were out, and headed out about 6:00pm.

The Lighthouse – Part 1

The Lighthouse Trail is about a 6-mile round-trip – an easy, relatively flat walk to a prominent and iconic hoodoo. The first portion of the walk winds west and then south around Capitol Peak, a colorful, red, sandstone fin of the canyon that shows off rock layers from the eons of time. As we started out, the clouds to our southwest were growing darker and more menacing. I should state here that Ross is one of my few hiking buddies I could not outrun if we saw a mountain lion or a bigfoot. He’s a track star and stays in shape. I do the same and can hike 20 miles a pop, but I don’t have his speed. Fortunately, that never came into play during this trip, but I say this to confirm he does keep up a good pace. While we made good time, our hesitancy with the weather grew. We both have wives and kids at home, and making it back alive was/is always a priority. Our pace slowed. Rumbles of thunder rolled through the canyon. We could see the Lighthouse maybe a mile away. We also saw the dark clouds as they moved closer overhead. And the lightening caught our eye, as well. Reluctantly, we decided to turn around. That was only the second time I’ve turned around in my life on a hiking trip. The other was when a friend and me were at about 13,500 feet in Colorado trying to reach the top of a 14er when lightening and rain started moving in. We retreated back to treeline just as the sky filled with rain and thunder. It spooked us quite a bit.

Ross and I made it to the car and drove around for a while trying to figure out what to do.

South Brush Draw

The storm seemed to pass over, much less intense than we expected. With daylight fading, we decided to check out the South Brushy Draw for any nice views. We found a small trail leading up to a cliff, scrambled our way to the top, and enjoyed a colorful and scenic vista as we walk around its edge. The sunset spread its colors across the horizon, and we found ourselves lamenting that we’d missed out on a trip the Lighthouse. But South Brushy Draw was better than we expected, and produced views of both a green, lush valley near Hackberry Campground and of the red dirt and rock of a distant promontory.

South Brushy Draw Sunset 501-2

The end of day brings a beautiful sunset over South Brushy Draw near the Hackberry campground. Palo Duro Canyon State Park offers many easy access scenes like this. It just takes a little exploring.

We lingered until the sky was nearly void of light, then made our way back to the car and campground.

The Lighthouse – Part 2

After drawing so close to the Lighthouse, and with Ross never having visited here before, we decided to tray again sunrise. After a miserably warm night of sleep despite heavy rain and lightening (I slept in the back of my 4Runner and Ross in his tent), we started our walk about 5:15am. Amazingly, the trail was relatively dry, a testament to how dry the land is out there. The path was easy to follow, and within an hour we were scrambling up the final pitch to reach the plateau beneath the famous hoodoo. We found our phones could receive a signal, so we quickly took a few photos of ourselves and sent them to our wives back home who were getting the kids off to school. I’m sure they were happy for us.

When we arrived at the Lighthouse, the skies were overcast, but we expected those clouds to burn off as soon as sunlight appeared. And we were right. I was able to take some photos of the Lighthouse from angles and perspectives I’d not found in previous trips, and now I’m excited about other possibilities.

The Lighthouse in Palo Duro Canyon in morning light.

The Lighthouse rises from the rocks on a cool May morning. In the foreground, a rock formation I've heard called the Shark's Fin make a perfect frame for the rugged landscape.

The Lighthouse in Palo Duro Canyon is an icon of the park and a hiking destination worth the 6 mile round trip.

The sun's first light warms up the sandstone of the Lighthouse hoodoo. Another morning in the Caprock Escarpment brings more beautiful views, and by arriving early when it is still dark, I did not see another person until I was nearly back at my car near the trailhead several hours later. The hike out here is easy and straightforward, but can get hot in the summer.

Ross was patient as I worked my craft. I think he enjoyed an opportunity to lay on the flat rocks and take in the sights.

Within about 30 minutes after sunrise, the clouds were gone and we were walking back to the trailhead. We did not see another person until we were within a quarter-mile of the parking lot. That was nice!

Spider Slot

Our last adventure after the sunrise hike was trying to find a small slot canyon. I have a friend who grew up in the area and had told me about this hidden gem. Based on previous conversations with this unnamed source, and with temperatures climbing into the mid-90s, Ross and I set out along a small stream and walked for over a mile before finally calling my friend back at work. Something wasn't right. After sending a few cell-phone shots and some lengthy discussion, we realized we were on the wrong trail. We backtracked to the parking area, then headed out a different direction, climbing over a ridge, then down into a wash, then doing that again before finally finding some landmarks and the sought-after ravine that led into the slot. After discovering we were finally entering the small slot, the extra miles of walking didn’t seem to matter anymore.

My source had told me of his encounters with black widow spiders in this small canyon, and we found the asymmetrical and disjointed webs of these poisonous spiders in the nooks and crannies throughout. With Ross leading the way and removing the webs as if an explorer hacking his way through the jungle, I followed behind with my camera. At one point, we had to crawl through the slot on our hands and knees. It was a beautiful canyon made of quartermaster sandstone, and because of the abundance of spiders, I’m calling it “Spider Slot.” My friend calls it “Deathly Hallows.”

Spider Slot 1 - Palo Duro Canyon

In one of Palo Duro Canyon’s slot canyons, hosts of black widow spiders welcome anyone fortunate enough to find this gem with a tangled mess of spider webs. My hiking buddy had cleared out the webs as we made our way up the slot, and that allowed me to photograph the pristine quatermaster sandstone and gypsum walls on a warm May afternoon.

Palo Duro Canyon holds several slot canyons, all of which are hidden and off-trail. Spider Slot is one of these slots that is out there and fun to explore.

This small slot canyon in Palo Duro is a combination of gypsum and quatermaster sandstone. It is home to a plethora of black widow spiders, hence the name. I’ve also heard it called “Deathly Hallows” thanks to these spiders. At one point while investigating the slot, my friend and I had to crawl on our hands and knees to slip through a small opening, It felt very Indiana-Jones-ish, and spiders are not my favorite insect, especiallly the poisonous kind. Still, the walls seemed to glow orange in the afternoon light, and the short time we spent here was pretty amazing.

And with success here, we returned to the car, headed to the town of Canyon, and enjoyed a gluttonous lunch at Feldman’s Diner. After that, it was onto Caprock Canyons.

Happy Travels, Texas!

~ Rob

Images from Texas

From the opposite side of a small canyon, this view looks across the valley to the iconic Lighthouse hoodoo in Palo Duro Canyon...

The Lighthouse on a Spring Morning 503-2

From the opposite side of a small canyon, this view looks across the valley to the iconic Lighthouse hoodoo in Palo Duro Canyon State Park.