The Beauty of Palo Duro Canyon

I was not made to sit inside. The outdoors calls me – is my happy place. And my photography is was allows me to seek out adventures across Texas and beyond. The last time I had my camera out was to photograph the comet NEOWISE, and that was in late July. Before that, I’d spent two months shooting the mountains and wildflowers in Colorado. That was over two months ago.

My family would be the first to tell you I get grumpy when I am not outside, and by early October I was showing my unhappiness with the current situation. Fortunately, I’d planned on a trip to photograph some locations in west Texas the week of Oct 5-10. I’d prayed for good weather and for no park closures. Finally, last week, I made the drive to Canyon, Texas, to meet up with a friend and explore the area. We spent three days shooting in and around Palo Duro Canyon, and nearly all of the time there found us off the grid and off-trail – bushwhacking up the rocky slopes to reach an arch that is not on any maps, sliding down from the eastern rim of Fortress Cliff to find the best angle for a Cliffside sunset, or trekking across private land to a beautiful slot canyon (with permission from the land manager.)

The adventure started when I pulled into my camping spot beneath the Fortress Cliff in Palo Duro. Literally 30 seconds later, my friend, Todd (aka – the Caprock Canyon Canyoneer) texted me that he was already at our meeting spot - the Rock Garden Trailhead. This was our launching point. The trail took us up an easy incline for about a mile. Then he said it was time to branch off and head up and across over difficult terrain filled with anything that will poke, prick, or bite you, as well as up loose rock that gave way with each step. With sweat dripping from the tip of my nose, I at last pulled myself up a final scramble and rested on the edge of the eastern rim of Palo Duro. More hiking, and twenty minutes later we found our goal – the “Alter of Palo Duro Canyon.” This rock formation is not on any maps, and I don’t know if I could find it again (I did not use my GPS for the hike so have no record of the arch’s exact location).

Sunset from the Palo Duro Arch 108-1

When the Spanish passed through the canyon hundreds of years ago, they called this little know rock formation the “Arco del Aañón de Palo Duro.” I’ve also heard it called the “Alter of Palo Duro Canyon” by locals. Either way, it is relatively unknown and somewhat difficult to find, but sunsets from this area along the East Rim of the Canyon can be spectacular. I was fortunate enough to be guided here by a local. There was some off-trail, uphill scrambling over loose and sketchy rock. I came away with plenty of prickly pear thorns, as did my friend, but the discomfort was worth it to witness this amazing sight.

We explored the general area for an hour or so. Finally, as the sun was setting low on the hazy horizon, the inside of the arch began to glow ever so slightly. From the cliff above the arch (and even from ground level) the view was beautiful as the canyon of Palo Duro spread out before us.

The Alter of Palo Duro at Sunset 11-1

High up on the eastern ridge of Palo Duro Canyon, an arch rests close against the cliff. I’ve heard locals call it the Alter of Palo Duro. I was fortunate to have a friend familiar with the area guide me up to this unmarked location for an opportunity to photograph this remarkable rock formation at sunset. The hike up wasn’t easy. Nearly half of hte trek was off the trail, up loose rock and unforgiving scree. The prickly pear and other plants that stick were more than willing to impede our prorgress, as well. Finally, at the top of the ridge,, and after a short walk to find the exact location, the arch and landscape spread out before us. As the sunlight neared the horizon, the inner portion of the arch seemed to glow orange. We were the only ones around, and the evening was memorable in that we saw what few visitors to this park witness.

The return trip to the actual trail meant a lot of butt-sliding down loose rock winding our way down mesquite and thorn infested washes, to eventually pop out on the worn path. We both ended up with daggers and thorns impaled in our legs and bloody scratches on our arms. An hour later, I found myself pulling out the thorns from my skin in the back of my 4Runner.

Having left my tent at home, I was bedding down in the back of my car, but those thorns embedded in my arms and legs required immediate attention. The Caprock Canyoneer was off to his relatives’ comfy guest bed in Amarillo. As for me, the stars were out, and with temperatures still in the 80s, bugs buzzing everywhere, and the fine-tipped broken tips of prickly pear still clinging to skin, I settled ever so gently on top of my sleeping bag and quietly rendered first aide well into the night.

A few years ago, I had taken a friend with me to hike up the Mesa de Angulia in Big Bend National Park. That adventure led off-trail, as well, around thorny cacti, over and down loose rocks to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Rio Grande to get the shot I wanted. On the scramble back up and down the mesa in the dark, he made this comment. “Now I know why people pay the big bucks for your photographs.” That was nice to hear. It also applied to not only that night a few years ago, but many times over the years, including this night – and following morning’s adventure.


I had researched extensively for a location to photograph Palo Duro’s Capitol Peak at sunrise, I wanted to shoot east, capturing the peak as well as the small hoo-doo on its south ridge, with the sun rising in the distance. I wanted a perspective that was higher up than the canyon floor. I’ve shot from the top of the peak at sunrise, and used both those detailed images as well as google earth to plot a possible hike up to the ridge that rested south of Capitol Peak.

When I drove into the state park the previous day, I’d asked a park ranger about a possible shooting location. His only answer was that they did not condone off-trail hiking – and that it was actually illegal. I smiled, and said I’d best not ask anymore questions. I could tell he grinned beneath his mask and we left it at that.

Sunrise is late in October – not rising above the eastern rim until around 7:45am. So while I was up early, I fidgeted around in my car until starting off on the Lighthouse Trail around 6:30am. The walk to the base of Capitol Peak was short – around ten minutes. Another ten minutes found me at my waypoint that led up – a rocky, steep wash that, at least from images and a computer screen, looked to lead up to a nice sunrise vantage point. So scrambling I went. Two steps up, then a slide back down. With sweat dripping from my chin after only about 10 minutes of grinding up, I stopped at what I hoped would be a sufficient view. I set up my tripod and took in the landscape through my Canon’s viewfinder. Disappointed would be an understatement.

I don’t know if I can adequately describe the precariousness of the situation. I was standing on a slope that was possibly 45-55 degrees, filled with loose rock and, again, cacti. Every step require concentration. Half of the trek up had required the use of my hands, and a slip would surely result in serious injury or worse. At this point, I’d decided the risk just wasn’t worth going up further. There was no trail, and the dirt and rock were steep and loose. But the view through my camera said otherwise. Now I was in the cartoon scene where I had one entity on my right shoulder telling me to stop – that you have kid and a wife at home and you have to be safe – take no chances. On the left shoulder, another voice is telling me that the best views are up higher, and those are what folks like and what would support the family financially –and that yes, I was sure footed and nothing would happen … and no risk, no reward. Ultimately, I climbed further. I reached a point where the rocks wouldn’t support me scaling higher. All I did was slip. So I rested my backpack, camera, and tripod on a small indention on the slope. I assembled the tripod and camera, then butt-scooted to my left about 10 feet, set up the tripod, and waited. Each time I moved my feet, small pebbles tumbled down. I tried to enjoy the sunrise – it was beautiful. The colors of the rock turned from dark reds to a glowing orange as the sunlight made its way across the unforgiving land. I also noticed I had blood all over my left forearm from several cut while hiking up. Funny…. I never felt the cut and never felt any pain. All good.

I can’t say I’d make this climb again. It was a very sketchy decision. Back home several days later, I was amazed when I looked at my precise location on the map. What was I thinking? But I was very pleased with the results.

Capitol Peak October Sunrise 1

I wanted to find a view of Capitol Peak for a sunrise photograph. After examing google earth as well as my own images taken from the summit of Capitol Peak, I mapped out a possible route to the top following a small, rocky wash up a crevass. So well before first light and in the dark, I headed down the trailhead for a short 20-minute walk before heading uphill. The gully was steep and rocky and required scrambling up on all fours. At one point, I sat down and decided not to go up further. After exploring my options for composing the shot, I reassessed the goals, weighed the risk vs. reward, and resumed my uphill trek. I finallly decided on this spot about 2/3 way up the sketchy slope. Here, I was fearful of standing straight because of the loose rock - and a slip meant almost certain death. So I butt-scooted out to the edge of this point, carefully set up the tripod, and waited for sunrise over Palo Duro Canyon. This was the result. I probably wouldn’t do this again, and I won’t mention here the precariousness of the descent.

After a tense butt-scoot downhill to the canyon floor, I was on my way to meet up with the Caprock Canyoneer yet again… this time for a slot canyon adventure.

More to come! In the meantime, safe travels to everyone...

~ Rob

These Palo Duro images are for sale as prints, canvas, and on metal.

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