Palo Duro Canyon: A Trail Less Traveled

Can you name the second largest canyon in the United States?

If you had asked me two weeks ago, I couldn’t have.

Just so you know, it’s Palo Duro Canyon,  also known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas.”

Palo Duro in Canyon, Texas – Givens, Spencer, Lowry Running Trail

If you’re from the States (like me) you might be thinking “Where the hell is that?”

To answer your question, its 21 miles south of Amarillo, TX. Most people, unless you’re a serious mountain biker, don’t really know about it. Why would anyone visit such an obscure place when we have the Grand Canyon, right?


According to the Texas State Park’s page it’s 120 miles long and 800 feet deep, making it much easier to access the bottom of Palo Duro than the Grand Canyon. Not to mention when you live in Oklahoma it’s roughly 700 miles closer. Everything from mammoth hunting to mountain biking has happened here. What’s not to like? For me and my fellow weekend warriors, it’s the perfect spot for a little backpacking.

Now, I have to thank my dad for even introducing me to this place! He’s an avid mountain biker, and has been wanting to go for some time. However, time seems to be the problem – there isn’t always enough of it. Fortunately, I found myself with not only time, but also a partner in crime for tackling the trail.

Who better to take than a native Texan?

Pre-Trip Planning

I put some effort into researching the area before going and was disappointed by the lack of info from the travel blogging community. I’m sure they’re all busy exploring other regions of the globe, so I decided I would do my part and give Palo Duro a little shout-out when I returned. While the state park page gives you the basic info, details on the backcountry are scarce, and what little it does provide isn’t very clear.

So here are a few things to know before you go:

  1. When you get there you can only reserve sites for the same day! So if you’re planning on a two or three night trip (which is enough to see the majority of the park), and don’t want to run up to the office every morning like we did, then book your nights by calling the Texas State Park & Wildlife offices (512) 389-8900. (Entrance and camping fees are also listed on their page.)
  2. There is not exactly a “backpacking” trail. According to the slightly harassed-looking lady at the main office, all of the trails are “day-use only.” Which means you can’t camp out there. Fortunately, there is a loophole, and it is this loophole that kept us from having to turn around and cancel the trip completely. More on that in a moment.
  3. When they say the weather is unpredictable, THEY MEAN IT! Always prepare for a storm even if your forecast says 0% chance for the dates you have chosen. We were caught in a thunderstorm the first night.
  4. The maps are more or less correct. You can rely on them for the most popular trails (like the Lighthouse Trail), but not much else. There are a number of trails on the ground that aren’t on the map, and vice-versa.  However, not once was I worried about being lost. The park is relatively small, so unless you are hopeless with directions or decide to walk for a mile with your eyes closed, there is little chance of being truly lost. I do strongly advise against walking around with your eyes shut, as the cacti are ferocious even in the winter.

Operation #OptOutside

In light of having extra days off for the Thanksgiving holiday I was definitely thankful for the opportunity to join millions of other Americans who opted outside last week. Spending the holidays with family is wonderful, and spending them adventuring is amazing. Fortunately, I got to do both this year. img_1239

I have yet to go on a trip where everything goes “as planned.” As fate would have it, my plans usually have a lot of holes that are more than happy to be filled with serendipity and the unexpected. For example, finding instant Thai tea!

As I mentioned before I planned ahead for this trip, but perhaps not in the areas I really should have. While on the road, I admitted to my camping buddy, Lori, that I hadn’t made reservations. We were counting on people to spend their off time with family. We were more than a little wrong. When we walked in the office, the lady at the desk was telling two men in front of us that there were no more campsites.

(Here’s where we revisit the loophole.)

Despite having heard her very clearly, I decided to ask about campsites anyway. She repeated that there were none. So, I asked about the availability in the backcountry on the equestrian trail.

“Oh yeah, you can camp back there.”

Twenty-two dollars later we were in, but it seemed that you had to know the equestrian trail was an option. She wasn’t exactly advertising it.

After leaving headquarters, it was a slow drive to the trailhead on account of all the beautiful, distracting rock formations. Once there we loaded our gear on our backs and hit the trail.img_1243..

Then we turned around because we couldn’t find the trailhead. It took about ten minutes walking around in circles to find it back off in the trees.  Also, according to the frazzled lady at the office you’re supposed to hike back a mile before setting up camp, however I would like to argue that you will be hard pressed to find the trail let alone a campsite a mile back. We probably made it half a mile before setting up.

With a few hours to spare, we set off to find the remainder of the equestrian trail. Certain parts appeared to have been traversed quite frequently, in addition to people making up their own trails at random.

It’s not enough that you have to keep an eye out for cacti, the yucca hurt too.

In the southern part of the canyon we found amazing vistas, a ravine, and all seven of the spiky plants that are call Palo Duro home.


Actually, while trying to video the trail I fell into a cactus. An all important reminder to “watch where yer goin’ ‘stead o’ where ya bin.”

Sagely wisdom right there.

The next day we hiked 10.5+ miles on the Lighthouse, Little Fox Loop, and Givens/Spencer/Lowry trails. Not including getting to and from our campsite.

It was well worth each of those miles. We stood on top of rock formations in gusty winds, and walked along trails snaking through the depths of the canyon.

As I mentioned before, the above trails are easy to follow with one exception. If you want to see the Lighthouse rock formation you need to be prepared for almost vertical climbing conditions. If you bike the trail, you’ll have to park your bike at the base of the incline. Conveniently, there a bike rack waiting for you.

Canyon view from the top of the Lighthouse Trail.
Lighthouse Rock Formation

The Take-away

Palo Duro was a refreshing and much-needed trip, despite my feeling more than a little disgruntled when I returned to work.

The take-away didn’t really hit me until after I returned home for Thanksgiving. While with my family I was asked by some what I’ve been up to and where I’ve been. Of course, I eagerly told them about Palo Duro.

Then my uncle asked, “Where are you going next?”

In that moment it hit me: my family finally expects this of me. I’m no longer met with exclamations of “no you’re not” or showered with skepticism. More than a year ago now I told them about the life I wanted to live, and they didn’t seem to believe me.

I think they believe me now.

The funny thing is, I believe me too. Finally.

Perhaps the doubts never stemmed from my family’s lack of faith in my abilities, but rather that I didn’t know what I was capable of. I wanted to believe I could overcome the obstacles in front of me, but more than anything I was terrified of trying and failing. Not to mention paralyzed by the cost of travel. Now here I am, with a drive to reach into the unknown with all its risks and problem solving how to get over monetary hurdles as they come. I can’t say I apply that logic in all areas of life, but I’m striving to.

This journey is my own. Here, there, and yonder.

On another note, I recently asked a friend how life would be different if we hadn’t gone to China. Rather than answering she turned the question on me.

It’s a big question. Who can really say?

I did my best to answer: I think that if I hadn’t gone, I would have begun to accept that there are certain unchangeable limitations in life. A series of obstacles whose presence you learn to accept, rather than trying overcome. I might’ve begun to settle. I believe the world might’ve seemed much smaller and scarier, rather than connected and brimming with possibilities.

I’m thankful that is not the world I live in.

That said, and in light of the recent holiday, I would like to take a moment and say Thank You.

Thank you to all those who return to The Emptea Cupfull for my sporadic adventures and endless life lessons.

Thank you to everyone who volunteers to join me on my crazy adventures.

Thank you to you who stand in the background, silently supporting me.

Until next time!


Face of The Emptea Cupfull at Lighthouse rock formation, Palo Duro Canyon.


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