AMARILLO, Texas — It’s not a widely-known fact — being runner-up doesn’t get as much attention — but Texas can boast of the second-largest canyon in the United States. Palo Duro Canyon, south of Amarillo, is 120 miles long and 800 to 1,000 feet deep and 25 miles across at the widest point. About a million years ago, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River began carving a path revealing 250 million years of geologic history.
Prehistoric people used the canyon as long ago as 12,000 years. In historic times, the area provided water, food and shelter for Kiowa, Comanche, Apache and Cheyenne people. In the late 1870s, rancher Charles Goodnight established a ranch in the canyon. In 1934, a portion in the northern part of the canyon was purchased by the state and Palo Duro Canyon State Park was created. It consists of approximately 28,000 acres — about five per cent of the total canyon land.
The park is popular for its scenery with weird, wind-and-water eroded features like hoodoos (chimney-like spires) and Spanish skirts (rippled hillsides with multi-colored layers). Hikers, bikers and horse-back riders enjoy the trails. There are six campgrounds in the park and a few cabins — which need to be reserved many months in advance. The cabins, built in the 30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, include three with amenities and four primitive.
For those who like luxury, Doves Rest, outside the park but on the rim of the canyon, offers nine beautiful cabins, several with outdoor hot tubs. All feature fully-supplied kitchens, patios with outdoor furniture, and propane grills, TV, wi-fi — all the comforts of home. Best of all, spectacular views. Just don’t sleepwalk!
During spring and summer at Doves Rest, Wednesday night chuck wagon dinners and Saturday morning cowboy breakfasts are open to the public. The location and meals are the perfect homage to Charles Goodnight — not only because he lived in the area, but also because he invented the chuck wagon.
The Wednesday night dinners are timed to give participants time to get into the park and settled for TEXAS, the annual outdoor musical production. This show is definitely worth seeing with lots of energy and color. And Oklahoma performers make up an impressive percent of the cast. Summer nights are usually hot but the show starts fairly late and the orientation of the outdoor theater provides some protection. The park is less than 40 miles from Amarillo — not a bad drive.
The other big attraction in the area is in Canyon, Texas, west of the park but an easy reach from the Amarillo-Palo Duro route. The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum on the campus of West Texas A&M University has more than two million artifacts with displays from paleontology to petroleum.
The oldest, largest historic museum in Texas, this museum is an area do-not-miss. Plan for several hours there; there’s a lot to see. The building itself is classic Art Deco with a Texas twist — a longhorn steer head over the entrance, surrounded by brands of Texas ranches.
It’s also the first museum in the United States to provide art for the sight-impaired. One of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, “Red Landscape” has been interpreted as a three-dimensional piece with touch sensors which provide information about the colors used and tidbits about the artist’s life and works.
O’Keeffe spent time in this area, at one point teaching in the Amarillo school system and later at West Texas Normal College, which, after several name changes, became West Texas A&M. During her time in Canyon, she frequently traveled to Palo Duro Canyon to draw and paint. The museum owns one of only four oil paintings that she created while in Canyon.
Other outstanding galleries display art by Texas artists and art of the Southwest. Major exhibits explore the settlement and development of the area. Surface water is scarce in the Panhandle so a large display features the importance of the Ogallala aquifer while a large gallery is devoted to the windmills that made life possible in this dry land.
Another important underground resource is highlighted in the Don D. Harrington Petroleum Wing and the Panhandle Petroleum Story areas. The geology section explains the development of Palo Duro Canyon, including large models of some of its features. And these are just a few of the things you’ll find in this amazing museum.
For a look at an important figure in the area’s history, take a drive to Goodnight, Texas, east of Amarillo. Charles Goodnight was more than just a cattle rancher. The Goodnight-Loving Trail, blazed by Goodnight and Oliver Loving, was a major cattle trail from Texas to Wyoming.
Learn the story of this great Texan and his wife, Mary Ann, at the Charles Goodnight Historical Center. Displays in the center cram lots of information into a compact space. Then tour the 1887 Folk Victorian mansion he built on the prairie.
A statue on the grounds depicts Mary Ann with two buffalo calves. Through her adoption of these orphans, the Goodnights helped save the plains bison from extinction. If you’re lucky — and the animals are cooperative — you’ll be able to see remnants of the original Goodnight herd across the road from the museum. The sculptor of the statue is Veryl Goodnight. I don’t know if she’s any relation, but everything in the area seems to be named for Charles Goodnight.
To see and do everything interesting in and around Amarillo, plan to stay at least three days. There’s so much to explore — geology, history, art and fun — all topped off with a big meal at the Big Texan.