Driving U.S. Interstate 27 between Lubbock and Amarillo, the world whizzes by and morphs into a monotonous landscape: an unbroken horizon line, pale blue sky, pale blond grass and fields as far as the eye can see.
From the heart of the Southern High Plains and on up north to the Panhandle, the region known as the Llano Estacado (Spanish for “staked plains”) is dead-flat and mostly treeless tableland dominated by farms and ranches.
If you’re a stranger to these parts, you would never guess that southeast of Amarillo, and only 15 miles east of Canyon, is the most spectacular and scenic place in the Panhandle: a jaw-dropping formation known as Palo Duro Canyon—the so-called “Grand Canyon of Texas” whose walls abruptly leave the flat land behind, plunging some 800 feet to the canyon floor. It’s the second-largest canyon system in the United States (after the Grand Canyon in Arizona), a geologic wonder in the Caprock that erupts in a lush riot of colors—red, orange, yellow, purple—where layers of sedimentary rocks trace the timetable of life on Earth.
Majestic and surprising, Palo Duro (Spanish for “hard wood” in reference to the Rocky Mountain junipers found in the canyon) was center stage for some of the most significant history in the development of Texas: massive buffalo herds and Indian sanctuary, frontier battlefield and one of the West’s most legendary cattle ranches.
Now the canyon, whose land mass predominantly is carved up by privately owned ranches, is home to one of Texas’ largest and oldest state parks—Palo Duro Canyon State Park—which state officials, in recent years, have nearly doubled in size to 30,000 acres. Today, the park, which officially opened in 1934, serves as a starting point for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts wanting to explore the deep mysteries of the Panhandle region.
Over the course of roughly 1 million years, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River cut into the Caprock Escarpment, creating a deep gash some 800 feet deep, about 100 miles long and an average of six miles wide. Erosion took the canyon deep into the earth to open the massive Ogallala Aquifer, which by some estimates holds the same amount of water as Lake Erie. Even in the hottest summer, cool water runs under the shade of the canyon’s walls and water-carved rock formations. For ancient Indian tribes, the canyon offered protection from bitter Panhandle winters—no wonder scientists have found evidence of native people living here as long as 12,000 years ago.
Although there is no archaeological evidence to support the story, some oral histories hold that in 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado—while searching for the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold”—became the first European to enter Palo Duro Canyon. By some accounts, Apaches living in the canyon brought Coronado’s men gifts of buffalo hides. But finding no cities of gold, Coronado struck out toward what is now Kansas.
By 1700, Comanches migrating from the north drove the Apaches south and west, where many remain today throughout parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. There is evidence that throughout history, nomadic Southern Plains tribes sometimes wintered within the canyon, most likely clustering tepees into tribal villages.
In the winter, it’s about 10 degrees warmer on the canyon floor than it is on top, said Bill Green, curator of history emeritus for Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon. “It was almost a Garden of Eden, I would think,” he said.
The Red River War
In 1864, cultures collided in a big way when explorer and Indian fighter Kit Carson encountered and fought a large number of Comanches and Kiowas living in villages at an abandoned structure called Adobe Walls, which was built by merchant William Bent in 1843 as a trading post for Southern Plains Indians. Carson and his men were greatly outnumbered, and he retreated back to New Mexico.
But the tables were turned in 1874, during the second battle of Adobe Walls. A group of mostly Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne—according to some accounts led by Comanche warrior Quanah Parker, Comanche medicine man White Eagle (Eschiti) and Kiowa Chief Lone Wolf—attacked the post in an unsuccessful effort to drive out white buffalo hunters. The Indians, in a battle that stretched over several days, proved no match for the hunters and their new technology: .50-caliber Sharps rifles accurate from long distances.
The attack was the catalyst for the Red River War, a series of skirmishes with the U.S. military that resulted in the confinement of Southern Plains Indians to reservations in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
Ultimately, as explained by Jeff Indeck, chief curator for Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, the South Plains Indians retained their culture, even as they were forced off their native land. But their free way of life as bison-hunting nomads on horseback was lost forever.
After the Red River War, the canyon underwent a remarkable transformation—it became a massive ranch where cattle roamed free before the arrival of barbed wire. In the fall of 1876, onetime Texas Ranger and famed pioneer Charles Goodnight, with backing from Irish financier John Adair in 1877, created the first permanent ranch in the Texas Panhandle. Known as the Palo Duro Ranch, and using JA as its brand, the ranch at one time encompassed some 1.3 million acres. Still in operation today, the JA has been carved up into many smaller parcels.
In 1887, sensing the end of the era for his mighty cattle ranch, Goodnight terminated his partnership with Adair’s wife, Cornelia Ritchie Adair. Ultimately, he did not receive a one-third portion of the ranch, as was originally promised, but he did receive, in part, the north end of the ranch and moved there into a two-story house that he constructed near Goodnight, a town to which he gave his name, about 12 miles southeast of Claude. The house still stands near U.S. Highway 287. Goodnight died in 1929 and is buried in the Goodnight Cemetery.
Jealously Guarding its Beauty
During the 1930s, Palo Duro was considered as a site for the first national park to be established in Texas, but with land acquisition too expensive and troublesome, Big Bend eventually got the honor. Instead, in 1934, Texas created Palo Duro Canyon State Park with about 15,000 acres of purchased land. Texas Highway 217 was built to descend from a visitor center (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps) to the floor of the canyon, crossing the main tributary of the Red River six times.
Generations of Panhandle residents have frolicked at Palo Duro, enjoying varied outdoor adventures. State Park Interpreter Bernice Blasingame, 65, remembers swimming at Palo Duro with her family as a child. When they emerged from the water, their skin and swimsuits, or shorts and T-shirts, were tinged red from the river’s high iron content.
Today, visitors also can explore the canyon south of the park by driving Texas Highway 207 south from Claude, which crosses the fork in a breathtaking downward plunge along one of Texas’ most scenic drives.
In recent years, Blasingame has accompanied Comanche tribe members who visited the canyon to honor their ancestors from the Red River War and participate in a cedar ceremony (a traditional cleansing ritual involving smoke from cedar chips). She heard stories that were passed down through generations. “You could see the sadness in people’s faces,” she said.
In 2005 and 2008, the state acquired several nearby ranches to expand the park to nearly 30,000 acres, principally with the addition of the Harrell Ranch, which includes the original JA ranch headquarters and the Palo Duro battlegrounds. Over the next year or so, state park officials plan to start opening portions of the expanded areas to visitors.
Local historian Green notes that unfortunately for tourists, some of the most spectacular and breathtaking portions of Palo Duro Canyon remain out of reach, in the hands of private landowners.
“On the positive side,” Green says, “Palo Duro Canyon remains relatively untouched by humans, including the people who own pieces of it and jealously guard its beauty.”
Mike Coppock, a former college history instructor and newspaper editor, is a Denver-area freelance writer.