John Wayne could have filmed all his Westerns smack in the middle of the Texas Panhandle, so ruggedly storybook is the landscape here. You have the forbidding High Plains giving way to exquisite, ancient gashes in the earth beautifully painted by nature. You can imagine Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition cutting through the vast wildness, and you understand how the Native Americans wandering here were deeply toughened by its harshness. And you can’t help but marvel at hardy pioneers who had the fortitude and vision to carve out an existence for their families here.
Today, explorers have an easy time embracing the wilds of the Panhandle, although it’s scarcely tamed. The marvelous journey outlined here is only about 140 miles, but it’s not something you want to rush. Start in Amarillo, then travel roughly 32 miles south to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, then another 90 miles or so to Caprock Canyons State Park. Your final leg is a 15-mile jaunt to Turkey.
Take a couple of days, going slowly to drink in the wonder. You won’t be disappointed.
Once you get your kicks shopping at the antique stores and cool boutiques on historic Route 66 just west of downtown, treat yourself to the happiest surprise in this dry, flat city. At the recently renovated Amarillo Botanical Gardens, find the new Mary e. Bivins Tropical Conservatory. Within its glass pyramid, you’ll roam through more than 6,000 square feet of lush flowers and trees meant to transport you to a South American rainforest. Sit by the rock waterfall and pond and feel stress slipping away. Depending on the calendar you may stumble upon a horticulture workshop or lecture, or perhaps catch an art exhibit.
Mary E. Bivins Tropical Conservatory at the Amarillo Botanical Gardens, 1400 Streit Dr., Amarillo; (806) 352-6513
Palo Duro Canyon State Park
You’ll have a hard time finding anything more impressive than the summer sunrise in this majestic canyon, which is 120 miles long and up to 20 miles wide in places. The air is clear and cool, the light wind whips that famous sagebrush perfume into your face, and the first rays of sunlight skitter over the richly colored crevices and along rocky buttes and spires rising from the desert. These are served in massive quantities at the Cowboy Morning Breakfast, a daily ritual at the Elkins Ranch through August. Camp cooks rustle up a hearty chuck wagon breakfast in the traditional cowboy style, and local singer/songwriter Ed Montana entertains crowds that gather from around the globe. In the evenings in the summer, head to Palo Duro Canyon State Park’s Pioneer Amphitheater to see “Texas!”—the long-running outdoor musical that tells a dramatic story of life, death, love and war among the pioneers, cowboys and Native Americans who shaped the region.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, (806) 488-2227
Texas! Musical Drama in Palo Duro Canyon, (806) 655-2181
Caprock Canyons State Park
Just three miles beyond the town of Quitaque (say it “KIT-uh-kway”), this 15,317-acre spread of mountain, canyons, streams and trees sitting atop the region’s caprock escarpment is guaranteed to open your eyes. Once roamed by the Folsom people more than 10,000 years ago, the canyons are revered today by equestrians, mountain bikers and hikers. You can explore the landscape on your horse, bicycle or feet along the 64.25-mile-long Trailway, a rails-to-trails conversion that incorporates 46 bridges and the Clarity Tunnel, one of the last railroad tunnels used in Texas. Check in at park headquarters to borrow one of the audio driving tour CDs or tapes to guide you through the park.
Caprock Canyons State Park, (806) 455-1492
Bob Wills, the King of Western Swing, came from a farm near this Hall County town, and his legacy is celebrated inside the museum bearing his name. You’ll see memorabilia from Wills and the Texas Playboys, including fiddles, hats, music, boots, photographs and more. There’s a springtime festival honoring Bob Wills; you can learn more at the party headquarters, the historic Hotel Turkey.
Bob Wills Museum, Sixth at Lyle streets, Turkey; inquire at Hotel Turkey, Third and Alexander streets, (806) 423-1151
June Naylor wrote Texas: Off the Beaten Path