Canyons & Cadillacs
Did you know that Texas has a “Grand Canyon”? If you didn’t, you are not alone – we didn’t either until we arrived in Amarillo! Located in Canyon, TX, Palo Duro Canyon State Park was about a 40 minute drive from the Oasis RV Resort (just west of Amarillo), primarily traversing through prairies dotted with cattle ranches.Then like a jolt, the land opens up to reveal a vast canyon painted in various hues of red, brown, and white. Honestly, no where near the “Grand” scale of the real thing, but still a very large, picturesque and interesting piece of geology nonetheless.
If you are in need of adventure (we weren’t), stop at the Palo Duro Zipline Adventure Park (they have an RV Park too) just before the entrance to the State Park. Here you can get your adrenaline rush by taking a 1/4 mile zip line across the canyon, or a 1540 ft. zip line adventure, or rappel down the side of the canyon cliffs!
At the entrance station to the State Park, we had to pay a fee of $5.00 per person (children 12 and under are free). Even if you are staying at one of the several campgrounds on the floor of the Canyon and within Palo Duro State Park, you are still required to pay the entrance fee per person every day unless you have a Texas State Park Pass ($70). If you are planning to spend a lot of time in Texas it is probably worthwhile to purchase a pass.
Inside the separate rest room building we learned that it was constructed in the 1930’s by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to serve as a water tank. The tank held over 10,000 gallons, enough to supply the headquarters, the cabins and the El Coronado Lodge (today the Visitor Center). In 2005, a new water line made the tank obsolete. In 2011, the Texas Parks & Wildlife removed the old plumbing and sawed through the walls to create the rest rooms and doorways. Signs of the original purpose of the building can still be seen by the metal gauge on the wall marking the tanks water level. Read more about the history of the Park on their website.
Formed by water erosion from the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River over 100 million years ago, Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, as much as 20 miles wide, and has a maximum depth of more than 800 feet. Its elevation at the rim is 3,500 feet above sea level. It is often claimed that Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States (so I guess not everything is bigger and better in Texas), with the largest of course being the Grand Canyon in AZ which is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000 ft. deep. Early Spanish Explorers are believed to have discovered the area and dubbed the canyon “Palo Duro” which is Spanish for “hard wood” due to the abundant mesquite and juniper trees.
Stopping at the Visitor Center we found there are not only magnificent views of the canyon, but a lot of information about its history, how it was formed, the fossils that have been found and the types of wildlife living in the canyon today. There was also extensive information about the CCC and the construction of the Lodge which was completed in 1935. Access to the bottom of the canyon by road was finished in 1933. Hard to imagine that the CCC built the road by hand with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows in only 6 months!
Lots to do here! There are numerous hiking, biking and equestrian trails throughout the park and from early June to mid August, TEXAS, an outdoor musical drama is performed at the Pioneer Amphitheater located on the floor of the canyon. One of the most popular hiking trails is the 6 mile round trip Lighthouse Trail which leads out to the 300 foot high Lighthouse formation, an example of a hoodoo. Hoodoos are rock formations with a larger rock balanced atop a smaller base. These are formed when rock layers erode at different rates – the harder rock on top then protects the softer rock underneath.
In talking to the volunteer woman at the gift shop desk we learned that unprepared people frequently need to be rescued (and there have even been several deaths), hiking the trails because the temperature at the rim is much different than the bottom, which during the warmer months can easily reach 120 degrees! At the time we were there, many of the trails were closed due to recent rain. This YouTube video (taken by a drone) gives a sense for what the Lighthouse formation looks like. Looks very cool!
What spectacular scenery (seems like I’ve been using that adjective a lot lately)! Unlike the Grand Canyon where most tourists are at the rim looking down, here you can drive to the bottom and look up at the towering cliffs and hoodoos.
If you are not intimidated to drive the 10% steep grade road to the canyon bottom in your RV, you have a choice of three campgrounds (Juniper, Mesquite/Sagebrush and Hackberry) with water & electric only where sites are $24 per night. However, because of that daily $5 per person entrance fee, the rate for two people plus a rig is actually $34 per night. Of the three camping areas mentioned above we felt the best for a big rig (and the newest), was the Juniper camp area. The other two had a few sites that would handle larger rigs too, but Juniper would be our pick. There are also a few other campgrounds in the park more suitable for tents and small rigs, or group camping. We drove through each one and each seemed to be very clean and well maintained. Certainly can’t beat the location! No RV? There are cabins in the State Park which range in price from $60 to $125 per night plus the daily per person entrance fee. As for driving a big rig into the canyon down the fairly steep and somewhat twisty road should not be a problem even for a large rig. There might be one or two hairpins that will require careful navigation, but we saw plenty of large motorhomes and 5th wheels in the campgrounds so it is definitely doable.
Just as a note, we had friends who, like us, are Harvest Host members. They stayed overnight at the Bar Z Winery along the rim in Canyon, TX which had water and electric hookups. They absolutely loved it! Of course, it wasn’t exactly free – they ended up buying $300 worth of wine! Oh, oh, maybe we should stay away!
Near the entrance to the Park was an enclosed area with a sign “Longhorn Steer”. When we arrived, there was no sign of any Longhorns, but on the way out luck was with us. Three Longhorn Steer were grazing. I have never seen Longhorns up close and personal so that was fun. With massive horns that can span up to 6 feet, what huge beasts they are! They can live longer than 30 years, can produce calves past the age of 20 and are known for their hardy nature, speed, endurance and mothering instincts.
By now it was getting late, so reluctantly it was time to say goodbye to the Longhorns and Palo Duro and journey back to the coach. What a wonderful day!
For anyone traveling through the area, a visit to Palo Duro Canyon is definitely a must! But we weren’t done with sightseeing in the area yet!
So what do you do with a bunch of vintage Cadillacs? Why, plant them nose down in a field, of course, and call it Cadillac Ranch! That’s what Texas millionaire Stanley Marsh 3 (he thought that using a ‘III’ after his name was too pretentious) decided to do. With the aid of a San Francisco artist collective called “Ant Farm” they acquired ten used Cadillac’s from junk yards for approximately $200 each, ranging in model years from 1948 to 1963 representing the “Golden Age” of American automobiles. They buried them nose down in single file, facing west “at the same angle as the Cheops’ pyramids” on ranch land along the tattered remains of historic Route 66 in Amarillo, Texas. It became an instant tourist attraction. But in 1997, the cars had to be moved two miles further west of Amarillo on old Route 66, south of I-40 between exits 60 and 62 to avoid the expanding city. An article, Forty Years of the Cadillac Ranch written in 2014 and published in Texas Monthly provides an interesting pictorial history of this iconic attraction.
Although Cadillac Ranch is located on private land, visiting as well as writing graffiti on or otherwise spray-painting the vehicles is actually encouraged, resulting in the original colors of turquoise, banana yellow, gold, and sky blue being lost. Definitely a very popular attraction, even when we drove by on a rainy day, people were parked along the frontage road and walking through the muddy cow pasture armed with cans of Krylon to add their own artistic (and some political) touches, or to take a few pictures. Unfortunately, the field surrounding the cars is often littered with partially full cans of spray paint. I wonder how many layers of paint there are on each caddy!
Having seen “Cadillac Ranch” on the Roadside America website and knowing that it was located in Amarillo, we weren’t too surprised to see an older motorhome planted nose down across from the office when we pulled into the Oasis RV Park in Amarillo which would be our home base for sightseeing in the area for three days.
A short distance down the road is the Cadillac RV Resort, another resort capitalizing on the Cadillac Ranch theme. In front of their gift shop is the huge 22 foot tall “2nd Amendment Cowboy” tipping his Stetson to folks on I-40. Behind him three vintage Cadillac’s are angled on pedestals near a derrick-style RV sign.
Where to next? I wonder!
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