While the Grand Canyon holds firmly to the title of the nation’s largest hole in the ground, the runner up in the largest canyon competition goes to Palo Duro Canyon right here in the South.
The Houston Chronicle recently profiled the second largest canyon in the land and determined that “what it lacks in size it makes up for in character (and location)”. We certainly agree.
Located roughly 25 miles outside of downtown Amarillo, the grandest canyon in the South was created by years of erosion by the Red River. The canyon, which takes its name from the Spanish word for "hardwood, stretches through the Texas high plains for 120 miles, ranging from six to 20 miles wide, and more than 800 feet deep, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife.
In addition to being a runner-up in the largest canyon category, Palo Duro is also the second largest park in the Texas State Park system, sprawling across around 28,000 acres. (For those keeping track, Big Ben Ranch State Park is the largest with 300,000 acres.)
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The canyon played an important part in Texas history, according to the Texas Parks website, as the site of a devastating war with local Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes that forced them from their lands and onto reservations in the 1870s (and don’t Google what happened to their ponies if you want to sleep at night). After war came ranching, with the founding of the JA Ranch in 1877. Texas longhorns can still be spotted in the park today. The state bought the land for the park in 1933, and with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) a park was born.
The nation’s second largest canyon and the state’s second largest park is truly a natural wonder, though. It is known for its gorgeous rock formations, including its most famous one, the Lighthouse Rock. Visitors looking for a vista to the rock that, yes, looks like a lighthouse are frequent travelers along the Lighthouse Trail, an easy enough 5.7 mile hike for those interested in stretching their legs. There’s other ways to explore the cabin than hiking, though. There’s biking, horseback riding, and even just driving through with your car. However you make your way through the canyon, keep your eyes peeled for the four geologic layers that form the canyon and the hoodoos, which are rock formations where a larger rock sits upon a smaller base. While there are plenty of scenic places to pitch tents, for those who like a roof over their hear, there are plenty of places to stay, including the seven charmingly rustic “Cow Camp Cabins” built by the CCC in 1933.
When you need to return to civilization to refuel, many people consider it a Palo Duro tradition to head to Amarillo's Big Texan Steak Ranch. The restaurant is known for its $72-priced 72-ounce sirloin, which is free to anyone who can consumer it all, along with a baked potato, dinner roll, salad, and three fried shrimp, in just one hour.
Palo Duro Canyon has made its mark on local culture, too. Famed painter Georgia O’Keeffe captured its colors and depth in her painting “Red Landscape” which can be seen at the Plains Panhandle Historical Museum. It’s also home to the outdoor musical "Texas" which runs every summer in the Pioneer Amphitheatre. The “musical romance of Panhandle history” is known as the official play of Texas.
While Palo Duro Canyon isn’t the largest canyon or the largest state park, it’s the South’s very own Grand Canyon and that is more than enough reason to visit.