Palo Duro Canyon is way the hell out there. It's like going to Big Bend, it's got to be purposeful. It's not one of those parks that can be (or should be) popped over to for a day trip. It should be intentional and extended. There is so much to explore that even camping for three nights, we felt robbed that we didn't get to see enough.
Driving up to the canyon is pretty amazing. Flat flat flat flat HOOOOLY SHIT there's a canyon. We made our way down into the canyon, winding around the switchbacks, until we reached our site. We stayed in the Hackberry campground. It was a perfect spot for us - close to the bathrooms, pretty centrally located in the park, ample wildlife viewing, and within walking distance to multiple trails. It was a good choice.
Lily and I have put our heads together and come up with the top 10 things to do during a visit to Palo Duro!
#10 - Go through a tornado
Totally kidding, but this did happen to us. The weather was questionable our second day there so we got our hiking done early and then headed up to the rim to explore in the afternoon. We were swiftly informed by park staff that the area was under a tornado warning and we were to seek shelter in the visitor center. We ended up sheltering in there for over an hour as a tornado hit park headquarters and completely blew the fee booth away. Quite a story to add to our experience!
#9 - Visit the Visitor Center & the overlook on the rim
The Visitor Center and a gift shop are located near the historic CCC cabins on the rim of the canyon. The exhibits were decent, with some taxidermy animals behind glass in staged nature scenes, information about geology - the usual stuff you'd find in an exhibit area in a park. There is a gift shop in the building, as well, but it definitely wasn't our style. It was more jewelry, southwestern style items. We much prefer crappy stickers and t-shirts!
#8 - Grab a meal or shop at the Trading Post in the canyon
This store was our jam. It's run by a concessionaire and not only do they have a lot of great souvenirs (and a fabulous shirt selection - I'm all about the shirts!), but they have a grill and area that has some basic necessities, too. We spent an embarrassing amount of money in the store. After our hike to the Lighthouse, which was Lily's longest hike ever at around 6 miles, she was rewarded greatly with a stuffed skunk, deer, and bald eagle from the gift shop. She earned it. Pro-tip: buy the Copper the Coyote book - it's written by a man who works at the Old West Stables!
#7 - Walk along the river
This is such a relaxing, enjoyable thing to do. The first evening we were in the park, we unwound with a short sunset hike on the Paseo del Rio trail. It was within walking distance from our site, but you can also park at the Soapberry Day Use Area and pick up the trail from there. There was plenty of parking, picnic tables, and restrooms there. The river was very soothing and with the quiet of the park, we were able to fully enjoy the sound of the water running along its path, heading I don't know where. It's a really easy, flat walk and is only one mile (not a loop though - keep that in mind!). Highly recommend this for younger kiddos, less active people, or just to meander after a busy day of exploring.
#6 - Walk around at night & listen to the coyotes
About an hour and a half after our walk on the Paseo del Rio trail, Lily decided she wanted to go for another walk so we opted to just walk around the campground loop. As we did, we could hear a pack of coyotes off in the distance, yipping at each other, speaking some language so foreign to us but clear to them. It freaked Lily out a little bit, but after assuring her that she was perfectly safe, she relaxed and instead of fear, the chorus created a sense of wonder & curiosity in her.
#5 - Horseback ride
Ugh, this is the one thing on this list that we didn't do. I poorly planned and forgot that this was even an option and by the time I looked online for reservations, they were fully book until the day after our vacation ended. BUT - I have done this before the last time I was in the canyon and it was pretty neat. It's all walking, but they talked about the canyon and it was cool being on horseback down in there. It's like $80ish bucks for an hour, but if you have a daughter that is absolutely fucking obsessed with horses, it's worth the money. I've already promised to bring her back to ride. We still stopped by the outfitter's shop, got Lily's Copper the Coyote book signed by the author, and said hi to the horses before they departed on their trail ride.
#4 - Stargaze
Ohhhh the stars. Damn, they were bright out here. It was really nice to be laying in the teardrop and look up through the window and see them sparkling. Bring a star wheel to help orient yourself!
#3 - Hike the Upper Comanche Trail
Okay, so... hiking this trail was a happy accident. We had headed out for a hike before dinner and I had mapped out a route that I anticipated would take about an hour. Well, one wrong turn later and we ended up on the wrong trail. We turned back and got ourselves on the right path, only to make yet another wrong turn and end up going in the completely opposite direction than intended on the Upper Comanche trail. Lucky for us, though, we found it to be the best trail we hiked. We didn't see another soul the entire time we were on the trail. We did, however, get lucky enough to see audads.
4ish miles and 2.5ish hours later, we finally got back to the campground. No regrets. Well, maybe I regret not bringing more water.
#2 - Camp
Camping is part of the experience! First of all, there is way too much to see for a day trip. Second of all, the park at night is half the fun. Dark, quiet, stars, coyotes. Do yourself a favor and park your trailer, pitch your tent, hang your hammock, do whatever floats your boat but hunker down for a couple of days. It'll be worth it!
#1 - Hike to the Lighthouse
To be honest, I hate that I'm putting it as #1 because it really isn't the best trail (in our opinion). But, that being said, it is the iconic image that Palo Duro is so well known for so naturally you've got to do it. Pro-tip: if it's muddy, step very gingerly if you want to climb up the Lighthouse at the end of the trail. My clumsy ass fell and got mud all over my pants and bruised my ego because I definitely fell for an audience. Oh well.
This is not a difficult hike with two exceptions: the distance and the last 0.10 miles. Most of the trail is flat or with only slight grades. If you can hack the distance, you're golden. The only challenging part of the hike was at the very end, when you have to make the final climb up to the Lighthouse (pro-tip: go left at the picnic table so you don't get lost like we did). It's a steep scramble up a bunch of rocks and it will really remind you how out of shape you are.
So that's it! It's also important to note that we visited in March & the Texas! outdoor musical wasn't available - it only goes on during the summer. I have never seen it, but it very well may take a place on this list. Guess we will have to put that on our agenda for next time! Palo Duro easily has taken the #1 spot on my list of favorite parks and we will absolutely be back as soon as we are able.