Exploring the Texas Panhandle

By Stephen Strecker
This item appears on page 26 of the December 2021 issue.
Red-rock formations at Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway, Texas. Photos by Stephen Strecker

As part of an extended drive along Route 66, my wife, Teresa, and I explored the Texas Panhandle region over five nights in June 2021.

Our adventure in the area began with a fun culinary stop on the eastern edge of Amarillo, Texas, with a good kitschy, touristy meal at the giant Big Texan Steak Ranch (7701 I-40 East, Amarillo; 806/372-6000, www.bigtexan.com), where steaks are good and affordable but the real entertainment, when it happens, is watching someone on an improvised stage trying to eat a 72-ounce steak, with the required side dishes, within an hour. The meal is free for the winners and $72 for the losers. Very few succeed at this challenge.

The dominant geological features of the area are Palo Duro Canyon (second-largest canyon in the US) and nearby Caprock Canyons (containing a herd of genetically pure bison). Each of those appears hidden until the plain reaches the edge of the abyss.

The town of Canyon is best for visiting Palo Duro Canyon State Park, only 20 minutes east. There, Teresa and I stayed at the charming, historical Hudspeth House B&B (1905 4th Ave. #4023, Canyon, TX 79015; 806/655-9800, www.hudspethhouse.com), which has a loose connection with the landscape artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long and generally about 6 miles wide, with plenty of hiking trails. We went for a 3-hour morning Humvee tour through the rugged terrain of the northwestern section with Palo Duro Creek Ranch (11301 TX-217, Canyon; 806/488-2100, www.paloduroranch.com). It was a wild and spectacular adventure in the countryside, with stops for enjoying vistas and feeding cattle. The lush greenery that we saw in the canyon this year was due to heavy rainfall in spring.

Bison roam Caprock Canyons in Texas.

In the evening, we went to the state park’s “Texas Outdoor Musical” (www.texas-show.com) at an amphitheater on the canyon floor, with the cliffs as a backdrop and an extended part of the stage area. Featuring a large cast of actors and animals and with extensive sets, props and special effects, this lively, 150-minute show is a family-friendly musical that tells a story of the mid- to late-1800s settlement of the area.

Before leaving Canyon, we visited the Panhandle–Plains Historical Museum (2401 4th Ave., Canyon; 806/651-2244, www.panhandleplains.org), an enormous facility with art plus exhibits on local geology, the oil and cattle industries, natural history and Comanche Nation life. It also includes an indoor cultural folk exhibit of late-19th-century structures.

Driving east to Claude, we visited the Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight Ranch State Historic Site, where Charles Goodnight, the dominant pioneer of the area, once operated one of the largest cattle ranches beginning in 1887. The herd of bison at Caprock Canyons is descended from those from his ranch.

From Claude, we took the recommended scenic drive south on highway 207, crossing through Palo Duro Canyon, then headed east on highway 86, passing through beautiful farmland all the way to Estelline, at Interstate 287. This is cattle and bison country, so expect to see numerous ranches with many large herds.

There was a different environment awaiting us in Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway (a smaller, southeast extension of Palo Duro Canyon), where about 150 bison roam freely, including on the numerous hiking trails. Prairie dogs, golden eagles and Mexican free-tailed bats live among the red-rock formations.

Palo Duro Canyon — Texas.

There are plenty of basic camping facilities in this park, but day trips are adequate from the nearby small town of Turkey, where we stayed at Hotel Turkey (201 3rd St., Turkey; 806/423-1151, hotelturkeytexas.com), a quaint, rustic, 94-year-old brick-and-wood hotel. Historically preserved, it’s one of the oldest continually running hotels in Texas, with an outdoor stage and live music on the weekends.

Turkey was definitely a step back in time, where cotton, small-town life and Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys (a back-in-the-day hometown musical hero and local museum subject) draw the focus of local residents.

There were plenty of other cultural sights and activities in the panhandle to fill our time. On our drive, we found that listening to “Empire of the Southern Moon**,” by S.C. Gwynne — an audio history book about the area — really enhanced our trip experience.

It can be very hot there in the summer, especially in the canyons (well above 100°F in many places), so late May would probably be the best time to visit.

Plano, TX

** The correct title of the S.C. Gwynne book is "Empire of the Summer Moon." — Editor

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Part of Caprock Canyons — Texas.