Last week I had the great pleasure of running in Palo Duro Canyon State Park in the Panhandle of Texas. As I was driving, I couldn’t help but think, is this the right way? There is nothing out here but grass and cotton fields speckled with oil pump jacks. The roads don’t have a single turn anywhere because there is nothing but flat, flat and more flat so how can the Grand Canyon of Texas be around here.
Well, soon I arrived at the state park entrance, checked in and started down a curvy road to the visitor center where everything became much grander. While standing on the rim, I took in the wide sweeping view of the giant gash that revealed stratified layers of yellow, red and tan rock and dirt adorned with green vegetation.
I then continued down the steep park road navigating several switchbacks making sure not to drive off a cliff. During the Great Depression, the CCC built the road and other structures in the park including the visitor center and cabins that can be reserved. Finally I arrived at the Fortress Cliff Campground and set up my running basecamp.
The next morning I set off immediately for the Lighthouse rock formation because the forecast was calling for showers in the afternoon. I wanted to be sure to get this famous landmark checked off my “1001 Things to do in Texas Before you Die” list. By the way, the last item (#1001) is to ride an oil pump jack. (Youtube it if you doubt me.)
Anyway, I started out from the campground along the Rojo Grande trail between the Prairie Dog Town fork of the Red River and high red cliffs streaked with veins of gypsum. After passing through the Lighthouse parking area, I spotted a Spotted Towhee flitting amongst the juniper. They are easy to spot because of their orange belly and white spots against black wings. In no time I was soaking up splendid views of Capitol Peak, a Texas Capitol building shaped mountain layered in the proverbial canyon colors of (from top to bottom) yellow, tan and red. At the far end is a hoodoo that looks like a sentinel keeping watch over the capitol.
The weather was perfect for running and the trails are very smooth and flat in this part of the park. I enjoyed being able to look up at the awesome scenery without fear of tripping over rocks and eating the dirt or worse. Many of the trails were built by avid trail runners who started the Palo Duro Trail Run many years ago. I passed a memorial plaque to “Big Red” Spicer who volunteered 22,000 hours building trails before he died at 76. Amazing!
The trail took me around the capitol and past many stunning rock formations that looked more like sculptures of modern art strategically placed amongst a garden of juniper and mesquite trees. Some look more like citadels and castles built by inhabitants of an ancient world. Far in the distance another “structure” finally appeared —the Lighthouse jutting up from the canyon floor. Eons of water and wind stripped away the rest of the land leaving just two isolated hoodoos.
I came to a bike rack and picnic table where the trail went left, right or straight up a precarious slope. Here I wasn’t sure which was the “official” trail to the Lighthouse, so tried the one to the right. It was difficult in places and seemed more like an animal path so I turned around and backtracked. A local biker pulled up so I asked him which was the best way to the overlook. “Just go straight up that trail so you don’t get lost,” he said pointing up the hill.
Well, OK if you say so. I started up and it was pretty hard. I had to use my hands in places and the footing was slippery because of loose dirt and rock. However it was short and I made it up fairly quickly. I hung out for a while admiring Mother Nature’s handy work and walked around the two towering hoodoos. Before heading back down, I took another side trail which brought me to another overlook with fine views of the canyon below.
|View from a side trail near the Lighthouse overlook|
I almost slipped several times while descending, but made it down unscathed and continued my adventure. After backtracking about a mile I took the Givens, Spicer and Lowery trail (GSL), named for the runners who built it. I passed one bright red mountain that appeared to have a stone chimney protruding out of the top. I came to the Little Fox Canyon trail, a side lollypop loop trail and decided to take it since the weather was holding. My pace was fast since the track was flat, but there wasn’t much in the canyon except a view of houses perched on the canyon rim, a steep hill called Petit Teton and a log book in a metal box that I wrote in.
Following this jaunt I continued along the GSL where I reached a sign that read "Buena Vista". This was indeed an awesome view with strange eroded cliffs and stand alone columns with leaning cap rocks precariously balanced on top. I ran through this otherworldly terrain in complete amazement. While the Lighthouse is a Texas icon, this section known as Red Star Ridge was my favorite. I had a great time negotiating one twisty hilly section of trail winding along an arroyo and zig-zagging between a jumble of boulders. In fact, it was so fun that I turned around and ran it in reverse while videoing with my phone.
|The GSL Trail|
I returned to the main park road, crossed a bridge that spanned the river and picked up another trail that led back to the campground. The only problem with the river trail is that there are no footbridges so you are required to run along the road for short periods to get across the river. The good news is that the park is adding miles of new trails so there will be less looping in the 50 mile ultramarathon course. The 50 miler is currently four 12.5 mile loops.
I knocked out about 12 miles total by combining the Lighthouse Trail, GSL, Little Fox Canyon and river trails that parallel the park road. I returned to my campground where turkeys frequently visit to clean up any leftovers that campers may have dropped. Palo Duro is a Texas Gem that has been rated one of the top 10 state parks in America.
I also had the opportunity to run the newly built Comanche trail on the NE side of the park as well as another one that took me to the canyon rim, but I will have to write about that adventure another time. I’m too busy gearing up for the Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands Missile Range, NM which is this weekend. I will have a complete race report for you soon.
See you on the trail.