Tucked away in the Texas Panhandle outside Amarillo lies Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in the United States. Only the epic Grand Canyon is larger in scale.
For a canyon that stretches over a hundred miles, it's almost impossible to believe you can drive by without even realizing it's there. When I was younger, I made several trips west through Amarillo. Each time I passed the canyon ignorant of its existence. It was only mere miles away -- though it may as well have been 50.
On a return trip from a family vacation heading back into Texas, my father suggested we detour off Interstate 40 so we could see the canyon. At the time, I knew virtually nothing of Palo Duro, despite having lived in Texas for most of my life. My father spoke glowingly of the canyon. But as we drove along I-40 towards Palo Duro, it seemed unfathomable that the country's second-largest canyon lay somewhere within that otherwise mostly unremarkable landscape around Amarillo.
But as we approached, the canyon exploded seemingly out of nowhere into view. And the view was stunning.
Dropping 800 feet to the canyon floor, Palo Duro's vibrant, fiery red rock layers are revealed. Hoodoos (erosion-chiseled rock spires) dot the wind and rain-forged landscape, the most famous of which is a visually striking rock formation known as Lighthouse Rock. You can reach Lighthouse Rock and see it up close via a three-mile (one-way) hike. The park features miles of trails for hiking and cycling enthusiasts alike, and its rugged, awe-inspiring backdrops make it a top-tier destination for campers. You can set up and take in the park in a tent, camper, or RV. Cabins are also available: Visitors can stay in rustic park cabins (but book early because they fill fast) built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps or rent high-end luxury abodes that border the edges of the canyon.
If you don't have the time to immerse yourself in the canyon through hiking and camping, I would still recommend stopping by the park's Visitor Center. Also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Palo Duro Canyon State Park Visitor Center offers exhibits, videos of the canyon's history, an art gallery, and spectacular views of Palo Duro through its large windows.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; the Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.