Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Palo Duro: Grand Canyon of Texas

On the last morning of the Good Girls trip to Amarillo, we rode out of town to the heart of the Texas Panhandle. Along the way, I managed to make a wrong turn (a rather common occurrence for me), but it ended up giving us the opportunity to discover Big Tex. Well, you don’t have to do much to notice a 47-foot-tall roadside attraction. Since we’re always in search of a good story, we were excited to find that Tex has one. 
Big Tex, newly refreshed.
Photo @ Debi Lander

Tex Randall began life in 1959 as what was then called "Texas' Biggest Texan" -- and he was. The seven-ton slouching cowboy was built of cement and steel by William "Harry" Wheeler, a high school shop teacher, for Wheeler's Western Store on US 60. The store sold Western clothing, so the seven-ton cowboy was outfitted with a bandana, a real Western-style shirt, and an enormous pair of Levi's jeans, courtesy of a local tent and awning shop. An ingenious network of steel struts and cables, anchoring him to the ground, supported the galoot’s lanky frame.

Decades passed. The Texas Department of Transportation rerouted US 60 through an underpass, cutting off Wheeler's drive-by traffic and driving the Western Store out of business. Panhandle winds shredded the cowboy's canvas duds. A semi crashed into his left boot, and the cigarette was shot out of his right hand.

Local leaders rallied for a "Save the Cowboy" campaign in 1987. The no-longer-fashionable cigarette was replaced with a spur. The cowboy was given a new face with a mustache, a new set of painted-on clothes -- and a new name, "Tex Randall," in honor of his home in Randall County.

More decades passed. Panhandle winds again ravaged Tex, sandblasting away large portions of his skin and clothes. His fiberglass fingers crumbled. A local businessman bought the cowboy but gave up when he learned it would cost $50,000 to move him. Local boosters mounted an Internet fundraising campaign, but the amount needed to save Tex seemed beyond their reach. Time appeared to have run out for the big cowboy.

Then an unlikely hero rode to the rescue: the formerly villainous Texas Department of Transportation, which in late 2013 set aside almost $300,000 to turn the land around Tex's boots into a park. Keith Brown, chairman of the Canyon Main Street Program, raised enough money to "re-skin" the statue. Despite Tex's battered appearance, the cowboy was studied by engineers and found to be perfectly capable of handling yet another makeover.
Rather hard to miss Big Tex!

Repairs began in November 2015, and we were lucky to see the new, better-clothed Tex. He’s no longer the “Biggest Texan, ” but he makes a fine icon for the Amarillo area.

After this brief detour, we found the one and only road that leads to Palo Duro State Park, country route 217, appropriately 16 miles south of Amarillo. We soon reached the entrance and were lucky again. Normally the entry fee is $5.00, but the day we visited was a free for all day.

Our first peek - Approaching the rim
Photo @ Debi Lander

We parked near the rim and began to understand why this is called the Grand Canyon of Texas. The nickname applies because it’s second largest canyon in the country, which is based on its length (120 miles) rather than depth. The rim elevation stands 3,500 feet above sea level, but it’s only got a maximum depth of approximately 800 feet. To compare, the Grand Canyon in Arizona is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6,000 ft. deep.

View from the Rim
Photo @ Debi Lander

Where does the name come from? Legend claims the early explorers who discovered the area, dubbed the canyon "Palo Duro. That’s Spanish for "hard wood," a reference to the abundant mesquite and juniper trees. We peered over the edge and were impressed by the splendor of the bushy and wooded areas juxtaposed against the clay to fiery reddish rock bands and cliffs. 
Looking at the canyon walls and greenery
Photo@Debi Lander

We noticed the main ranger station, however, it was closed on this Sunday morning. We picked up a brochure and sure enough, learned that the building we thought looked like a CCC construction indeed was! The Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930's constructed most of the buildings and roads still in use by park staff and visitors.

The brochure also informed us that:

There is evidence of settlement in Palo Duro Canyon for around 12,000 years. In more recent times, the Apache, Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa tribes inhabited the area for various periods until 1874. That year, they were forced to move west into Oklahoma, as a result of the Red River War that displaced Native Americans all across the southern plains. Soon after the clearance, the 100,000-cattle JA Ranch was established and the canyon remained privately owned until it opened as a state park in 1934.

Our plan was to drive the park loop, stopping for photo ops, rather than hiking a trail. So, we started down the steep road pausing once to appreciate the stunning view of the canyonlands. When we reached the bottom, we found the Trading Post open so went in for a look. As expected, the shop carries food and all the sundry items campers and hikers might be looking for, but nothing special. 

We weren't the only visitors driving the Canyon Loop road.
Photo @ Debi Lander
Next stop was the trailhead of the Lighthouse Trail, a 6-mile path to the most famous formation in the park. Some folks rode bicycles over the ruddy trail, but we weren’t ready for a six-mile escapade. We wanted to capture shots of riders on horseback but found none. 

The Lighthouse Trailhead

The famous Lighthouse Rock Formation
Photo @ Debi Lander

So, we drove on, noting the well-developed infrastructures like campsites, car parks, and pavilions. Obviously, this park is well-used, a good thing. Campers need reservations, especially during the summer. 
Crossing the Creekbed
Photo @ Debi Lander

We crossed over streambeds six times. Thankfully, there were no flash floods that day, but there were warning signs. We completed the loop, stopping again and just letting ourselves enjoy the beauty of the Southwest.

Enjoying the beauty of Palo Duro State Park
Photo @ Debi Lander

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