Where In The World…Palo Duro Canyon

Palo Duro Canyon 
Canyon, Texas

Less than an hours drive south of Amarillo, Texas is the mysterious terra cotta badlands of Palo Duro Canyon.  Coming off the staked plains of the Texas Panhandle, this 60-mile-long and 800-foot-deep canyon is surprise among these treeless plains. Surrounded by miles of open land and endless skies, visitors will be amazed at the towering cliffs, banded by a myriad of colors, and the amazing rock formations carved over millions of years by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.  

The second largest canyon in the United States, it is often called “The Grand Canyon of Texas.”  The term “Palo Duro” means “hard wood” in Spanish, and was named by those first explorers for the canyon’s abundant mesquite and juniper trees from which the Indians made their “hardwood” bows.

The first humans to inhabit the canyon dates back approximately 12,000 years, when the Clovis and Folsom people first lived in the canyon, hunting large herds of mammoth and bison. Later, the tribes of the Apache, Comanche, and Kiowa utilized the canyon’s abundant resources of ample game and edible plants, as well as the protection the canyon provided from weather and intruders.

The first European explorers to come upon the canyon were members of the Coronado expedition in 1541. At that time, the Apache people called the canyon home. However, they were later run out by the Comanche and Kiowa tribes, who had the advantage of horses brought over by the Spanish.

The canyon was first surveyed by a military team under the guidance of Captain Randolph B. Marcy in 1852.  Though white settlers were beginning to migrate to the area, the canyon remained the lands of the Indians until a military expedition led by Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie was sent in 1874 to remove them to reservations in Oklahoma.  This resulted in the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, the major skirmish of the Red River War. On September 28, 1874, Mackenzie led his Fourth United States Cavalry on an attack of the of Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes encamped in the canyon. Though the tribes had forewarning of the attack, their camps were scattered over a large area on the canyon floor and they were unable to assemble a united defense.  In the end, the Indians were defeated and forced onto reservations in Indian Territory.

Two years later, in 1876, Charles Goodnight, famous for spearheading the Texas -Wyoming cattle drives, drove a herd of cattle into Palo Duro Canyon and began the first commercial ranch in the Texas Panhandle – the JA Ranch.  Over the next fifty years, the canyon remained the private property of cattlemen, but over the years, began to be an increasingly popular spot for tourists and local residents.

In 1934, the upper section of the canyon was purchased by the State of Texas and turned it into the Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Thanks to efforts by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department and conservation groups, an additional 2,036 were added to the park in 2002.

Today the park, which includes more than 16,000 acres, annually receives over half a million visitors. Sixteen miles of scenic drives wind through the canyon and park activities include hiking, fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, picnicking camping, and wildlife viewing.

For history buffs, a replica of Charles Goodnight’s dugout cabin can be seen in the park, as well as a number of historical markers. The Visitor’s Center provides a number of exhibits pertaining to the park’s geology and history.

            A summer musical pageant, Texas Legacies, is presented annually in the outdoor amphitheater from mid-June through late August.


Belive it or not:  

Tales of ghosts in Palo Duro Canyon and Tule Canyon abound, remnants of the area’s Wild West days gone by.

Canyon resident John Matthews filed an oral history narration at PPHM, telling of one haunting in Palo Duro Canyon. The story, told to him by a former Texas Ranger, goes something like this:

One cold winter night, in the late 19th century, a man was camping in the canyon with two other men watching cattle. The other two men went to investigate a sound and never returned. So the third man followed to find them both dead, with their throats cut. All three were working on the Charles Goodnight ranch. He buried the two men – one Anglo and one Native American – in the canyon. Later, people in that area, said they would hear the screams of these two men.

Here is another tale:

“The story goes that three outlaws robbed a stage wagon containing government money with Army wages. They buried the money near Lighthouse Rock, but were then captured and executed. They say during thunderstorms you can see them around the rock and hear their moaning and shovels scraping to dig up their gold.”

Then, there’s the mysterious ghost herd. Almost 1,500 horses and mules were slaughtered in the canyon on the order of Gen. Ranald Mackenzie, according to a story written by the late George Turner in a 1971 Globe-News story. Turner chronicled supernatural stories for the Globe-News and other publications in the 1960s and ’70s.

“For many years, the long western slope of the basin was piled deep with bleached bones. Eventually they were carted away by a fertilizer company. Today, none are visible on the surface, but a bit of scratching will uncover teeth and small bones,” Turner wrote.

“The area, between Tulia and Silverton, was long held in superstitious veneration by the Plains tribes. No Kiowa or Comanche would venture near the place for fear of being trampled to death by a herd of ghostly horses,” Turner wrote.


Palo Duro Canyon can be found on Wikipedia.

On a personal note: I have been to Palo Duro Canyon twice in my life as a kid. Both times I have had strange experiences happen to me.  I personally think there are spirits that still hang around the canyon. 

Leave a comment


  1. That picture is so beautiful that it doesn’t even look real. You’ve been so some amazing places. I’m beginning to feel boring.

    No your not boring at all! I was fortunate to have parents who loved to go camping. The U.S. is very pretty if you take the time to look around.

  2. Connie

     /  October 4, 2009

    I’d like to know what kind of strange experiences you had. I know several people who have had some spooky things happen to them and was wondering if yours was similiar.

    • Hi there Connie.
      The first time we went there we were walking the river. My brother and my dad were in front of my mom and me. My mom and I were being attacked by horse flies and we had blood running down our legs. My dad and my brother were untouched and they could not see anything wrong with us. That night we were in the campgrounds and had a bad storm. Our popup tent flaps came untied and I was left blowing out of the tent with my dad trying to hold on to me. I could hear someone calling me but it was not by my given name.
      A few years later we went back and I went hiking in the mountains. I found a cave and my brother told me not to go in. I went in because I heard someone calling me. Somehow I got lost but I was not scared at all. About an hour later my brother and my dad found me sitting on a rock.


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