Posted on April 20 2020
Located about 25 miles from the city of Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle, Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States. It is about 120 miles long and, at its widest, about 20 miles wide. In comparison, the largest canyon in the U.S., the Grand Canyon in Arizona, is 277 miles long.
“Palo duro” are Spanish words meaning “hard wood,” which refer to the Rocky Mountain Juniper trees that can be seen growing in places in the canyon. However, there are more flora, or plants, in Palo Duro Canyon than just Rocky Mountain Juniper. Other trees common there include mesquite, red berry juniper, cottonwood, willow, western soapberry, and hackberry. Wildflowers and grasses grow there as well. Among them are Tansy aster, Engleman daisy, Indian blanket, paperflower, Blackfoot daisy, common sunflower, sideoats gramma, buffalo grass, sand sage, and such large flowering plants as yucca and prickly pear. Living throughout the rocky canyon are several species of fauna, or animals. Some of these include coyotes, deer, bobcats, raccoons, wild turkey, roadrunners, and cottontail rabbits.
The Texas Panhandle, where Palo Duro Canyon is located, is at the northern part of the state. It is called “The Panhandle” because its straight and narrow shape is similar to the handle of a pan used for cooking, while the rest of Texas represents the body of the pan itself. According to Joseph Kerski, education manager at the mapping technology company Esri, panhandle regions of the U.S. tend to be different from the body of the state to which they are connected.
“I’d say it’s a narrower part of a political polygon extending from the state’s main body,” he says. “Often there’s a strong sense of place there, maybe . . . a sense of frontier.” Other U.S. states with panhandles include Alaska, Florida, Nebraska, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Connecticut. One state, West Virginia, has two: one in the north and the other in the state’s east.
Texas’s panhandle consists mostly of flat, grassy land, or plains. These Texas plains are part of the same system of grasslands that extends from the Great Plains in the center of the U.S. The Texas Panhandle is for the most part treeless. It lies on a high, flat plateau. A plateau is a landform that rises sharply above the land surrounding it on at least one side. Along with mountains, plains, and hills, plateaus are one of Earth’s four major landforms.
The eastern part of the Texas Panhandle is not as flat as the land in its western part. Land in the eastern Panhandle consists of gently rolling plains. However, both the east and the west feature deep canyons including Palo Duro, along with Caprock Canyons, located about 35 miles to its southwest.
The word “canyon” comes from the Spanish word “cañon,” which can mean either a “tube” or “pipe.” Canyons are deep and narrow valleys that have steep sides.
Palo Duro Canyon was created by the forces of water and wind. Over millions of years, both the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River and the winds of western Texas eroded the land. “Erosion” is the process by which earth is worn away, typically by water, wind, or ice.
The Prairie Dog Town Fork is the main tributary, a stream which feeds a larger stream or lake, of the Red River. The Prairie Dog Town Fork rises at the junction of Palo Duro and Tierra Blanca creeks. From there it flows for 160 miles southeastward in Palo Duro Canyon, through Texas’s Hall and Childress counties, until it meets the North Fork of the Red River.
Over millions of years, pressure from the Prairie Dog Town Fork cut deep into the riverbed. From there, the Red River carried sediments, soil, rock, and sand downstream, creating a narrow channel. Because the flowing of rivers plays a large role in their formations, canyons like Palo Duro are called “river canyons.” Probably the best-known canyon in the U.S., the Grand Canyon, is also a river canon, carved over millions of years by the Colorado River.
The winds of western Texas have also played a role in sculpting Palo Duro Canyon. Western Texas is known for having a windy season from February to May. During this time, sustained winds of 20–40 miles per hour are common. These seasonal winds are the result of the jet stream. The jet stream is a narrow band of very strong winds that are located several miles above the surface of Earth. There are typically two or three separate jet streams in each of Earth’s northern and southern hemispheres.
In summer, areas in western Texas, including Palo Duro Canyon, are relatively windless. However, during winter, the jet stream can move south from Canada. As is moves south, the jet stream causes winter storms in areas to the north of Texas. While western Texas only very rarely sees snow, it does receive the high winds that these storm systems produce.
“That’s why spring is very volatile,” says Rick Hluchan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “We have many, many systems that come through, sometimes once a week, where ahead of the storm system we’ll have [a] strong southwest wind, which is very dry, because it comes off the mountains in Mexico. Usually right behind that system, as it moves past, we’ll get a front in from the north, so the winds change to the north, and sometimes can be just as strong.”
Along with the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, erosion caused by these seasonal winds have also sculpted the land of Palo Duro Canyon. Over millions of years, the wind has moved soil and sand, helping to create the striking land formations that people see in the area. These powerful winds continue to gradually shape the landscape today.
Fortunately, these forces of erosion have also provided an economic boon to the area around Palo Duro Canyon. In a 2014 study, Texas A&M University Distinguished Professor John Crompton determined that in the period studied, the canyon had 141,749 non-local visitors who came for one day, plus 46,807 who stayed overnight. These travelers brought in about $7.3 million in the area around the canyon.
“I would say that Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyons have a higher than average economic impact on their local communities compared with other rural parks,” says Kevin Good, special assistant to the director of the State Parks Division at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “I suspect that this is due to the unique attractions of these parks, as the landscapes at these sites simply are not replicated at any other location.”