Palo Duro Canyon

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Palo Duro Canyon, Texas

Palo Duro Canyon is a canyon system in the Texas Panhandle. As the second largest canyon in the United States, it is roughly 120 miles long and has an average width of 6 miles, but reaches a width of 20 miles at places. Its maximum depth is 800 feet. Palo Duro Canyon has been called "The Grand Canyon of Texas", both for its size and for the dramatic geological features, including the multicolored layers of rock and steep mesa walls which are similar to those in the Grand Canyon.

The canyon was formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River which winds along the relatively flat Caprock of West Texas. Water erosion over the millennia has been aided by wind erosion to shape the canyon's geological formations.


The first evidence of human habitation of the canyon dates back approximately 10,000-15,000 years, and it is believed to have been continuously inhabited to the present day. Native Americans were attracted to the water of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, as well as the consequent ample game, edible plants, and protection from weather that the canyon provided.

The first European explorers to discover the canyon were members of the Coronado expedition, who visited the canyon in 1541. Apache people lived in Palo Duro at the time, but they were later displaced by Comanche and Kiowa groups, who had the advantage of owning horses brought over by the Spanish. They had contact with traders in nearby New Mexico, called Comancheros.

A United States military team under Capt. Randolph B. Marcy mapped the canyon in 1852 during their search for the headwaters of the Red River. The land remained under Native American control until a military expedition led by Col. Ranald Mackenzie was sent in 1874 to remove the Natives to reservations in Oklahoma. In a lucky coup, the Mackenzie expedition was able to capture thousands of the Natives' horses and destroy them in nearby Tule Canyon. Demoralized and denied their main weapon and source of livelihood, the Comanche and Kiowa conceded and left the area.

In 1876, soon after, Charles Goodnight established the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. Over the next half century, the canyon remained in private hands, but was an increasingly popular tourist spot for local residents. In 1934 the upper section of the canyon was purchased by the state of Texas and turned into Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

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