Palo Duro Canyon Backpacking

Jon and I had a Friday off work to go backpacking. For weeks we looked for a good spot to go. We settled on spots mutiple times but were driven off by snow, rain, regulations etc. Finally the Wednesday before our trip we settled on Palo Duro Canyon in TX. There was very little information available online about this park. We did find a topo map from 1977 and scoped the area out on Google Maps. They did allow backpackers to park at the end of the road and hike out. The only rules we ever really heard were that you must hike at least 30 min out, bring a gallon of water per person per day, try to stay off private property and no ground fires.

Wednesday night I rushed to get some supplies together and pack them up but it was tough to know . DSC_0687

We called the park several times but could not get past the automated message to find out how everything worked. After work we finished packing the last few items, ate some dinner and hit the road. We took Jon’s truck and he drove the first shift on the 9hr drive.  We left around 5:30 and it was far to sunny and early for a nap. I did rest near the end of his shift and maybe fell in and out of sleep a bit. I drove the 2nd half and Jon didn’t even try to sleep as he is never able to nap in the car.

We stopped in Amarillo near the end of the trek to get gas and cheeseburgers. It was an exciting McDonald’s truck stop at 1am with a group of hippies and their dogs and a big group of girls we decided were strippers.  The last bit of the drive was easy and in no time we pulled into the park. Unfortunately once there we were immediately blocked by a gate. We had found online that you could pay at a self pay box but didn’t find out until we were there that you had to have managed to reach someone on the phone first and gotten the gate code.

We were stuck, so we parked off to the side of the gate and decided to go to sleep. I think it was about 2:30am. Shortly after stopping it started raining really hard and lightning was flashing like crazy. We were tired enough to sleep pretty good until 8:30. It was still raining but the office was open and so we went in to pay. We found out right away there was flooding and all trails were closed for the day and no one was allowed off the pavement to go backpack camp. They had 4 regular campsites left and said 50/50 we could leave the pavement and go backpacking Saturday morning.

We went back to the little town of Canyon and hit up a McDonalds to make a plan. We researched other parks in the area and the forcast and decided to get a case of beer and wait out the storm at a campsite. It stopped raining while we were there and we even saw a bit of the sun.

So we paid our fees for the day and headed into the park.


We were pretty pleased with our decision right away, the drive in was pretty spectacular.  The main part of the park is down inside the 2nd largest canyon in the US. On top of the canyon the ground is crazy flat and stretches miles and miles.

We parked at our campsite, put together a little day pack and decided to explore the park from the open and closed roads. Also we opened some drinks.


However we immediately saw a no alcohol sign so poured them into our McDonald’s cups.


The ground was pretty loaded with cactus. There were a few short trees and lots of bushes.


Pretty much everything was thorny and prickly. We didn’t wonder for too long before we spotted a cave and decided to break the no trails rule just a little.


We jogged/snuck up into the cave and had a quick look around.


I thought it was pretty cool but Jon was disappointed it didn’t go very deep. It never rained any more and the day slowly warmed up and steady wind helped dry things out. At lunch we headed back to our site and fixed up some wraps.


It was tempting to take naps after lunch but we decided to load the pack back up with beers and explore the other direction.


There was a small creek in the bottom of the canyon and the water was thick with red mud. We started to get interested in capitol peak in the distance there.

It got really hot and the beers got really hot and after a bit of running it got really shook up. It was Friday afternoon and the nearly empty park was starting to fill up fast. It was hot and dry and the newcomers ignored the closed trail signs right away and started hiking so we joined them.


After another long walk/jog we made our way back to camp.


We did some reading and set up our hammocks as it started to cool off the the campsite filled up. It was tempting to crash as we were pretty sleepy and worn out.


But it was much too early so we kept ourselves awake. Wild turkeys were all over the place and we followed them around some. .


We cooked up some mac and cheese w/ tuna and brockoli for dinner and watched it slowly get darker.


Right at 9 we decided it was dark enough and climbed into our hammocks. The neighbors had a friend show up right then and got loud for a minute but then we were out. I rolled over once or twice but stayed warm and slept great until 6am when the coyotes really started howling good, then people were talking and finally someone set off a car alarm on accident. The alarm woke Jon and he was ready to hike. We grabbed the day pack and rushed up the trail without packing up our gear.


The sun was still rising up as we climbed the north side of the canyon and the views were great and getting better and better.


After about an hour we had hit the top and hiked along the rim until we found a great spot. We sat down and ate protien bars and granola for breakfast.


Jon was in a rush to get down and get backpacking but I really wanted to see off a big turn in the canyon and talked him into another mile or so along the rim to see off that point.

Once there we saw a dry creek bed that looked like a straight shot to our campsite so left the trail.

We also knew the backpacking area didn’t have trails so wanted to get a feel for how it would be. It was a lot of fun rushing down the cayon and climbing our way down rocks and around the bushes. At the time we thought it was too thick and rugged for packs and would have to find easier ways w/ the packs.

Once at the truck we rushed back up to the office and paid for a night of backpacking and confirmed the area was open again. Then we packed our bags.

We drove the the backpacking parking and hit the trail.

and immediately left the trail.

See that bare hill in the distance? We did too and decided to beeline for it and climb it. It was really steep and challenging but the views were great and we got a lot of elevation increase quick.

We were on the opposite side of the canyon from our hike and looked across at our morning hike. That point in the distance is where we turned around.

It was a rugged morning of hiking, we did a lot of climbing, on loose rock and through thorny vegetation.

The views were awesome but I was a hot mess.

Around noon we saw shade and decided we had to eat lunch.

We poured a little water in a bag of dehydrated re-fried beans. Then spooned them into tortillas w/ taco bell sauce.

They were great and we loved them dry and re-hydrated. After our legs felt refreshed we put the packs back on.

And looked back over where we had come from.

Then continued to climb up the canyon.

Then we made it to the top. I didn’t take any pictures up there, the ground was flat but the bushes were tall and thick and we could not see much also we really rushed across the top because we were not looking for too much adventure.

-side story- When paying for our backpacking day the ranger said “If your looking for a real adventure go on top of the mesa”. Well we figured we were until he explained that the land up there is owned by the park and it is totally legal to be up there but they lease it to ranch and there are cows and cowboys. The cowboys boss has them carry handcuffs and has told them to arrest anyone they find and take them into town to the jail. The sheriffs know it’s legal and let the hikers go with no problems. We wanted adventure but none that took us out of the park or involved strangers handcuffing us so we were pretty sneaky on top of the giant mesa.

Then we started going back down the other side.

There was another creek way in the distance and another giant canyon that was possibly more pretty.

It was a lot of dicey climbing down over giant rocks but we made it all the way down to the mostly dry creek bed.

It was really awesome in the bottom.

Sometimes we walked in the creek bed and it was flat and dry and fast. Other times we made our way through bushes and they scratched and forced us to wind around and around, other times we climbed up and down and up and down over rocky hills and other times we found small game or horse trails that were decent for a bit and sometimes we were in the creek bed but it was overgrown and rough but it was all pretty fun looking back and the views were well worth the effort.

Finally we hit a barbwire fence and the end of the park, It came a bit sooner then the map showed so we had to alter our route. No matter what we had to go back up the side of the canyon. Our bodies were worn out but we knew we were just getting more tired so we made the climb.

This was the most dangerous thing we did I think. We knew most of the tricks by now of hidden cactus and crumbly rocks and false peaks but sections of that climb were crazy. The wost was a section our packs didn’t fit and we had to take them off and pass them up and around a cliff. The view from the top was one of my favorites of the day through and we felt pretty badass once up and safe and sound.

We also found a face in the rock I doubt many people see.

It was around 5 at this point and we kind of expected to jump right back on that messa but we found a lot of up and down and super thick brush and nasty creek beds that we had to climb in and out of. It was some rough going for the end of the day. My sunburn arms really loved the thorns scraping them and my knees loved the stairs of rock and loose dirt to climb up and down. There was also no views here but brush. Finally we hit the messa and right away saw cows. The last thing we needed now was a cowboy. We took off at the closest thing to a run we were still capable and weaved around brush and very skittish concerned cattle. Each time we thought we hit the end we found more cows and had to zig back off into the brush. We decided we were crossing at a much wider spot then expected. Eventually we finally got away from them and neared the other side of the mesa and the slope of the original canyon walls.

It was a late day of hiking and we wanted to have a campsite worthy of how much ground we covered but we also wanted to be fast in getting set. We went back and forth along the rim a bit looking for a great spot and settled on a pretty good one.

No time for resting we put up our tents.

Cooked our dinner of some chicken noodley cheesy soup stuff.

Then relaxed with the soup, chamomile tea and…

watched the sunset.

The dark clouds rolled in and we checked the forcast and found a storm rolling in. We got in our tents just before it started to rain. It also go really windy and we were both shocked that we slept terrible in spite of being exhausted. the windy was flapping the tents a lot and I could not get my mind off of climbing down the canyon in a storm with no obvious easy way down that didn’t have us climbing off crazy vertical areas.

We were in and out of sleep all night and around 6:30 I heard Jon unzip his tent and I woke up and we packed up as quick as we could. The ground was dry but the sky looked like rain.

The dark clouds didn’t show up well in pictures. We picked a path and headed down. There were a few minorly difficult sections but nothing too bad and it all went way easier and quicker then we would have ever imagined. Before breakfast we were looking back up the canyon we had just decended.

We hit a regular old hiker trail at the bottom and made our way towards the truck.

We stopped at the first picnic table we came to and had some breakfast then rushed over to the truck and shed the packs.

It did rain some on us as we drove out but nothing too bad and we left the park about 2 hours sooner then expected. We drove straight through the 9 hours home eating truck stop food and listening to Stuff you should know podcasts and the Royals game.

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