Palo Duro Canyon State Park, in the Texas Panhandle near Amarillo, features the second largest canyon in North America (after the Grand Canyon). The park offers 30 miles of trails with a fun variety of technical levels. A 700 foot descent to the bottom of the canyon includes striking colors of four geologic layers, southern high plains landscape, and many rock formations to explore. The Lighthouse, a 310 foot rock pillar, is the most popular Palo Duro Canyon hike destination.
Why I Love This Hike
Texas continues to surprise me. I can no longer justify dismissing the Texas Panhandle as boring and flat! Palo Duro Canyon is awe inspiring for its vastness (120 miles long and 20 miles wide). Rugged Texas shrubs, trees, and wildflowers provide a striking contrast against the shades of red in the canyon walls and rock formations. There is a spectacular view around every corner, with lots of opportunities for rock scrambling. With almost 30,000 acres, you’ll find lots to explore in this Texas state park. I spent a weekend in Palo Duro Canyon and I already want to go back. I envision backpacking in and camping at the bottom of the canyon, or horseback riding through the entire canyon.
Before You Hike—Saddle Up!
I went to Palo Duro Canyon with the Austin chapter of Bold Betties, an outdoor adventure group for women. Before we hiked to the Lighthouse, we stopped at Old West Stables for an hour-long horseback ride in the canyon. Palo Duro Canyon has a trail that is horse-only, so you don’t have to worry about sharing the trail with bikers, hikers, and dogs. (Weirdly, though, there was a dude lurking on the trail taking pictures. At first, we thought he was with the stables, like trail ride paparazzi. He spooked the horses and we finally had to chase him away!) The horses were super sweet and the Old West Stables crew were professional. We only wished the trail ride had been longer. I did not want to get off of my horse!
Palo Duro Canyon Hike Details
The Lighthouse Trail is 2.72 mile one way. You can hike just the Lighthouse Trail, or switch up your hike by adding in one of the other connecting park trails. We parked cars and shuttled between the Givens, Spicer, Lowry and Lighthouse trailheads for an 7-mile hike. Pick up trail and park maps at the entrance, and ask the rangers for help picking a route.
Are you up for rock scrambling? The sandy, moderate part of Lighthouse Trail ends at a picnic table below the Lighthouse. You can stop here, or scramble up a difficult, rocky trail all the way to the base of the Lighthouse in two parts. The first part is tricky and includes Stairmaster-like steps, ending at a flat plateau with views of both the canyon and the Lighthouse. Stop here, or continue on for more rock scrambling where you’ll step (or climb) over a gap to the other side of the Lighthouse. Decide what you’re comfortable with and be careful! Getting up close to the Lighthouse is an adventure with a huge payoff of stunning canyon views.
Bring a hat and plenty of water! I went in early October, and the temperature still reached 90°F. The humidity is low in this area of Texas, but you’re still hiking a mostly exposed trail in the unforgiving Lone Star sun. There are benches in the shade along the trail where you can stop and rest. Bring a shade hat and lots of water.
- Hiking Distance: 7 miles
- Duration: 3 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate (except for the scramble up to the Lighthouse, which is difficult)
- Low-High Elevation: 2,827′-3,120′
- Dogs Allowed? Yes
- Bikers or Horses Allowed? Yes
- Entrance Fee: $5 (for one day)
- Driving Directions to Palo Duro Canyon State Park: Google Maps
- Closest Town: Canyon, Texas is about 15 miles from Palo Duro Canyon
- Texas Parks & Wildlife Maps: Trail – PDF, Interactive; Park
- Hiking Project Map: Palo Duro Canyon State Park
My Lighthouse Hike Route
Givens, Spicer, Lowry Trail
From the park entrance, drive down State Highway Park Road 5 past Pioneer Amphitheater and the Palo Duro Trading Post. Just past Old West Stables, look for the next parking lot on the right. Hackberry Camp Area is nearby.
There are no signs in the parking lot indicating the names of trails. Givens, Spicer, Lowry Trail (GSL) leads southwest from the parking lot. I used the Hiking Project app to help us stay on track.
The first two miles of GSL are technical and single-track. For every up, there is a down. The trail then becomes less challenging.
You get a taste of the Palo Duro’s character the minute you step on GSL, with red, rocky terrain and beautiful views. Look for hoodoos (natural columns of rock) along the way. I couldn’t get over the contrast of colors.
GSL Trail ends at Lighthouse Trail after 3.08 miles. The Lighthouse Trail is mostly packed dirt and rock, with some sandy parts. You’ll cross over several creek beds, which were mostly dry when we went in October. Hike about 1 mile to a picnic table in a shaded area. Next is the “Stairmaster” part of the climb.
Your scramble ends at a flat plateau, with a bench and a view of the Lighthouse. Linger here and enjoy the views from the plateau.
Scramble up another series of rocks to the base of the Lighthouse pillar. This part is much shorter than the “Stairmaster” climb. Crawl or step around the ledge to the other side of the Lighthouse.
You can continue across the flat ridge and around the other side of the adjoining rock formation. We decided it was time to head back.
It was late in the day when we left the Lighthouse and hiked 2.72 miles back to the trailhead. We had the added benefit of watching the sun sink, casting shadows on the canyon.
Big shoutout to Tina Harper and Bold Betties Austin for organizing this Palo Duro Canyon weekend! What’s your favorite canyon hike?