Earlier this year, I made a list of things to do in Palo Duro Canyon for my first visit there and like most of my plans, I ended up doing way more because this place turned out to be much more amazing than I thought and in this post, I’m going to share 12 of the top spots (and things) to explore when you come here.
Quick info on Palo Duro Canyon State Park Texas:
- Name: Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
- Location: Near Amarillo Texas (30 minutes drive from it).
- Things to do: Hiking, scenic drives, camping and much more (details below).
- Can you explore it in one day? Yes.
- Cost to enter? Yes, $8 per person.
- Rating: 5 out of 5.
- Is it worth checking out Palo Duro Canyon? Absolutely! This park astounded me and I plan to come back many times, but this list will help you understand how to best explore this park according to the activities so you’re not lost on where to go when you come here.
Here are the 12 best things to do in Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas:
- Start by visiting the Palo Duro Visitor Center.
- Check the CCC trail and Goodnight Peak hike (together).
- Do the Palo Duro scenic drive.
- Stop at the Palo Duro Trading Post.
- Hike the Lighthouse trail (most popular).
- Visit the stables and explore Palo Duro via horse ride.
- Check out the camping areas in the park.
- Check out the Big Cave hike.
- Do some stargazing in Palo Duro State Park.
- You can do glamping in the park too.
- Stay in one of the cabins in the park.
- Mountain biking.
- Here is a list of other popular hikes in Palo Duro Canyon.
1) Visit the Palo Duro Visitor Center:
Once you officially enter the park, the visitor center (known as the CCC visitor center) will take you 5 minutes to reach. I recommend you visit this place for a few reasons:
- There are awesome souvenirs to check out.
- There are great views of Palo Duro Canyon from this area including from the parking lot).
- If you’re into history and museum type stuff regarding Palo Duro Canyon, this is where you’ll get it.
- There are also drinks and food you can get here and I would recommend getting this stuff in case you didn’t bring anything for hiking there (trust me, you’ll need it).
2) Hike 2 trails as one, the CCC trail and Goodnight Peak Trail:
I recommend you do both of these hikes because they are connected together, short and pretty easy to do overall. They are located right by he parking lot of the Palo Duro Visitor center and together, they are only about 2-3 miles long.
Doing this hike also gives you great views of the canyon and a nice experience overall. I recommend you do them both because the CCC trail on it’s own is nice, but because the Goodnight Peak trail is literally connected to it and short, it just makes sense to connect them together.
3) Do the Palo Duro Canyon scenic drive:
There is only 1 main road inside Palo Duro Canyon and it’s the same road you will use to get into the park. It serpentine’s around when you’re at the top, but as you get to the base of the park, it’ll be much more straight forward.
You can follow that road to the very enter and it’ll loop back around. The overall drive time for this activity is about 20-30 minutes if you don’t stop and it’s a really awesome experience as you get amazing views of the park, especially from the upper areas. For me, doing this drive solidified why Palo Duro Canyon is one of the best state parks in Texas.
It’s also important to know that every other activity on this list and in general will be accessible from this exact same scenic drive.
4) Stop at the Palo Duro Trading Post:
The Palo Duro Trading Post is very easy to see. It’s basically located off the scenic drive, right as you get to the base level of the park. I recommend you visit there for a snack before or after you finish exploring Palo Duro State Park. They also have other things you can buy there (clothes, more souvenirs.
Note: There is another cool trail right behind the trading post called Pioneer Trail that’s only half a mile and it’s pretty easy to do.
5) Hike the Lighthouse Trail (the best hike in Palo Duro Canyon State Park):
When I researched the best things to do in this park, a picture of this exact trail popped up more than any other thing I saw so my main objective when visiting this park was to hike this place. The parking area for this trail is also the largest in the park (it’s easy to spot).
The Lighthouse trail is a 4+ mile hike through mostly flat areas of the park and it’s very scenic. You’ll basically go through the many canyon areas in the park, see many color changes in the rocks and around the 2 mile mark will start to scramble up to the Lighthouse area.
The Lighthouse itself is an amazing rock formation that really does look like a lighthouse. From there, once you’re ready to go back, you’ll just backtrack. One thing to know is that once you begin the trail you will actually see another Lighthouse rock formation lookalike, but it’s not the right one. Keep following the trail to reach the official one.
6) Visit the stables and do horseback riding in Palo Duro Canyon:
Horseback riding is a very popular activity inside Palo Duro Canyon and you can see the stables right off the main road (close to the trading post area). Here’s a link to the stables at Palo Duro so you can see what’s available (they are not always open).
There are specific trails within the park made for horseback riding and if you enjoy this sort of stuff, trust me when I say that you’ll love doing that here, especially in such a scenic park like this!
7) Palo Duro Canyon camping, there’s several spots available:
There are several different camping areas throughout Palo Duro Canyon State Park you can stay at and most of them are right by the main road. Some of them have more amnesties than others (water, power, etc…) but you can see a list of the campsites at Palo Duro here.
The pricing for them is $10 per car and $26 for each night (for most campsites).
8) See the Big Cave:
I missed the Big Cave because it’s actually not on the official map of Palo Duro Canyon! Ironically you can actually see it on Google Maps, but just know this.
Anyway, the Big Cave is a literal giant cave you can find towards the south most end of the park. The closest trail that goes by it is the Juniper Trail, but the best (shortest) way to get there is to start at the Big Cave Picnic area, and then just look for the cave from there. The hike is only about 1/4 miles.
Yes this is also possible to do in Palo Duro Canyon. However there are certain things you need to know:
- The best way to enjoy this is by camping inside the park.
- If you’re just visiting the park for a day, know that it normally closes at 9 pm and you will want to visit the park around winter time because the sun will set around 5 pm, giving you plenty of extra hours to see a great night sky.
Glamping is another very popular thing to do in Palo Duro and there is a spot right by the Trading Post area inside the park where you can do this.
To do glamping inside this park, you will need to go to the Palo Duro glamping page here and likely reserve over a month ahead of time. I would also recommend trying to find spots on weekdays because most weekends fill up many weeks ahead.
Also do note that the pricing for glamping in Palo Duro Canyon State Park is also very expensive (I saw prices for about $300 a night).
11) Stay inside a cabin in Palo Duro Canyon:
There are some sites where glamping and cabins are mixed together, but there are actual specific “cabin” areas inside Palo Duro Canyon you can rent. Most of them are small rock houses with amazing views of the canyon and you can get info and reservations on Palo Duro cabins here.
12) Mountain biking:
Without a doubt, one of the best places to do mountain biking at is inside Palo Duro Canyon. There are specific trails within this park build solely for mountain biking and the most popular trail for that is the Capitol Peak Trail (over 4 miles).
13) Here’s a list of the best hikes in Palo Duro Canyon State Park (and their difficulties):
Here are the easy trails:
- CCC trail (1.5 miles in and out, near the welcome center.
- Goodnight Peak scenic loop (It’s about 0.5 miles and really a lollypop loop).
- Triassic trail (less than 0.5 mile, near the CCC trail).
- Pioneer Nature Trail (0.5 miles, behind the trading post).
- Kiowa Trail (1.5 miles, parallel to the road).
- Sunflower Trail (1 mile, near the road).
- Rio Grande Trail (About 1.5 miles, near the road too).
- Cave trail (about 1/4 mile, but it’s not on the official map).
Here are the moderate trails:
- Lighthouse trail (Most popular, 4-5 miles in and out).
- Little Fox Canyon Trail (connected to Lighthouse Trail, 1.5 miles).
- Rock Garden Trail (near the south end of the park, about 5 miles in and out).
Here are the difficult trails:
- Givens, Spicer and Lowery trail (6 miles in and out, it also connects to the Lighthouse trail).
- Rylander Fortress Cliff trail (About 6 miles too, requires other trails to reach).
This list does not include all of the hiking trails in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, but it does show you the most popular ones. I would avoid the difficult trails unless you are experienced (it’s easy to get lost in the woods in Palo Duro Canyon). The moderate trails are mostly long distance on flat areas, but you should bring a lot of water for them (and any other trail there just in case).
Important information on Palo Duro State Park hiking trails (know this):
1) Most of the trails inside the park are in and out, meaning you will start and return the same way.
2) There are certain trails in the park which start at point A, run parallel to the main scenic drive and then back out (point B).
3) There are trails which intersect and you can mix them together, but I would NOT do this unless you are experienced.
4) Make sure you download a map of Palo Duro Canyon State Park and/or ask for it when you pay at the entrance.
5) Use Alltrails (or similar apps) beforehand to find and navigate some trails.
Here’s a map of Palo Duro Canyon with where you’ll find all the activities above:
Questions about Palo Duro Canyon State Park TX:
Can you just drive through Palo Duro Canyon?
Yes there is only one main road inside Palo Duro Canyon that you can drive through to see the park.
What is the best time of year to visit Palo Duro Canyon?
In my opinion visiting Palo Duro Canyon between January and March is the best time to go because it is chilly and there are few people.
How do you spend a day at Palo Duro Canyon?
For a day trip to Palo Duro Canyon, I recommend driving through the loop road, hiking the Lighthouse trail and exploring the Big Cave.
Why I absolutely love Palo Duro Canyon State Park (and plan to come back):
I have seen a ton of amazing parks throughout the US and I have to say that Palo Duro Canyon State Park amazed me for many reasons, and one of the top ones on the list was that it mixed together views from other incredible parks I had already explored that I thought were unique in regards to those views. I’m talking about places like:
- The Grand Canyon (Palo Duro Canyon State Park looks like a miniature version of the Grand Canyon).
- Sedona. There’s a lot of red rocks in Palo Duro that reminded me of hikes in Sedona (like Fay Canyon Trail).
- Kings Canyon National Park. The scenic drive in Palo Duro looks a lot like like the scenic drive in Kings Canyon.
- Death Valley National Park. There are certain spots in Palo Duro Canyon which look like stuff you see in Death Valley NP.
Overall, Palo Duro State Park is amazing and if you’re visiting Amarillo Texas, you need to take at least a day to explore this place!