Texas is big, and has more than enough state parks to keep RVers busy exploring for a long time. Although I haven’t visited them all, I do have four favorites—Palo Duro Canyon, Caprock Canyons, Seminole Canyon and Davis Mountains. The first two, Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyons, are southeast of Amarillo in the Panhandle Plains Region.
Palo Duro Canyon State ParkAlthough not as dramatic as the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the country. It is 120 miles long, nearly 20 miles wide and as much as 800 feet deep. And unlike the Grand Canyon, where access to the bottom is only by foot, mule or raft, Palo Duro is accessible by RVs, even bicycles.
The park, which consists of 29,182 acres, opened on July 4, 1934. Young men and military veterans in the Civilian Conservation Corps worked from 1933 to 1937 to develop road access to the canyon floor, and build the visitor center, cabins, shelters and park headquarters.
Palo Duro Canyon is a favorite for several reasons. First, it is a great place to see and photograph wildlife. Within minutes of my arrival, in fact while searching for a campsite, I photographed a brilliant, golden-fronted woodpecker. My husband, Mike, and I knew right then that we had hit the jackpot and opted to spend several days in the park.
The tree-filled landscape provides a wonderful place to hike, mountain bike and relax in the shade. Palo Duro means “hard wood” in Spanish, thus the place was named for the tough wood of the Rocky Mountain juniper trees found here. In May, look for wildflowers such as Indian blanket, Blackfoot daisy, tansy aster, and the blossoms of prickly pear cactus and yucca.
Visit in summer and you’ll thrill to “Texas,” which claims to be the most spectacular outdoor musical drama in the world. The show runs from June through August. Call (806) 655-2181 or visit texas-show.com for more information.
RVers will find several campgrounds with trails nearby. Most of the trails are open to travel by foot, horseback and mountain bike. Lighthouse Trail, the most popular trail in the park, leads to the Lighthouse, a 310-foot-high rock formation formed by erosion. It is a National Natural Landmark.
As you explore, be sure to keep an eye out for the endangered Texas horned lizard and the Palo Duro mouse. In addition to these two endangered species, there are mule deer, coyotes, Barbary sheep (an introduced species), bobcats, roadrunners, cottontails, wild turkeys, Mississippi kites and western diamondback rattlesnakes. When driving the canyon rim, just past the entrance station, look for longhorn steers. Part of the official Texas State Longhorn Herd, the animals are fenced in and do not roam the park.
Reach the park by driving south from Amarillo or north from Lubbock and exit on Texas Highway 217. Follow the signs 10 miles east. There’s a daily fee for being in the park and another fee for camping. The park has 32 RV sites with 20/30-amp service and water, and 47 RV sites with 30/50-amp service and water. The fee is $24 per night. For more information call (806) 488-2227 or check out tpwd.state.tx.us/palodurocanyon.
Caprock Canyons State Park & TrailwayCaprock Canyons is known for extreme weather. Fashioned over millions of years by wind and water, the park is located along the Caprock Escarpment, a long, narrow rocky formation stretching as high as 1,000 feet. The bluffs and steep, colorful canyons are fun to explore. Visitors can hike or bike or drive the main park road in search of fantastic scenes and abundant wildlife.
Opened in 1982, Caprock Canyons State Park consists of 15,313 acres, with varied flora and fauna. Above the escarpment, you’ll find shortgrass prairie in the High Plains. In the western half of the park, the canyons offer scrub oak and juniper trees. In the bottomlands, you will see grasses, hackberries, wild plum thickets and cottonwood trees.
During our spring visit, we found wildflowers and animal life. More than 12,000 years ago, the region was home to the now-extinct mammoth and giant bison. There were even camels and horses when the climate was cooler. Humans caused the demise of gray wolves and black bears in the area by the 1950s. Visit today, and you might see pronghorn, mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyotes, bobcats, raccoon, jackrabbits, gray fox and African aoudad sheep (an introduced species) and bison. Part of the official Texas State Bison Herd, these wooly animals roam free on more than 700 acres near the entrance to Caprock Canyons State Park.
As we hiked some of the park trails, I imagined life thousands of years ago when the region was first inhabited by the Folsom culture. Artifacts from the archaic period, which lasted from 8,000 to 2,000 years ago, include boiling pebbles for heating food, knives, dart points and grinding stones.
Today, there are almost 90 miles of multiuse trails for hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders. When you visit, be sure to check out the Caprock Canyons Trailway. Opened in 1993 as part of the national Rails-to-Trails program, the trailway crosses 46 railroad bridges. Information about trails can be found at park headquarters, three miles north of Quitaque. The park has nine RV sites with water only ($14 per night), 25 RV sites with 30-amp service and water ($15 per night), and 10 RV sites with 50-amp service and water ($20 per night). Call (806) 455-1492 or check out tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/caprock-canyons for additional information.
Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic SiteHead south to Big Bend Country and you’ll find Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site. Located off U.S. Highway 90, the park is a delight with ancient pictographs, trails for hiking or mountain biking, and a spacious campground.
The park is home to Fate Bell Shelter, one of the oldest cave dwellings in North America, and some of the oldest Native American pictographs. Sign up for a tour to see the pictographs, as visitors are not allowed in the canyon area without a guide. Tour times vary depending on the season, so contact the park for more information.
Opened in February 1980, the park, which is west of Comstock, contains 2,172 acres. Today’s visitors see something very different from early man 12,000 years ago when species of elephants, bison, horses and camels that are now extinct roamed the countryside. The landscape then was lush with trees such as oak, juniper and pines, as well as flourishing grasslands. About 7,000 years ago, the climate changed and inhabitants saw a land more closely resembling what we see today. It was probably during this time that inhabitants painted more than 200 pictograph sites, everything from single paintings to art panels hundreds of feet long. Though you might recognize the animals in some of the painted figures, no one really knows the meaning of the paintings.
During our visit, we searched for local wildlife such as white-tailed deer, armadillos and raccoons, but we only saw some feral goats across the canyon from where we stood. However, seeing the pictographs and feral goats, along with some fossilized shells, made our visit worthwhile. The park has 15 dry camping sites ($8 per night), eight sites with shared water nearby ($14 per night), and 23 sites with electricity and water ($20 per night). For more information call (432) 292-4464 or click on tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/seminole-canyon.
Davis Mountains State ParkThe Davis Mountains State Park is last on my list, but certainly not least. Located northwest of Seminole Canyon, also in Big Bend Country, it is a terrific place for a scenic drive, a hike or a mountain bike ride. Equestrians (who must bring their own horses) also have the opportunity to enjoy seven miles of trails in Limpia Canyon Primitive Area. And if you enjoy birds, be sure to visit the bird feeding and watering areas. This state park is another of the many parks where the CCC did much of the development.
The park offers everything from plains grasslands to pinyon-juniper-oak woodlands. This means a varied habitat for all sorts of animal life, including Montezuma quail. Although not common, species regularly seen include scrub jays, curve-billed thrashers and white-winged doves. Rock squirrels are the most common mammal, but be sure to search for javelinas early and late in the day.
Located four miles northwest of Fort Davis, Davis Mountains State Park covers 2,708 acres. Situated roughly halfway between the more famous Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend national parks, the Davis Mountains were formed by volcanic activity about 65 million years ago.
Davis Mountains State Park has 33 sites with water or shared water nearby ($15 per night), 34 sites with partial hookups ($20 per night), and 27 full-hookup RV sites ($25 per night).
Both the mountains and nearby Fort Davis were named for Jefferson Davis, who was U.S. Secretary of War and later president of the Confederacy. Fort Davis was a frontier military post from 1854 to 1891, and for the more adventurous hiker, there’s a trail that leads from the state park to Fort Davis.
Just four miles south of the town of Fort Davis is the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center & Botanical Gardens, a fun place to explore. And while you’re in town be sure to drive the 75-mile scenic loop drive. The highest elevation on the loop is about 6,700 feet, which makes this the highest public highway in Texas.
For more information about Davis Mountains State Park call (432) 426-3337 or check out tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/davis-mountains.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.