This post may contain affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a commission if you purchase through my links, at no extra cost to you. Please read my full disclaimer for more information.
Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyon
Everyone’s heard about the Grand Canyon but what about the second largest canyon in the country? Well it’s right here in Texas! The Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the country and it’s absolutely beautiful! While you’re visiting Palo Duro Canyon, I recommend taking a quick trip over to Caprock Canyon State Park just 1.5 hours southeast of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. When you ask locals which state park is better about 50% will say Palo Duro Canyon and the other 50% will say Caprock Canyon. In my opinion, Palo Duro Canyon State Park has better hiking and Caprock Canyon State Park has better wildlife (buffalo heard and prairie dog town). The truth is they’re both great parks and since they’re so close together I recommend visiting both!
I’ve been to both parks multiple times (actually too many times to count) because I lived in the area for about 5 years. I went to college at West Texas A&M which is about 20 minutes from the Palo Duro Canyon State Park entrance. We spent A LOT of our free time hiking and exploring both Palo Duro State Park and Caprock Canyon State Park.
When to Visit
Spring: Spring is probably the best time to visit both parks. The plants are starting to turn green again and the weather is perfect for hiking! The mornings can be a bit cold so you might want to start your hike with a wind breaker or light jacket. The canyons tend to heat up pretty quickly though so you shouldn’t need the layers for too long.
Summer: The only benefit to visiting Palo Duro and Caprock Canyon in the summer is that you’ll be able to attend the Texas Musical at the amphitheater. The Texas Musical is a beautiful performance that runs during the months of June and July (sometimes it goes a few weeks into August). Otherwise, I wouldn’t recommend visiting either park in the summer because of the heat. The hiking trails at both parks have minimal shade so it’ll be too hot to enjoy the hiking trails.
Fall: Fall is the second best season to visit both state parks. The temperatures are cooler but it’s not too cool to enjoy a nice hike outdoors. Also just so you know you won’t see any “fall foliage” in either of these state parks. The best state park in Texas for fall foliage is Garner State Park.
Winter: It does snow in the area but not very often. If it snows, then you won’t be able to get into either park. Most of the roads in the area shut down if the snow sticks. Sorry but it doesn’t snow enough for them to plow the streets. Everyone just waits a few hours and then the snow typically melts. Otherwise, I don’t love hiking in the winter because it can get pretty cold. It’s really hit or miss with the weather in the winter. You might have highs of 50 or you might have highs of 20s. It varies a lot so just keep track of the weather when you’re planning to visit in the winter.
How Long to Stay
I’d recommend staying in Caprock Canyon for at least 2 nights. It’s not a very big park so you can hit the highlights pretty quickly. If you’re looking to just get away from it all, then by all means stay as long as you need.
I’d recommend staying in Palo Duro Canyon for at least 3 nights. You can see the highlights in a day if you’re in a rush, but I’d recommend 3 nights minimum. There are several hiking trails at Palo Duro and there are other things to do in the area as well (Cadillac Ranch for example).
Palo Duro Canyon is about a 7.5 hour drive from Austin and about a 6 hour drive from Dallas. Caprock Canyon is a little closer, it’s only a 6.5 hour drive from Austin and a 5 hour drive from Dallas. The perfect spring break trip! Anything under 8 hours is an easy road trip in my opinion, after 8 hours and it starts to get unbearable. We broke up the drive a little by stopping in Abilene for a quick lunch at Lucy’s Big Burgers and a caffeine refill at Monk’s Coffee Shop (super cute coffee shop). We then continued our journey to Caprock Canyon and then on to Palo Duro Canyon a few days later.
Things to do in Caprock Canyon
The best hiking trail at Caprock Canyon is the Haynes River Overlook Trail (B), which then loops back around onto the Upper Canyon Trail (C). The views are absolutely gorgeous!! It probably took us 4 hours to complete at a steady pace, we’re not the fastest hikers in the world. The trail was a little steep in some areas, so I probably wouldn’t recommend it for little kids. If you have little kids with you, then I’d suggest hiking Eagle Point Trail instead.
After your nice day of hiking, it’s time to go in search of the buffalo! Yes, that’s right the buffalo! Caprock Canyon has a heard of buffalo just wandering around the park!! They’re such beautiful animals!! Every time we saw the buffalo (which was basically every morning and afternoon) we’d pull over and just watch them for a few minutes. While you’re driving around the park, I recommend stopping by Prairie Dog Town to watch the little prairie dogs just run from tunnel to tunnel chirping at each other. So cute!!
Camping at Caprock Canyon
I always do a lot of research when selecting a campsite. I use apps, read reviews, and learn from other bloggers to determine which campsites I want to reserve. Everyone recommends Little Red Tent Camping Area and I have to say the views in this area were amazing!! Sites 58, 59, and 60 were the best camp sites with wonderful views of the canyon and plenty of privacy. If you’re new to camping, be sure to check out my camping for beginners guide.
Things to do in Palo Duro Canyon
As your driving into Palo Duro State Park if you see the longhorns on the left side of the park entrance, then be sure to stop for a photo. I felt like I hardly ever saw the longhorns out!! If you see them consider yourself lucky, and take a photo ASAP because you may not see them again.
After your longhorn photo, hop back in your car and head over to the Visitor Center. Yes, the Visitor Center! I never tell people to stop at visitor centers because they’re normally boring. The Palo Duro Visitor Center, however, provides a lot of history and info on the area. You can learn about the different layers of the canyon and learn how the Civilian Corps built the park in the 1930s. You can also stop at the Visitor Center on your way out of the park, just depends on the temperature and what you have planned for the day.
There are a lot of great trails at Palo Duro Canyon but the best trail is definitely the Lighthouse Trail. It’s actually a pretty easy hike except for the last section. You’ll be hiking for about 2.5 miles and then come up to a picnic table and bike rack on the left side of the trail. Here you’ll see a trail to the left and a trail that goes straight. Go straight!! The trail to the left is actually just a runoff trail that people have taken by mistake. I’ve done both and I can definitely say the trail that goes straight is 10 times easier!!! Go straight!!
My second favorite trail at Palo Duro Canyon is the Rock Garden Trail and then the Givens, Spicer, Lowry Trail. I haven’t hiked these in a few years but they always provided some great views and overlooks.
After a day of hiking, I recommend driving over to the check out “The Big Cave“. The Big Cave is a large crevice in the canyon wall that is a short walk just off the side of the road. It’s a neat little viewpoint that’s worth the short detour.
Where to Stay at Palo Duro State Park
Since I lived so close to Palo Duro Canyon, I rarely camped there. I would just hop in my car and drive 20 minutes home to sleep in my bed. Every so often we would get a group together to go camping but it wasn’t very often. My favorite campsites at Palo Duro Canyon would be the sites on the “outer” part of the Mesquite Loop (specifically sites 79, 81, 83, and 85).
If you’re booking your trip well in advance, then I would recommend reserving a Texas State Park cabin. The views from the top of the canyon in the evening are amazing and definitely worth the extra cost! The cabins book up super fast so mark your calendar and be sure to reserve your spot. If you’re looking for something nicer, then check out Dove Rest Resort Cabins. My friend owned a house down the street from some of the Dove Rest Resort Cabins and it’s a gorgeous area!! Definitely a great way to relax and unwind!!
If you’re not really in the camping mood and looking for a last minute reservation, then get a hotel room in Canyon. Canyon is a super safe little college town and it’s only 20 minutes from Palo Duro State Park.
While you’re in the area, I recommend driving into Amarillo to check out Cadillac Ranch. Cadillac Ranch is basically a bunch of cars sticking straight out of the ground that you can spray paint. You’ve probably seen pictures of it before online, it’s just a unique little photo opportunity. And while you’re in Amarillo, check out Six Car Pub & Brewery for some dinner and a flight of beer.