Palo Duro Canyon

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Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon State Park 2002.jpg
View from the Interpretive Center
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Red pog.svg
Palo Duro
Floor elevation2,828 ft (862 m)
Length120 mi (190 km)
Width20 mi (32 km)
Depth880 ft (270 m)
Coordinates 34°57′N101°40′W / 34.950°N 101.667°W / 34.950; -101.667 Coordinates: 34°57′N101°40′W / 34.950°N 101.667°W / 34.950; -101.667
Rivers Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River

Palo Duro Canyon is a canyon system of the Caprock Escarpment located in the Texas Panhandle near the cities of Amarillo and Canyon. [1] As the second-largest canyon in the United States, it is roughly 120 mi (190 km) long and has an average width of 6 mi (9.7 km), but reaches a width of 20 mi (32 km) at places. Its depth is around 820 ft (250 m), but in some locations, it increases to 1,000 ft (300 m). Palo Duro Canyon (from the Spanish meaning "hard wood" or, more exactly, "hard stick") [2] has been named "The Grand Canyon of Texas" both for its size and for its dramatic geological features, including the multicolored layers of rock and steep mesa walls similar to those in the Grand Canyon.



Palo Duro Canyon Geologic map PaloDuroCanyon geologic map.png
Palo Duro Canyon Geologic map

The canyon was formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River, which initially winds along the level surface of the Llano Estacado of West Texas, then suddenly and dramatically runs off the Caprock Escarpment. Water erosion over the millennia has shaped the canyon's geological formations.

Notable canyon formations include caves and hoodoos. One of the best-known and the major signature feature of the canyon is the Lighthouse Rock. A multiple-use, 6 mi (10 km) round-trip loop trail is dedicated to the formation. [3]

The Lighthouse Palo Duro lighthouse.jpg
The Lighthouse

Palo Duro Canyon was downcut by the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River, during the Pleistocene, when the whole region was uplifted. [4] Most of the strata visible in the canyon were deposited during the Permian and Triassic periods. From oldest to youngest, and each separated by an unconformity, the formations are:

The Quartermaster Formation is Permian in age, and forms the red, lower slopes of the Canyon. This layer was deposited in a near-shore shallow-marine environment consisting of siltstones and shales with ripple marks and cross bedding, that alternated with dry tidal flats indicated by satin spar gypsum and halite cast evaporite deposits. The red color indicates periods of oxidation. [5] [6] The Quartermaster Formation forms the lower wall and canyon floor, averaging 60 ft (20 m) in thickness where it outcrops. In particular, this alternating red and white formation forms the steep and gullied lower portion of the north flank of Timber Mesa, with the maroon and lavender smooth slopes of the Tecovas Shale above. [7]

The Tecovas Formation is a part of the Dockum Group with the Trujillo Formation. This multicolored Triassic unit consists of shale, siltstone, and sandstone. Deposited in streams and swamps, its colors indicate varying oxidizing conditions, and the alternating dry/wet cycles typical of such environments. These rocks are fossiliferous, containing the remains of phytosaurs, amphibians, and fish, [8] including Metoposaurus, Desmatosuchus, Koskinonodon, and lungfish, besides coprolites and the petrified wood remains of Araucarioxylon. Septarian calcite concretions and calcite geodes are numerous, and the shale forms the less steep canyon walls covered by talus slopes. [6] A prominent band of jointed white sandstone about 15 ft (5 m) thick marks the middle of this 200 ft (60 m) formation. Lavender, gray and white shales lie below this sandstone, while an orange shale lies between this sandstone and the Trujillo Formation above. The Quartermaster and Tecovas Formations make up Capital Peak. Likewise, the lower third of Triassic Peak is composed of the deeply furrowed Quartermaster Formation, overlain by the gentle slopes and smooth surface of the Tecovas Formation shales, all capped by the weather-resistant Trujillo Formation sandstone. Large blocks of this sandstone, due to mass wasting, are found along the flanks and base of the peak. [7]

The Trujillo Formation is a Triassic formation which is harder than the underlying Tecovas, and forms many of the Canyon's ledges. Composed of coarse sandstone, river cross-bedding indicates deposition in a stream environment. Fossils are rare. [9] The sandstone has alternating layers of shale and marl-pebble conglomerate. [6] The formation is massively bedded sandstone, making a distinct contact with the underlying Tecovas Formation, forming cliffs, prominent benches and mesas within the canyon. The formation includes a basal, middle and upper sandstone members, separated by shales. The middle sandstone member forms conspicuous ledges and cliffs. Phytosaur and Koskinonodon remains, plus leaf imprints and mineralized wood have been found within the formation. Erosion resistant sandstones protect pedestals of underlying shale, giving rise to hoodoos, including the Lighthouse, and the hoodoo at the south end of Capitol Peak. Likewise, the Rock Garden is composed of Trujillo sandstone boulders. [7]

The Ogallala Formation is a late Miocene to early Pliocene unit which forms the cliffs and ledges at the very top of the canyon. Composed of sandstone, siltstone, and conglomerate eroded from a late Cenozoic uplift of the Rocky Mountains. It is separated from the lower Trujillo Formation by a disconformity, representing a long hiatus. The coarse, porous sedimentary units of the Ogallala Formation constitute the Ogallala Aquifer, which has historically functioned as a major source of drinking water for much of the High Plains. [10] [11] Fossils of saber-toothed cats ( Smilodon ), bone-crushing dogs ( Borophagus ), mastodons, horses, long-necked camels ( Aepycamelus ), rhinoceroses, and large tortoises up to 3 feet in length, are present in the Ogallala. [12] The siltstone and sandstone have been cemented by silica, which gives rise to the occurrence of common opal and almost-chert pockets. [6] The upper portion of the formation has thick deposits of caliche, very evident at the Coronado Lodge on the northwest rim of the canyon. Fortress Cliff, on the eastern rim of the canyon, has a spectacular exposure of the Ogallala Formation. [7]

Headward erosion by the Prairie Dog Town fork of the Red River, into the caprock escarpment of the Llano Estacado, caused differential erosion. This meant the more resistant Ogallala and Trujillo formations formed the steeper walls of the canyon. [6]

Panorama of the Palo Duro Canyon from the Park road down into the canyon.jpeg
Panoramic view of the Palo Duro Canyon showing the Quartermaster, Tecovas, Trujillo and Ogallala formations
Palo Duro Canyon and Capitol Peak.JPG
Capitol Peak


The first evidence of human habitation of the canyon dates back about 10,00015,000 years, and it is believed to have been continuously inhabited to the present day. Native Americans were attracted to the water of the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River, as well as the consequent ample game, edible plants, and protection from the weather the canyon provided.

The first European explorers to discover the canyon were members of the Coronado expedition, who visited the canyon in 1541. Apache Indians lived in Palo Duro at the time, but they were later displaced by Comanche and Kiowa tribes, who had the advantage of owning horses brought over by the Spanish. They had contact with traders, called Comancheros, in nearby New Mexico.

A United States military team under Captain Randolph B. Marcy mapped the canyon in 1852 during their search for the headwaters of the Red River. The land remained under American Indian control until a military expedition led by Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie was sent in 1874 to remove the Indians to reservations in Oklahoma. The Mackenzie expedition captured about 1,200 of the Indians' horses and slaughtered them in nearby Tule Canyon during the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. The Comanche and Kiowa conceded and left the area.

Soon after, in 1876, Charles Goodnight and a wealthy Ulster Scot named John Adair established the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. Col. Goodnight helped manage the ranch until 1890. Over the next half-century, the canyon remained in private hands but was an increasingly popular tourist spot for local residents.

Charles N. Gould made a geologic map of the canyon and named the formations in 1905. [13]

In 1931, a major landowner signed a two-year contract with the local chamber of commerce to allow public access to the canyon. [14] The upper section of the canyon was purchased by the State of Texas in 1934 and turned into the 20,000-acre (8,100 ha) Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Amarillo is the largest city near Palo Duro Canyon State Park, but the smaller city of Canyon is nearer. In 1976, Palo Duro Canyon State Park was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. [15]

Seven units of the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the park from 1933 until 1937. Four groups of veterans, two groups of African Americans, and one junior group, took part in various construction projects, starting with the construction of Park Road 5, a two-lane road from the rim to the floor of the canyon. Other projects included the headquarters building, culverts, low-water crossings, bridges, Spring House, Well House, the Coronado Lodge interpretive center, 4 overnight cabins known as Cow Camp, and the 3 rim cabins. In addition, picnic and camping areas were built, complete with tables, seats, fireplaces and garbage receptacles. [16]

The Texas Department of Transportation has built bridges over Water crossings 1, 2, and 6 to allow motorists easier access during and after heavy rains. Paving work has been completed at the Juniper Multi-use Area, with the addition of utilities pending. Campsites and pavilions have also been added, along with several hiking trails.

In culture

Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Landscape, oil on board, 1916-1917, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, West Texas A&M University Georgia O'Keeffe, Palo Duro Canyon, 1916-1917.tif
Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Landscape, oil on board, 1916-1917, Panhandle–Plains Historical Museum, West Texas A&M University

The painter Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived in nearby Amarillo and Canyon in the early 20th century, wrote of the Palo Duro: "It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color." [17] She made paintings of Palo Duro Canyon between 1916 and 1918, when she was an instructor and head of the art department at West Texas State Normal College. [18] [19]

Palo Duro Canyon is the site of an outdoor historical and musical drama, titled Texas, presented annually each summer by actors, singers, dancers, and artists of the Texas Panhandle region. The spectacle, created by playwright Paul Eliot Green, premiered on July 1, 1966, at the newly constructed Pioneer Amphitheatre in Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It has continued each summer through the present, making Texas "the best-attended outdoor history drama in the nation." [20]

American composer Samuel Jones's Symphony No. 3 is titled "Palo Duro Canyon." It premiered May 1, 1992, in an outdoor performance at the Palo Duro Canyon State Park's Pioneer Amphitheatre, with James Setapen conducting the Amarillo Symphony (which had commissioned the work). The composer writes: "I wanted the piece ... to conjure up an intuitive awareness of the long movements of time required for the creation of a canyon. I also wanted in some way to pay homage to Native Americans, to whom this canyon was a sacred place. And I wanted to capture in music that magical moment which everyone experiences when they first see the flat, treeless High Plains fall dizzyingly away into the colorful vastness of the Palo Duro Canyon itself." [21] A KACV-TV documentary on canyon, composer, and symphony, titled And There Will Be Sounds, was broadcast on PBS stations nationally later that year; and a commercial recording was subsequently released by the Seattle Symphony under the baton of Gerard Schwarz. [22] A second recording was released in 2018 as part of a multichannel SACD titled 'American Symphonies' on the Swedish BIS label, with Lance Friedel conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. [23]

See also

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Related Research Articles

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Llano Estacado Southwestern United States in New Mexico and Texas

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Geology of the Grand Canyon area Scientific rock study of the Grand Canyon, Arizona

The geology of the Grand Canyon area includes one of the most complete and studied sequences of rock on Earth. The nearly 40 major sedimentary rock layers exposed in the Grand Canyon and in the Grand Canyon National Park area range in age from about 200 million to nearly 2 billion years old. Most were deposited in warm, shallow seas and near ancient, long-gone sea shores in western North America. Both marine and terrestrial sediments are represented, including lithified sand dunes from an extinct desert. There are at least 14 known unconformities in the geologic record found in the Grand Canyon.

Geology of the Zion and Kolob canyons area

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The exposed geology of the Bryce Canyon area in Utah shows a record of deposition that covers the last part of the Cretaceous Period and the first half of the Cenozoic era in that part of North America. The ancient depositional environment of the region around what is now Bryce Canyon National Park varied from the warm shallow sea in which the Dakota Sandstone and the Tropic Shale were deposited to the cool streams and lakes that contributed sediment to the colorful Claron Formation that dominates the park's amphitheaters.

Geology of the Canyonlands area

The exposed geology of the Canyonlands area is complex and diverse; 12 formations are exposed in Canyonlands National Park that range in age from Pennsylvanian to Cretaceous. The oldest and perhaps most interesting was created from evaporites deposited from evaporating seawater. Various fossil-rich limestones, sandstones, and shales were deposited by advancing and retreating warm shallow seas through much of the remaining Paleozoic.

Geology of the Capitol Reef area

The exposed geology of the Capitol Reef area presents a record of mostly Mesozoic-aged sedimentation in an area of North America in and around Capitol Reef National Park, on the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah.

Red beds

Red beds are sedimentary rocks, typically consisting of sandstone, siltstone, and shale, that are predominantly red in color due to the presence of ferric oxides. Frequently, these red-colored sedimentary strata locally contain thin beds of conglomerate, marl, limestone, or some combination of these sedimentary rocks. The ferric oxides, which are responsible for the red color of red beds, typically occur as a coating on the grains of sediments comprising red beds. Classic examples of red beds are the Permian and Triassic strata of the western United States and the Devonian Old Red Sandstone facies of Europe.

Moenkopi Formation

The Moenkopi Formation is a geological formation that is spread across the U.S. states of New Mexico, northern Arizona, Nevada, southeastern California, eastern Utah and western Colorado. This unit is considered to be a group in Arizona. Part of the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range, this red sandstone was laid down in the Lower Triassic and possibly part of the Middle Triassic, around 240 million years ago.

Chinle Formation formation

The Chinle Formation is an Upper Triassic continental geologic formation of fluvial, lacustrine, and palustrine to eolian deposits spread across the U.S. states of Nevada, Utah, northern Arizona, western New Mexico, and western Colorado. The Chinle is controversially considered to be synonymous to the Dockum Group of eastern Colorado and New Mexico, western Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle, and southwestern Kansas. The Chinle is sometimes colloquially named as a formation within the Dockum Group in New Mexico and in Texas. The Chinle Formation is part of the Colorado Plateau, Basin and Range, and the southern section of the Interior Plains.

Geology of Texas

Texas contains a great variety of geologic settings. The state's stratigraphy has been largely influenced by marine transgressive-regressive cycles during the Phanerozoic, with a lesser but still significant contribution from late Cenozoic tectonic activity, as well as the remnants of a Paleozoic mountain range.

Caprock Escarpment

The Caprock Escarpment is a term used in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico to describe the geographical transition point between the level high plains of the Llano Estacado and the surrounding rolling terrain. In Texas, the escarpment stretches around 200 mi (320 km) south-southwest from the northeast corner of the Texas Panhandle near the Oklahoma border. The escarpment is especially notable, from north to south, in Briscoe, Floyd, Motley, Crosby, Dickens, Garza, and Borden Counties. In New Mexico, a prominent escarpment exists along the northernmost extension of the Llano Estacado, especially to the south of San Jon and Tucumcari, both in Quay County, New Mexico. Along the western edge of the Llano Estacado, the portion of the escarpment that stretches from Caprock to Maljamar, New Mexico is called the Mescalero Ridge.

Kayenta Formation Cenozoic Sandstone of SW United States

Kayenta, Arizona is a settlement in the Navajo reservation.

Geography of Texas

The geography of Texas is diverse and large. Occupying about 7% of the total water and land area of the U.S., it is the second largest state after Alaska, and is the southernmost part of the Great Plains, which end in the south against the folded Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico. Texas is in the South Central United States of America, and is considered to form part of the U.S. South and also part of the U.S. Southwest.

The Dockum is a Late Triassic geologic group found primarily on the Llano Estacado of western Texas and eastern New Mexico with minor exposures in southwestern Kansas, eastern Colorado, and Oklahoma panhandle. The Dockum reaches a maximum thickness of slightly over 650 m but is usually much thinner. The Dockum rests on an unconformity over the Anisian aged Anton Chico Formation. The Dockum and Chinle Formation were deposited roughly at the same time and share many of the same vertebrates and plant fossils. They appear to have very similar paleoenviroments. The two units are approximately separated by the Rio Grande in central New Mexico. The Chinle and Dockum are thought by some to be two separate units, deposited in separate depositional basins.

Tierra Blanca Creek river in the United States of America

Tierra Blanca Creek is an ephemeral stream about 75 mi (121 km) long, heading in Curry County, New Mexico, flowing east-northeast across northern portions of the Llano Estacado to join Palo Duro Creek to form the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River southeast of Amarillo, Texas. Overall, Tierra Blanca Creek descends 1,050 ft (320 m) from its headwaters in Eastern New Mexico to its confluence with Palo Duro Creek at the head of Palo Duro Canyon.

Moenave Formation

The Moenave Formation is a Mesozoic geologic formation, in the Glen Canyon Group. It is found in Utah and Arizona.

Shinarump Conglomerate

The early Late Triassic conglomerate called the Shinarump Conglomerate, formally the Shinarump Member of the Chinle Formation, is a highly resistant coarse-grained sandstone and pebble conglomerate, sometimes forming a caprock because of its hardness, cementation, and erosion resistance. The Shinarump is found throughout the Colorado Plateau with significant exposures as the canyon rimrock in the vicinity of Canyon De Chelly National Monument, at the north-northeast of the Defiance Plateau/Defiance Uplift. At Canyon De Chelly the Shinarump Conglomerate was laid down upon De Chelly Sandstone-(280 Ma, an erosion unconformity of 50 my), in a region at the west foothill region of the mostly north-south trending Chuska Mountains of northeast Arizona – northwest New Mexico.

Palo Duro Canyon paintings of OKeeffe Wikimedia list article

Georgia O'Keeffe made a set of paintings of Palo Duro Canyon while working as a department head and art instructor at West Texas State Normal College. The vibrant paintings reflect her development as an Abstract Expressionist, influenced by Arthur Wesley Dow.

The geology of Utah includes rocks formed at the edge of the proto-North American continent during the Precambrian. A shallow marine sedimentary environment covered the region for much of the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, followed by dryland conditions, volcanism and the formation of the basin and range terrain in the Cenozoic. Utah is a state in the western United States.


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  2. "Palo Duro Canyon State Park". Retrieved 29 September 2018.
  3. "Logan G. Carver, "Palo Duro Canyon quick getaway from Lubbock"". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal . Retrieved June 21, 2009.
  4. Spearing, Darwin. Roadside Geology of Texas. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 1991. ISBN   0-87842-265-X p. 381
  5. Spearing, pp. 377, 383
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Guidebook of Palo Duro Canyon. West Texas State University: West Texas State University Geological Society. 1980.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Matthews, William (1969). The Geologic Story of Palo Duro Canyon, Guide Book 8. Austin: Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin. pp. 17–28, 35–38.
  8. Spearing, 384-5
  9. Spearing, pp. 384-5
  10. Darton, N.H. 1898. Preliminary report on the geology and water resources of Nebraska west of the one hundred and third meridian. In: Walcott, C.D. (ed), Nineteenth Annual Report of the United States Geological Survey, 1897-1898, Part IV, pp. 719-785.
  11. Rex C. Buchanan, B. Brownie Wilson, Robert R. Buddemeier, and James J. Butler, Jr. "The High Plains Aquifer". Kansas Geological Survey, Public Information Circular (PIC) 18.
  12. Spearing, pp. 355-6, 385
  13. Gould, Charles (2003). Covered Wagon Geologist. Textbook Publishers. ISBN   9780758117069.
  14. , Steely, James Wright. Parks for Texas: Enduring Landscapes of the New Deal. Austin: U of Texas, 1999. Print.
  15. "National Natural Landmarks - National Natural Landmarks (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2019-03-30. Year designated: 1976
  16. Brandimarte, Cynthia; Reed, Angela (2013). Texas State Parks and the CCC: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps. College Station: Texas A&M University Press. pp. 35, 148–149. ISBN   9781623492960.
  17. Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit, Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas
  18. Michael Abatemarco (April 29, 2016). "Birth of the abstract: Georgia O'Keeffe in Amarillo". Santa Fe New Mexican. Retrieved January 18, 2017.
  19. Kathryn Jones (November 2013). "Georgia O'Keeffe: Canyon and Sky". Texas Highways magazine. Retrieved January 17, 2017.
  20. The Texas Observer; Austin, Texas; July 13, 2015. Reinventing Texas, by Robyn Ross. Retrieved September 24, 2015.
  21. Jones, Samuel. Notes to Symphony No. 3 ("Palo Duro Canyon"). Retrieved September 25, 2015.
  22. Schwarz, Gerard (conductor); Seattle Symphony. Jones: Symphony No. 3 "Palo Duro Canyon," Concerto for Tuba and Orchestra. Naxos 8.559378, 2009.
  23. Dan Morgan. "Walter Piston, Samuel Jones, Stephen Albert American Symphonies – BIS2118 [DM] Classical Music Reviews: June 2018 –". Music Web International.