A Christmas Break in Palo Duro Canyon
How we celebrated Campsmas 2020
In Mission: Wanderlust, I write and podcast about our family’s travel adventures and the things that we have learned along the way.
For three of the six years that we lived in Texas, we celebrated Christmas break with a camping trip. As I go back through my old blog archives and move them to my Substack, I will be revising some of my older blog pieces that I wrote about these travels. Please enjoy my reflections on two days in Palo Duro Canyon. The original post can be found here at Accepting the Unexpected Journey.
When we stopped at Palo Duro Canyon on our way to Colorado during the summer of 2020, I expected to fall in love with the second-largest canyon in the United States. I didn’t expect to be so enamored that I would insist on making it our Christmas vacation trip six months later.
We were still in the middle of a global pandemic with recommendations to avoid travel to visit people, but I couldn’t think of a more isolated place for us to visit than Palo Duro, in the middle of the desert seemingly in the middle of nowhere. So while others tried to weigh the risks of traveling to visit with family, we took our family of four humans and two dogs out west where we could still safely explore and keep our distance from others.
It was a risky venture for other reasons. Winter weather in the Panhandle of Texas can be unpredictable, with balmy 60-degree temperatures one day and snow the next. We learned a great deal during our years in Texas and the weather variations across the nation’s second-largest state was certainly one of the more important lessons that we had to accept. In other words, don't just assume the entire state of Texas is warm to hot all year long. If anything, the historic deep freeze we experienced two months later was a painful reminder of that fact.
Regardless, we figured the risk was worth it if we meant we could visit the park when the temperatures weren’t deathly hot and we could explore without the potential for heat exhaustion and severe dehydration.
We were about an hour from the state park when we got a phone call from the park office asking when we would be arriving at the gates. Apparently, the person who had our reserved site the night before had broken the water line. They needed to move us to a different site. While pull-thrus are not typically our favorite kind of park site, our new pull-thru site, directly across from our previously reserved back-in, appeared to be bigger with significantly more room for our camper and truck. By the time the moon and stars rose over the canyon walls, our site was completely set up and we were ready for dinner, settling inside for the night due to a drop in temperatures and a burn ban which prevented us from having a campfire.
The next day would be for exploring.
I woke up the next morning to the sun rising over the canyon walls. I walked the dogs, Jeff and I headed to the park office to settle our site, and then I finally made breakfast.
Clearly, it was a slow start to the day. We had a late breakfast, the kids got secondary snacks, and once I had more snacks and water packed and ready to go, we headed out for the Lighthouse Trail, the most popular hike in the park. The 2.7-mile trail (one-way) takes visitors to the most famous landmark in the state park. It is also the most dangerous hike in the park, particularly for summer visitors attempting the hike along the desert canyon floor without proper hydration and necessary rest. Thankfully, we had risked a Christmas break trip to Palo Duro. The only thing we had to worry about was temperatures that were too cold, not deathly hot.
For our risk, we were rewarded with perfect hiking weather, sunshine, and 65-degree temperatures.
Initially, our kids tackled the trail with abandon, climbing up every set of rocks that appeared to beg for attention and doing their best to fulfill my one Christmas wish: completing a long hiking trail while on vacation. (I was looking to make up for the incomplete hike from our previous Christmas camping trip and had learned that if I wanted a good, long hike, our family needed to do it on the first full day of our stay.)
I had told our kids that the hike was 2.5 miles one way, underselling the actual 2.7-mile hike. About one-third of the way through the round-trip hike, our son could not stop complaining about his ankle hurting. After further discussion for clarification, we discovered that his feet had once again grown, the back of his foot rubbing uncomfortably against the heel of his now too-small hiking shoe. Jeff did some surgery on the heel of the shoe with the scissors from his multi-tool, and we were back in business with fewer complaints. (I might have made the promise that if they completed the hike with me, complaint-free, I would buy them ice cream from the park’s trading post. It was nearly a six-mile hike round-trip and I am not ashamed of the bribe. As far as I’m concerned, they earned it.)
The hike to the Lighthouse is officially 2.7 miles one way, but once you get to the end of the trail, you have to decide which path you want to take to get to the top. Our daughter had almost quit the trail, but when we announced that continuing up the trail meant more rock climbing, she jumped off of the rock she had settled on and joined us on the climb straight up to the base. The entire way up I kept thinking, how are we going to get back down? Thankfully, Jeff found the more gently sloped trail on the way down. (For future reference, the left trail at the base of the climb is the more difficult trail. For easier climbing, take the trail to the right.)
While the climb to the top is difficult, it is well worth it. The glorious views of the canyon from the space between two huge rock formations and the sense of accomplishment make the two-hour hike (the trail guide isn’t entirely exaggerating the suggested time frame) worth it. Because of the promise of ice cream when we got back to the bottom if we returned before the trading post closed, our kids booked it, finishing the return in half of the time that it took to get up to the Lighthouse.
We wrapped up the night with s’mores roasted over a propane fire pit rented for $15 for the first night (and $10 for every night afterward), the only way we would be able to enjoy an outdoor fire due to a burn ban. The skies were clear, the moon bright, and the stars lit up the night sky. It was a perfect end to an exhausting day.
While we had reserved four nights in the canyon, the unpredictable weather forecast was not looking promising. Remember, weather in the Panhandle can change at a moment’s notice, shifting from pleasantly warm to snowing in a matter of hours. The word was that our third full day in the canyon could potentially turn ugly, with rain and wind. We knew that rain in the desert didn’t necessarily mean that we would be facing a lot of moisture, but the last thing we wanted was to be stuck inside during our last real day of vacation. We made the call by mid-morning that we were going to leave a day early, take a different route home, and get home before New Year’s Eve.
That meant fitting in the rest of the things we wanted to accomplish over the next eight hours.
On our first full day in the park, our son had discovered a path across from our site, begging my husband to help him discover where the path led. With the help of the trail map and their bikes, they determined that the Kiowa Trail was perfect for both hiking and mountain biking, my husband promising that they could bike the trail the next day.
When I woke up for our second full day in the park, I followed the same path to the trail where both of our dogs stretched their morning legs. By the time I returned from my second dog walk, our son was bright-eyed and awake, ready for food and a bike ride.
He would have to wait at least two more hours before his vacationing father was ready to take him out on the trail.
Eventually, venturing out on the Kiowa Trail became a family affair. While our son enjoyed learning how to mountain bike with his dad, I enjoyed a hike and conversation with our middle school daughter, something that I know is going to become rarer over the coming years. When we met up with the two of them on their return to the campsite, my husband told me to keep going to the second bridge, which would give us a two-mile round-trip hike (the full trail is 2.8 miles round trip). What we discovered was a pretty trail that was both easy to hike and a good place for our son to safely try his hand at riding over hills, bumps, and sharp curves.
Our second trail of the day was Paseo del Rio, which took us along a small creek, through thick vegetation, and ended at the Cowboy Dugout, which is currently blocked off for preservation. Once again, my son and husband took off on their bikes, the even easier one-mile trail giving them easy riding while my daughter and I continued our conversation and she somewhat jealously considered that she was missing out on all of the biking fun (an opportunity that she missed out on because we discovered after we arrived in the canyon that her shifters were no longer working, which meant she would not be able to safely traverse the roads, let alone loosely packed mountain biking trails.)
The only trail I still wanted to do before we left the park was the CCC trail, the only trail in the park that had been fully constructed by CCC crews in the 1930s (the same crews that also helped to create the state park and built the road that gives visitors driving access into the canyon.) By this time we were all cold (we had exchanged the 60-degree weather of our first day for wind, overcast skies, and a high of 45) and the kids were beat. Our son finally agreed that he would come with me on the trail, and then my husband decided everyone was joining me. Since we had parked at a trailhead and taken the Triassic Trail to meet up with the CCC Trail (the Triassic trail is not marked by a sign on the side of the road but is marked on the trail map), we were able to cut down the difficult 1.4-mile one-way hike down to one mile. We started on the lower end of the trail, which meant climbing out of the canyon instead of down into the canyon.
About 0.3 miles from the end of the trail, Jeff took pity on our daughter and offered to go back down the trail alone to pick up the truck and meet us at the top. While we had to wait a few minutes for Jeff to finally arrive at the overlook parking lot at the top of the trail, the kids were relieved that they could finally get out of the cold and didn’t have to climb back down into the canyon. We warmed up in the visitor center/gift shop where we learned more about the indigenous cultures that had originally inhabited the canyon and the CCC crews that had helped to create a state park that we had officially fallen in love with.
We were convinced that our family was done and ready to settle in for the night, but apparently, the drive to fill up with fuel in preparation for leaving the next day had renewed our son enough that he begged for a jeep tour. There is a company just outside of the state park entrance that does jeep and horse tours, but I hadn’t heard back from them even though I had emailed them a few days before. At Jeff’s insistence, I called the number from the top of the hill, the only place I had enough cell service to do so.
Thirty minutes later we found ourselves in masks, covered in blankets, and sitting across from a masked couple from Austin and their adorable little girl in the back of a topless Humvee. Over the next hour I held on for dear life, our daughter attempted to keep herself covered in a poofy comforter, our son whooped like he was on a rollercoaster, and Jeff and I silently delighted at the look of happy terror in the eyes of the little girl sitting across from us.
It was well worth the one-hour tour in the cold. The history lessons were interesting, the insights were something we wouldn't get from a park guide, and the views were spectacular.
And then we were done. And tired. And ready to put away the few items left outside so that we could quickly pack up the next morning and head out on the road.
We knew that our short summer visit hadn’t been enough, but this time we were leaving the state park with satisfied memories imprinted on our bodies and minds.
We Head Home
When I took the dogs outside for their morning walks down the Kiowa Trail, I didn’t regret our decision to leave one day early. A mist had settled over the canyon walls, permeating everything with moisture that clung to the ground, turning the red dust below my feet into cakey mud.
Once we finally left, it was a rough drive to our overnight stop in Lake Brownwood State Park, but when we checked the weather maps after our arrival we were extra relieved we had made the early departure decision: we were being followed by a snowstorm, in Texas.
And while it was a short stop, we did enjoy the park selected by our son and the lakeside spot that I chose.
The vacation was just the reset we needed at the end of 2020 and had been everything we had hoped for, no regrets, especially when we moved back to Indiana six months later.
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So beautiful - what amazing memories, Sarah.
What a special Christmas memory.