From a Downpour to a Canyon
We stop at Lake Arrowhead and Palo Duro Canyon State Parks on our way to Colorado
In Mission: Wanderlust, I write and podcast about our family’s travel adventures and the things that we have learned along the way.
The morning we leave for a big vacation is always full of high expectations and later than planned departures. When we finally got on the road, we had about 360 miles of road to cover to reach our first destination. Within 20 minutes of travel, we were in a rainstorm that followed us off and on for seven hours. We were just over an hour from Lake Arrowhead State Park when the wind and eventually the rain picked up. A long day of driving suddenly felt even longer as Jeff fought the elements to the best of his ability to get us safely to our spot.
With relief, we finally pulled into the state park ready to park and settle in for the night. I had made reservations months ago. It would be a simple check-in.
Remember how I said you should check your reservations? About that. See, I had checked our reservations. I had printed them, I had looked them over, and I had double-checked the days, but hadn’t double-checked the dates.
We had a reservation for a week later, not the night that we arrived.
Our truck sat parked at the open park registry window and the rain kept pouring while the sympathetic rangers took note of my panic attack in the passenger seat and Jeff’s pleading eyes and found us a spot to park for the night.
From the time we had left our house in Houston to the time we prepared to park in a downpour, the temperatures had plummeted 30 degrees. I got out in the wind and rain and directed Jeff into our parking spot. By the time we both had set up camp in record time, we were soaked to the bone. For once, our slightly overheated camper felt good. After a change into dry clothes, we were ready to drive around the park to see what we were missing by being forced inside, refueled so we wouldn’t have to do that in the morning, and settled in for dinner and a relaxing night of nothing.
While we had plans for an early departure the next morning, we relaxed enough that we didn’t pull out until after 10:30. It was a shorter drive (but still not short) for us to get to Palo Duro Canyon well before dinner. (It is important to note that Texas is big enough that it typically takes us three days of travel to leave the state when we head west.) Instead of rain, we had dry desert temps climbing into the 90s. Hot, but still not quite as uncomfortable as our humid Houston home.
We had plans to visit Palo Duro on the way home from our 2019 summer vacation, but those plans got derailed by a breakdown that lasted several days in Albuquerque. Instead of our planned camping stop, we drove past the sign in the twilight as we completed our marathon drive all the way home in a single night. Seeing that sign was a final punch in the gut to an imperfect end to a nearly perfect vacation. And remember the reservation mistake from the night before? I had made the same mistake with Palo Duro, but we discovered it with enough time that Jeff was able to get on his cell phone (while at the edge of data service) and make the reservation for the following night, taking the last available spot that would fit our camper.
Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the United States, second only to the Grand Canyon. I had been eyeing pictures of the canyon formations for over a year, but even those photographs didn’t do the scope and beauty of the canyon justice.
All camping spots in the state park are down in the canyon, something I was kind of aware of but didn’t fully comprehend until Jeff was slowly breaking down the switchbacks that took us into the canyon. Our son, who had awakened that morning proclaiming that he wanted to go home because his tooth hurt, looked around and yelled, “I take it back. I don’t want to go home!”
Once on the canyon floor, we traveled on the single road through the park, finally arriving at our pull-through site in the Juniper loop. Within 20 minutes, Jeff and I had set up camp, the kids had taken care of the dogs, and we were ready to hit the camp store to get our customary magnet and see what we could during our short overnight stay in the park.
We returned to the top of the canyon, took in the visitor center overlook (but the visitor center itself was already closed), and raced to the local Walmart to get gas and replace our son’s missing toothbrush.
Then we went exploring.
One thing I have had to accept as our family travels the country is that we can’t do all the things while seeing all the things. Years ago, when Jeff and I went to DC on a work/vacation trip, I had to accept that in a single day, I couldn’t see all of the monuments and still have time to tour Ford’s Theater. When we went to Disney three years ago we had to accept that, even with a whole week at the parks, we couldn’t see and do everything. (I'm still a little bitter that no one would do the mine ride with me.) Last summer our whole family may have wanted to see what we would have on the hike to Delicate Arch, but we had to accept that we couldn’t all get up in time to do the hike before it got far too hot for all of our bodies.
And the same is true with every place we visit. There is a lot to hike, ride, and see in Palo Duro Canyon, but there was no way we were going to be able to do even a fraction of it.
So we took a single short bike ride to the foot of the Big Cave. Our family got to bike, hike, and climb, and we could do it all in an hour and still take in spectacular views. The climb up to the cave over a rocky riverbed brought back memories of our misguided hike in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, but at least this time we could see the finish line.
Once at the top, the kids didn’t want to come down, forcing us to follow them where I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I think the only disappointed member of our family was our daughter, who tweaked a muscle in her leg while running to where she could climb, then was told that she wasn’t allowed to watch the sunset from her selected perch (because we still hadn’t eaten dinner), and then fell with her bike as she was trying to wheel it down a steep incline to get back to road.
We watched the sunset while we finished dinner and ate outside. It was the first pleasant night for outdoor eating while camping in quite some time, and we were going to take advantage of it. As with so many Texas state parks, the plentiful stars twinkled in a black sky. And as a bonus? Our kids determined that Palo Duro won the "Best State Park in Texas" award. While I knew that we had a long day ahead of us (and that I was asking my husband to climb out of a canyon while towing our camper and I was asking him to do it on Father’s Day), I was thankful that we finally got to take in the canyon.
It was time to head to Colorado.
Please “like” by clicking on the ❤ and share this post with your friends so that others can join me on the journey.
On the Journey is a reader-supported publication. To never miss a post and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.