Blue Skies Over Amarillo
Travel time from:
Austin – 7.5 hours
Dallas – 5.5 hours
El Paso – 6.75 hours
Brownsville – 11.5 hours
San Antonio – 7.5 hours
Houston – 9 hours
This surprising Panhandle city offers dramatic canyons and unpredictable weather.
By Russell A. Graves
It’s barely lunchtime, but the Blue Sky Restaurant is already bustling with patrons hungry for its locally famous burgers. Outside, busy Interstate 40 carries traffic to both ends of the country; inside, there’s a laid-back Panhandle vibe.
Steve Kersh says Blue Sky is his favorite Amarillo eatery, the one he recommends to visitors. For nearly a quarter-century, Kersh has been a recognizable face as a meteorologist for the local ABC affiliate. On the air five days a week, this weatherman’s attuned to the people and the places that define the top of Texas.
Yes, I do see the irony of eating at a place called Blue Sky with a TV meteorologist. Weather is a common topic in Amarillo, an omnipresent part of life for Panhandle people. Even as we eat, people stop by our table and ask Kersh for the day’s weather forecast.
Panhandle residents live under an enormous dome of pleasant skies most of the time, but one of the allures of the area, according to Kersh, is the unpredictable weather.
“I grew up near Waco, and down there, the weather is pretty much the same most of the year,” he says. “Being a weather fanatic and a meteorologist, the weather here has it all: We get snow, we get rain, we get storms, we get all of it.”
The area's severe weather attracts storm chasers who track tornadoes and other weather events.
Amarillo is at a meteorological crossroads that experiences unsettled weather more often than the rest of the state. The Panhandle is a battlefield for air masses that collide over the High Plains. Not far to the west, the Rocky Mountain range forces cool, dry air to flow down the plains. During the winter, big blue northers can drop temperatures drastically in just a few hours. Often these big winter storm systems dump large amounts of snow, bringing blizzard conditions across a landscape with few trees to block the advance of surface-level winds.
In early spring, when the weather patterns start to change, the winter blizzards give way to wind storms that churn up dust from the plains. In the 1930s, when prolonged drought and unwise agricultural practices denuded large swaths of cropfield soil, these dry storm systems would whip up huge walls of dust that eclipsed the sun. Those “black blizzards” were feared as a sign of the apocalypse, a harbinger of doom.
These days, improved tillage techniques have limited the severity, but dust storms still occur almost yearly, most often in February or March. As April rolls in, the weather turns a bit nastier as the cool, dry air spilling over the Rocky Mountains collides with the warm, moist air surging northward from the Gulf of Mexico. That boundary between the two is known as the dry line, a feature that often spawns deadly and destructive progeny in the form of torrential rain, lightning, hail and tornadoes.
This predictability of severe storm formation in the area creates an unconventional tourist attraction, according to Kersh.
The Big Texan Steak Ranch is famous for its 72-ounce steak challenge.
“There’s been an explosion of storm chasers in the area,” Kersh says. “It has occurred in a couple of waves. The first was in 1996, after the movie Twister came out. The second was when the Weather Channel started airing a bunch of tornado content.”
As part of his job, Kersh is often in the field monitoring storms, and he’s encountered numerous European and Asian tourists who participate in storm-chasing tours of Tornado Alley.
“Since we have the most tornadoes in this area than any other place in the world, it’s a natural draw for people who like weather phenomena,” he says. “You get out here and you realize, ‘Wow, I can see the sunrise and the sunset, and all kinds of weather.’ It’s beautiful here.”
Soon after lunch, Kersh and I are on the road to see the sights around Amarillo. Besides the Blue Sky, he recommends the famed Big Texan restaurant as a “must stop” for interstate travelers who want to experience some Texas kitsch reminiscent of Route 66 stops. (In fact, the remnants of that road run just north of the Big Texan.) While you enjoy your own tender steak, watch skinny cowboys try their best to polish off a platter-sized hunk of Panhandle beef in an hour.
Traveling parallel to Interstate 40, Route 66 snakes its way through downtown Amarillo; you can still see original buildings that lined the iconic highway. People who venture down the old road can get a taste of what travel was like prior to the interstate system’s network of roads.
Cadillac Ranch is an iconic roadside attraction featuring graffiti-covered 1950s-era Cadillacs buried nose-first in the ground west of Amarillo.
On the west side of Amarillo, Kersh and I pass the iconic Cadillac Ranch. Part sculpture and part public art piece, the spot is littered with graffiti from visitors who paint their names on the bodies of the 1950s-era Cadillacs buried nose-deep into the prairie.
“Everybody loves Cadillac Ranch,” says Kersh, as droves of people walk around the cars and take selfies. “It can be pouring down rain, but people will still be there. This place is a real attraction.”
The story of Amarillo is, in a way, the story of our nation’s love affair with the automobile. The town is far removed from any navigable water or woods or mountains, but people used to pass through headed somewhere else. Now, the Amarillo area attracts motorists and motorcyclists alike on road trips.
“In general, people downstate think that the Panhandle is just a flat expanse,” Kersh says. “That’s true to an extent, but there is a surprising amount of topography here.”
Road trippers enjoy the scenery as the land changes dramatically from flat to undulating curves.
“The Boy’s Ranch road is really pretty,” says Kersh referring to FM 1061, a quiet, two-lane road that leads from northwestern Amarillo to the Boy’s Ranch enclave. “The Canadian River breaks are a nice departure from the surrounding plains.”
Kersh and I marvel at the scenery along the road that leads up to Lake Meredith and the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument north of Amarillo. This federally protected area preserves a site where a rare type of flint was mined and traded by nomadic tribes of Native Americans for centuries.
Kersh’s heartiest recommendation for a must-see Panhandle place is the second-largest canyon in the United States.
The Canadian River country in the Texas Panhandle
“The first place I usually take anybody not from the area is Palo Duro Canyon State Park,” he says. “Most people have no idea that something that cool exists out here.”
For the uninitiated, Palo Duro Canyon is an immense canyon system 6 miles wide that stretches for 120 miles across the Panhandle just south of Amarillo.
About 28,000 acres of the canyon are dedicated to public use and are contained in Palo Duro Canyon State Park. During most of the year, the park hosts hikers, campers, sightseers and mountain bikers. Each summer, visitors from all over the world come to the canyon to see the musical drama Texas. The play follows fictional characters as they settle the plains and endure hardships. For two hours, patrons watch the story unfold under a canopy of stars and against the backdrop of a colorful canyon wall.
The unpredictabilities of weather and landscape — along with mouth-watering Texas steaks, of course — make Amarillo an alluring destination.
“When you drive up to the canyon and see it for the first time, it’s pretty breathtaking,” Kersh says. “It’s always fun to bring new people to this area so they can discover the magic for themselves.”
More Info:Blue Sky Restaurant Big Texan Steak Ranch Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument Palo Duro Canyon
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