Palo Duro Canyon gets its own version of the classic Grand Canyon trek.
EACH YEAR thousands of people embark on a rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon, a national park bucket-list trek that takes hikers to the bottom of the nation’s largest canyon and back up the other side.
In 2021, Cherry Laws of Hereford was one of those adventurous people.
“I fell in love with the Grand Canyon,” she says. “A friend talked me into hiking rim-to-rim.”
Two years later, Cherry is standing at the rim of Texas’ Palo Duro Canyon, the nation’s second-largest canyon, ready to tackle a Palo Duro rim-to-rim hike. Cherry and her husband and I are among about 20 hikers who have shown up on a cool October morning to try out this Texas version of the Grand Canyon classic, a hike that will take us through the heart of Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
Longtime Palo Duro hiker Bary Nusz and his friends came up with the idea earlier in the year. They were on a hike in the canyon, and one of them mentioned Grand Canyon’s rim-to-rim hike.
“Somebody said, ‘Why does the Grand Canyon get to have all the fun?’” Bary says. “We decided we could do rim-to-rim here. We figured out the trails, and the next weekend we did it.”
The route that Bary and friends formulated starts on the northwest side of the canyon and ends on the southeast side, and takes hikers on a journey through Palo Duro’s rich and colorful history, geology and terrain.
“We didn’t think about it at the time, but the trails together take you through all the diverse terrain in the canyon,” Bary says. “You have rugged, rocky trails; you have forested areas that are nice and shady with spring-fed creeks; you have cliff areas; you’ve got some nice hoodoos you walk around. You have beautiful views the whole way. And you have a good sense of accomplishment when you’re done.”
Assistant Park Super-intendent Thomas Milone says the hike has been gaining some attention. “Rim-to-rim hikes are super-exciting,” he says. “The Grand Canyon is what my mind goes to. The trails here at Palo Duro Canyon are already amazing, but when you add them all together into this group, that’s really cool. You can say, ‘Hey, have you done the rim-to-rim at Palo Duro Canyon?’”
Not yet. Let’s go!
PALO DURO'S rim-to-rim trek covers 11 miles with 2,100 feet of elevation change (compared with the Grand Canyon’s 22 miles and 10,500 feet of elevation change). Palo Duro’s actual rim-to-rim section is 8.5 miles, and then there’s an extra 2.5 miles required to get back to the park road, making rim-to-rim-to-road 11 miles.
The route follows a series of park trails — CCC to Kiowa to Upper Comanche to Lower Comanche to Rock Garden — as it descends into the canyon and gradually exits the other side.
We start the hike at 9 a.m. near the visitors center on the CCC Trail. We mill about the parking lot, enjoying the view and trying to guess who’s here for the hike and who’s here just to check out the viewpoint. Bary and others are dropping off cars at the finish.
“Good morning, everybody,” he says after arriving. “Thanks for joining us. This rim-to-rim hike is something we came up with a few weeks ago. We hope you enjoy it.”
The CCC Trail takes us along a ridge before dropping into the canyon, and it offers some of the best views in the park.
“This is the way the Civilian Conservation Corps got into the canyon before they built the road,” Bary says, referring to the Depression-era work crew that built the park.
Before long, we cross a CCC-built bridge next to a rocky outcrop with big views of the canyon. We stop to take photos and do a little exploring.
As we look across the multicolored canyon marked with hoodoos, mesas and cliffs, Cherry’s husband, Jim Laws, says, “Cherry and I were in Glacier and Yellowstone this summer. The beauty of this canyon is just as spectacular.”
Jim mentions Cherry’s previous experience on the Grand Canyon trails. “My friends asked me why I didn’t do the rim-to-rim,” he says. “I said my knees don’t do that kind of thing.”
Our group stops at another overlook, where Darla Wright, who’s here with daughter Maddie, points out some landmarks.
“You can see the Lighthouse formation,” she says, pointing off in the distance. “That’s the park’s most popular feature.” So far away, the symbol of Palo Duro Canyon looks tiny.
At the 1-mile mark, the ridge narrows — there are drop-offs and views on both sides of the trail.
If you’ve seen the musical Texas, performed each summer at Palo Duro, you no doubt remember the flag-waving rider on horseback speeding along the top of a 600-foot cliff to start the show. If we were to take the Goodnight Peak Scenic Loop, an offshoot of this trail, we’d follow the horse’s path. Instead, we descend off the ridge through a series of switchbacks into the parking lot for the Pioneer Amphitheatre, where the show is performed.
Halfway down, Jim Laws points out some vegetation along the trail.
“Are you familiar with the state grass of Texas?” he asks. “That’s what this is — sideoats grama.”
We finish our descent into the canyon when we reach the theater’s parking lot. From here, we’ll follow the canyon floor for several miles before beginning our ascent up the other side.
WE CROSS the road and pick up the Kiowa Trail for the next part of our hike.
“Here we are on the Kiowa Trail,” Bary says as we stop at the trail sign. “We are now on Stage 2.”
The Kiowa Trail follows the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River, which flows southeastward through the canyon. “This is the river that carved all of this,” Bary says, gesturing around the canyon.
Carrie Graham expresses her appreciation for the flat, flowing parts of this riverside trail. “There are parts of the CCC Trail where I try not to look down,” she says.
Carrie discovered Palo Duro Canyon while flying from Dallas to Amarillo on a business trip.
“I was looking out of the plane’s window and saw Palo Duro Canyon and said, ‘Oh my God, what is that?’” she says. “When I landed, the first thing I did was look it up on Google Earth.”
She moved to Amarillo in 2016 and now hikes regularly in the canyon.
Along Kiowa, we encounter several hikers, bikers and runners. A woman named Olena, from Ukraine, joins our group for this part of the hike.
When we reach Kiowa’s intersection with the Upper Comanche Trail, Darla Wright marks our progress: 3 miles down, 8 more to go. Time for a break.
Even though it still feels early in the hike, we pause for a bathroom break and lunch at the Hackberry Campground amphitheater. We snack on sandwiches, apples, cheese, nuts and dried fruit. “I have peanut M&Ms,” Darla says. “The most important food group.”
I grab a few. Why not? It’s all uphill from here.
Upper Comanche Trail
THE UPPER Comanche Trail climbs out of the Hackberry Campground and crosses below Sorenson Peak, a prominent landmark in the park.
“Upper Comanche is one of my favorite trails,” Carrie says.
Maddie Wright adds: “I like this part of the hike with the colorful rock layers.”
Tens of millions of years of erosion have exposed bright, banded layers of dirt and rock — orange, red, brown, yellow, gray, maroon and white.
After passing Sorenson Peak, we pause for a group photo next to a couple of giant boulders. Some of our group decides to exit here — they left a car nearby and intended to do only a portion of the hike.
Lower Comanche Trail
WE TRANSITION from Upper Comanche Trail to Lower Comanche and start heading uphill to the base of Fortress Cliff. Our group spreads out as faster hikers zoom ahead. One memorable part of the trail takes us between two large hoodoos, those picturesque towers of rock found throughout the park, most of them with a hard rock cap on the top.
After another uphill section, Bary and I come across one of our hikers resting on a rock, looking weary.
“I’m going to bail,” she says. “I thought I could make it farther, but I think my electrolytes are off.”
We wish her well and continue on. Palo Duro’s rim-to-rim contains several opt-out spots, enabling hikers to split it up into sections if they don’t want to do it all in one day.
“That’s the beauty of this route,” Darla says. “You can break it up.”
Along the base of Fortress Cliff, the rim looks tantalizingly close. It’s just right there, but we don’t have a way to reach the top yet. We’ve got to continue on.
After a few more turns in the trail, we come across some large trees and a spring. It’s a nice, shady oasis, enhanced by the sound of trickling water.
“These trees are over 100 years old,” Bary says. “They don’t grow fast.”
Palo Duro is Spanish for hard wood, referring to the Rocky Mountain junipers such as these that can be found in the canyon.
I’ve been seeing some big boulders ahead, and I’m guessing that means we’re approaching the intersection with the Rock Garden Trail, which will take us up an ancient landslide.
Rock Garden Trail
“FINAL TRAIL!” Darla says as we reach the trail intersection. We’re at mile 7 for the day. It’s 1.5 miles to the rim.
Bary points to the trail map and reiterates that this is indeed the last leg of the route.
“It’s also the hardest leg,” adds his wife, Aimee.
This next section contains the steepest uphill portions of the hike.
Carrie says she anticipated this being a decision point for her. Depending on how she was feeling, she was either going to go to the top and complete the rim-to-rim or head out to the road.
“I’m feeling good,” she says. “I’m going up!”
I ask 75-year-old Jenny Devoe how she’s holding up and what her motivation is for being out here.
“I wanted the challenge of doing 11 miles,” she says. “I haven’t walked that far in a while. My goal is to end the year stronger than I started, so I’m up for stuff like this.”
All of us are excited for the top, so we get going, accepting the uphills as part of the challenge that we signed up for.
Darla informs us when we’re half a mile away from the finish.
“Let’s do this!” says Aimee as we hike up the final switchbacks.
We power up the trail and, a few hundred steps later, reach the rim of the canyon, greeted by the hikers in our group who finished before us.
“We did it!” says Maddie as she gives me a high-five. “We hiked rim-to-rim!”
We just finished the Texas version of the Grand Canyon’s iconic rim-to-rim hike, and it feels pretty good.
We note the time — 2 p.m. — and take a group photo, and Bary and Aimee pull out some T-shirts they made for the occasion.
Since the ending location doesn’t feel like a big finish — it’s at the top of a side canyon — we decide to hike a little farther to a scenic overlook, a spot that feels more like a rim.
We drink our waters and Gatorades, and Darla passes out more peanut M&Ms.
I seek out Owen Salisbury, a young local hiker with whom I haven’t talked much on the hike.
“I hike out here all the time,” he says. “The rim-to-rim hike is quite a cool thing. I’ve never done a route quite like it. On this hike, you get to see the whole canyon — you get to see everything.”
After resting and enjoying the views, we head down the Rock Garden Trail to the cars that Bary and others left for us.
The car ride feels like a treat after hiking all day. We’re all a little tired and sore. As we drive, I’m struck by how much ground we covered. We traversed much of the length of this 28,000-acre park, plus the width and depth of the canyon.
Aimee notes her tiredness, too, as we approach our cars parked at the beginning of the hike.
“I’m glad you didn’t create the rim-to-rim-to-rim hike,” she tells Bary.
Well, maybe next time.
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