Just a minute ago I was sailing down a Panhandle highway, level as a tabletop. Then I dropped off the face of the High Plains into the heart of a wild place called Caprock Canyons. It’s the rough-and-tumble centerpiece of a 15,000-acre state park, 100 miles southeast of Amarillo.
If you hanker to break away from the herd, you ought to see it in the quiet of an early morning when shades of red and yellow streak canyon walls like melted sunshine and you can hear the haunting bellow of bison bulls grazing in the grass.
Off the Beaten Path
Hidden in the midst of sprawling ranches, Caprock Canyons doesn’t lure as many visitors as its famous neighbor, Palo Duro Canyon (93 miles northwest). That’s the way C.L. Hawkins, caretaker for the official Texas bison herd, likes it. It means you can still find quiet times to catch a vision of the land not greatly changed from the way it was when millions of bison roamed the High Plains and wintered in hidden canyons.
When you look at these mighty creatures in the state herd, you’re seeing the direct descendants of wild bison once “as numerous as grains on the seashore,” according to one traveler’s report.
You can see the bison from viewing platforms and through telescopes at an overlook near the new visitors center, but C.L. keeps them separated from people for safety. “You don’t push bison,” he says. “You work them on their own terms. I still consider them wild animals.”
Hit the Trail
There are many ways to explore the scenic canyon―hiking, mountain biking, on horseback, or by car on a 5-mile loop. Even on the drive, you get a close-up look at multicolored sandstone cliffs and rugged arroyos carved by tributaries of the Red River. The long narrow Caprock Escarpment stands as high as 1,000 feet in places.
Coronado passed this way. So did roving Comanche bands and prehistoric canyon dwellers as long as 12,000 years ago. Tomas Hinojosa, owner of Quitaque Riding Stables in the nearby town of Quitaque (pronounced “kitty-quay”) follows in the footsteps of explorers when he takes riders out to sections of the 64-mile-long path, which is part of Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway.
You don’t need to be experienced to ride, but if it’s your first time you should start with an hour-long trip. Try to schedule it for early morning. “That’s when we see most of the wildlife,” Tomas points out.
Whether you explore it from the saddle or behind a steering wheel, it’s a piece of untamed Texas you won’t see anywhere else.
Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/caprock or (806) 455-1492.
Quitaque Riding Stables: (806) 269-1209 or (806) 455-1208; rides start at $35 per hour.