Courtesy of Palo Duro Canyon State Park
The Lighthouse rock formation at Palo Duro Canyon.
Courtesy of the National Archives
More than 5,000 men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, many of them World War I veterans, built Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It opened in 1934.
More than 5,000 men in the Civilian Conservation Corps, many of them World War I veterans, built Palo Duro Canyon State Park. It opened in 1934. Courtesy of the National Archives
Courtesy of the National Archives
Civilian Conservation Corps workers build the El Coronado Lodge overlooking the canyon. It is now the park's visitors center.
Civilian Conservation Corps workers build the El Coronado Lodge overlooking the canyon. It is now the park's visitors center. Courtesy of the National Archives
Fortress Cliffs Ranch
In a glossy brochure, a brokerage firm pitched development of land that would have threatened the views from Palo Duro Canyon. Click to see the brochure.
Gravy, one of two Texas longhorns who call Palo Duro Canyon State Park home.
Gravy, one of two Texas longhorns who call Palo Duro Canyon State Park home. Wade Goodwyn/NPR
Texas may be the second largest state in America, but one thing Texas is not big on is parks. The Lone Star state is more than 268,000 square miles, but setting aside open space for public use has always been an afterthought. Ninety-five percent of the land in Texas is privately owned.
State parks that do exist are increasingly threatened by encroaching residential development as the state's population booms to 25 million.
But there has been an effort to save a jewel of the Texas Panhandle, a place called Palo Duro Canyon.
A Suburb At The Park?
When it comes to geography, West Texas doesn't exactly have the greatest reputation.
From Mack Davis' song about how happiness is Lubbock in his rearview mirror to Larry McMurtry's haunting novel The Last Picture Show, the flat, treeless, endless landscape inspires feelings of windswept loneliness. There's just so much of it and so little of you.
And that's why, when you get to the edge of this monotony and look out over Palo Duro Canyon State Park — with its fork of the Red River meandering gently through the grass along the wide canyon floor — you almost sob with relief.
Palo Duro is 120 miles long and 8 miles wide. It lays claim as the second largest canyon in the country after the Grand Canyon. The canyon and river sustain a habitat that would have little chance on the open plains.
Big horn sheep, mule and white tail deer, coyotes, bobcats and even a mountain lion recently took up residence. But it's the big birds that put on the real show.
"The real spectacular presence is the raptors," says Randy Ferris, who is in charge of Palo Duro Canyon.
But what if instead of juniper and mesquite trees along the of canyon rim, there were hundreds of luxury homes with swimming pools, BMWs, gas grills, wrought iron fences and a championship golf course?
For the last 20 years, development south of Amarillo, Texas, has slowly been pushing toward the park.
Last year, the owner of one large ranch that abuts the canyon decided to sell his 3,000 acres to developers. Six miles of canyon rim overlooking the heart of Palo Duro Canyon would have been transformed into a high-end suburb. The park's charm — its feeling of exquisite isolation — would have been lost forever.
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department sent out an alarm that was picked up by a San Francisco group called The Trust For Public Land.
"You really have to go to the canyon to appreciate it and appreciate those views and understand why this particular viewshed it was so important to the preservation of the park," says Nan McRaven, who heads the group. McRaven helped build a public/private coalition that raised $5.2 million to buy the ranch.
Last month, the deed to the property was transfered to the park.
But most visitors have no idea about any of this.
Stay-at-home mom Adrienne Gautier, who is visiting from Norman, Okla. — about 300 miles away — says she and her family were astounded by the canyon.
"I love it," Gautier says. "I had no idea that something like this was this close to Norman. I was just expecting it to be flat and prairie land, but this is just a gem."
Visitors have shared Gautier's sentiments for 12,000 years. The Indians' ancestors hunted mammoth between these walls. The Apache tribe lived here, then the Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa.
The Indians were ambushed by the 4th Cavalry in 1874 and quickly moved to reservations in Oklahoma. Within 10 years, the Palo Duro was developed into one of the largest ranches in the country, with more than 100,000 head of cattle and buffalo. It's the story of the Wild West in all its glory.
Although a musical performed at the park's natural amphitheater does not detail the land's bloody past, a film at the visitors' center does a more thorough job. But however history is told, the end of the story is that a small slice of the open West has been rescued for future generations.