Hidden away deep within the vast panhandle plains is a wonderful Texas treasure, Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Driving down the road to the park, one sees miles and miles of prairie and farmlands. Suddenly a hint of what is to come shows up as we pass a small gully with lovely outcrops, just before the park entrance. Once inside, the magic begins! Breathtakingly beautiful, the Palo Duro Canyon is a colorful fantasy land of rock and wildlife stretching beyond where the eye can see!
Second in size to the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro reaches 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and 800 feet deep. Its story begins, like all other canyons, with uplift and erosion by water. During the Laramide Orogeny (no, check the glossary link - it doesn't mean that!) 35 to 80 million years ago, Texas and the Rockies Mountains rose to new heights. After the Pleistocene ice age ending only several thousand years ago, the humble Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River (grander in the past) cut the canyon down to what we see today.
The technicolor rocks seen in the walls of the canyon encompass a vast amount of time. From the bottom up, we see the Quartermaster Formation (Permian 250 million years ago), the Tecovas and Trujillo Formations (Triassic 225 million years ago) and the Ogallala Formation (Miocene-Pliocene 4-10 million years ago). One notes the missing time before the Ogallala, over 200 million years. Why there are no rocks for most of the Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods, no one is certain. It may be they were eroded or perhaps never deposited in this area to any extent.
The photos shows a view downstream of the canyon and the stratigraphic section. The basal red rocks are the Quartermaster: beautiful alternating beds of red sandstone and evaporites, mostly white gypsum. One can see ripples formed in the shallow marine environment. The beautiful red and white striped and rippled rocks probably inspired the name these rocks are known by: "Spanish skirts." Above these are the variegated Triassic formations. Beautiful yellow, purple, gray, tan and other colors provide a lovely contrast to the rocks above and below. The lower multi-hued rock layer is the Tecova Shale subsequently capped by the Trujillo Sandstone forming a light-colored ledge. For the dino buffs, this marks the beginning of the age of the dinosaurs. Palo Duro, at this time, was a swamp land filled with phytosaurs, amphibians and fish. Lastly, the Ogallala crowns the canyon. Rocky Mountain sediments form this beautiful formation mainly composed of siltstones and conglomerates, topped by a caliche ledge with beautiful opal cementation. Fossils in these rocks include animals similar to those you've heard of at the famous La Brea tar pits: mastodons, horses, saber-tooth cats, rhinos, etc. The Pliocene and Triassic fossils can be seen in a nice exhibit at the visitors' center.
There's more than just rocks to see at Palo Duro Canyon. Wildlife are abundant and very brave around campers. Beautiful birds pose for your camera. Life is peaceful camping down in the canyon away from a bustling busy world. In nearby Canyon, there's a great museum: Panhandle Plains Historical Museum. If you have a chance, I highly recommend a visit to this geologic fantasy land.
Next: Hoodoos and Satin Spar - geologic niceties in Palo Duro Canyon