The canyon was formed by the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River which initially winds along the level surface of the Llano Estacado of West Texas then suddenly and dramatically runs off the Caprock Escarpment. Water erosion over the millennia has shaped the canyon's geological formations.
Notable canyon formations include caves and hoodoos. One of the best known and the major signature feature of the canyon is the Lighthouse Peak. A multi-use six-mile round trip loop trail is dedicated to the formation. The middle portion of the trail can be hot with little shade, and hikers should take plenty of water.
The painter Georgia O'Keeffe who lived in nearby Amarillo and Canyon early in the 20th century, wrote of the Palo Duro: "It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color."
The first evidence of human habitation of the canyon dates back approximately 10,000–15,000 years, and it is believed to have been continuously inhabited to the present day. Native Americans were attracted to the water of the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River, as well as the consequent ample game, edible plants, and protection from weather that the canyon provided.
The first European explorers to discover the canyon were members of the Coronado expedition, who visited the canyon in 1541. Apache Indians lived in Palo Duro at the time, but they were later displaced by Comanche and Kiowa tribes, who had the advantage of owning horses brought over by the Spanish. They had contact with traders in nearby New Mexico, called Comancheros.
A United States military team under Captain Randolph B. Marcy mapped the canyon in 1852 during their search for the headwaters of the Red River. The land remained under American Indian control until a military expedition led by Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie was sent in 1874 to remove the Indians to reservations in Oklahoma. The Mackenzie expedition captured about 1,200 of the Indians' horses and destroyed them in nearby Tule Canyon. Demoralized and denied their main weapon and source of livelihood, the Comanche and Kiowa conceded and left the area.
Soon after, in 1876, Charles Goodnight established the JA Ranch in Palo Duro Canyon. Over the next half century, the canyon remained in private hands, but was an increasingly popular tourist spot for local residents. In 1934, the upper section of the canyon was purchased by the State of Texas and turned into the 20,000 acres (8,100 ha) Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Amarillo is the largest city near Palo Duro Canyon State Park, but the smaller city of Canyon is nearer.
In the Frontiersman Camping Fellowship of Royal Rangers, the West Texas District is known as the Palo Duro Chapter because of the importance of the canyon in the history of the region.
Palo Duro Canyon itself was downcut by the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River, a tributary of the Red River, during the Pleistocene, when the whole region was uplifted. Most of the strata visible in the Canyon were deposited during the Permian and Triassic periods. From oldest to youngest, the formations are as follows:
- Quartermaster Formation: Permian in age, this comprises the red, lower slopes of the Canyon. This layer was deposited in a shallow marine environment that alternated with dry tidal flats, indicated by ripple marks and gypsum evaporite deposits, respectively.
- Tecovas Formation: Part of the Dockum Group with the Trujillo Formation, this multicolored Triassic unit consists of shale, siltstone, and sandstone. Deposited in streams and swamps, its colors indicate varying oxidizing conditions, and the alternating dry / wet cycles typical of such environments. These rocks are fossiliferous, containing the remains of phytosaurs, amphibians, and fish.
- Trujillo Formation: This Triassic formation is harder than the underlying Tecovas, and forms many of the Canyon's ledges. Composed of coarse sandstone, river cross-bedding indicates deposition in a stream environment. Fossils are rare.
- Ogallala Formation: This late Miocene to early Pliocene unit forms the cliffs and ledges at the very top of the Canyon. Composed of sandstone, siltstone, and conglomerate eroded from a late Cenozoic uplift of the Rocky Mountains, it is separated from the lower Trujillo Formation by a disconformity, and a very long hiatus. Fossils of saber-toothed cats (Smilodon), bone-crushing dogs (Borophagines), mastodons, horses, long-necked camels (Aepycamelus), rhinoceroses, and tortoises are present in the Ogallala.
The musical "Texas"
During the summer tourist season, the Paul Green historical musical drama Texas is presented in the Pioneer Amphitheater of Palo Duro Canyon. The 2009 season runs from June 5 to August 15. Texas is the official state play. It depicts the life of the pioneers of the Texas Panhandle during the latter 19th century. There are special effects, music and dance against the canyon walls. A barbecue dinner is served before the show, which has been performed annually since 1966.
- Battle of Palo Duro Canyon
- Yellow House Canyon
- Yellow House Draw
- Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway
- Llano Estacado
- Blanco Canyon
- Ogallala Aquifer
- West Texas
- Palo Duro Canyon State Park official website
- Texas Parks and Wildlife: Palo Duro Canyon
- Read Exploration of the Red River, by Randolph Marcy, 1852, hosted by the Portal to Texas History.
- Handbook of Texas Online: Palo Duro Canyon
- Permo-Triassic Redbeds
- U.S. Geological Survey Geographical Names Information System: Palo Duro State Park