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State Gem: Palo Duro Canyon


Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon

Its summertime and time to travel, get some time out of the office and into the great outdoors. Many Texans are familiar with the Palo Duro Canyon in the panhandle of Texas, especially if you grew up in the Panhandle or in West Texas. For those on the Gulf Coast, an effort is needed to travel the 100’s to 1000’s mile to visit the Palo Duro Canyon. You won’t regret the trip!!


The canyon has been in the panhandle for millions of years, man for 1000’s of years and the park for shy of 100 years at 89 years as a state park having officially started in 1934. And for me, just a week ago we traveled to the visit the Grand(est) Canyon of Texas for the 3rd time.


The canyon is rich in history where human evidence has been recovered recording their existence as long ago as 15,000 years ago. Much of these human artifacts are kept in museums with many artifacts housed at the West Texas A&M campus in Canyon City. The Canyon Museum is rich in exhibits that illustrate the development of the area, artifacts, art, paleontology, geology, firearms, furniture, petroleum artifacts, sports, textile, livery, saloon, schools, cabins and many other historical exhibits from the life in the panhandle. The museum has a topic of interest for everyone.


Of interest, Georgia O’Keefe resided in the area for 1916-18 years while she was the Art department head and instructor at WTS College.


Native Americans came into the area for the grass on plateau, water in the canyon floor and the buffalo that ranged on the grassland.


The first tribe to inhabit the area were the Apaches in the 1400’s, followed by Coronado and his expedition in 1541, and then Comanche dominated the area expertly adapting horseman skills on the horses introduced by the Spaniards. The Kiawah Indians settled in the panhandle in the 1800’s and by 1874 Coronel Mackenzie was sent to displace the Indians to Oklahoma. A historical plaque on state park road 5 commemorates the battle between US Army, the Indians and the losses. The canyon is a very solemn place of history.


There is more panhandle history from the early farmers and ranchers to the area, but this story best comes alive in the State Park outdoor musical Texas. The Texas musical would rival Roger and Hammerstein and the finale’ showcased with Bellagio-like water fountains. The play is in its 57th year which is remarkable for an outdoor play that is only performed in the summer when the heat can be scorching; 110° on our visit!


But dear readers, the author came for the Geology, glorious outcrops and fine scale depositional structures. The Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in North America to the Grand Canyon measuring 120 miles x 20 miles x 820 ft at maximum depth. The canyon was formed by a fork of the Red River and the Grand Quartermaster Sediments that erode in the canyon is a source to the river’s famous red color.


Figure 1 shows a simplified, stylized cross-section of Palo Duro Canyon, major formation and the ages.

Figure 1 - Strat Column
Figure 1 - Strat Column

Starting at the base of the canyon is the Quartermaster Formation of upper Permian age composed of siltstone with gypsum thin beds deposited as evaporates from tidal flats. One of the more famous rock formations in the Quartermaster section is the Spanish Skirt, figure 2, and one can imagine a magnificent full shirt of a Spanish dancer. Within the Quartermaster detailed ripple marks can be found all around the park, figure 3, and indicate that the sediments were deposited in shallow water and ripples were formed by wave action.


Figure 2 - Spanish Skirt
Figure 2 - Spanish Skirt
Figure 3 - Ripple Marks
Figure 3 - Ripple Marks

Tecova shale formation overlies the Quartermaster of Upper Triassic age and contains fossils, petrified wood, and calcite concretions such as one that was found on the many hiking trails in the park, figure 4.

Figure 4
Figure 4

The Trujillo formation is of Triassic age and massive sandstone with beautiful cross-bedded fluvial deposits, figure 5. The Trujillo tops many of the hoodoos in the park area due to the resistive beds, figure 6, as well as litters the canyon slopes and floors as the underlying Tecova shale erodes.

Figure 5 - Cross Beds
Figure 5 - Cross Beds

Figure 6 - Hoodoo
Figure 6 - Hoodoo

The colors of the shale and siltstone of the upper Tecova give a show of high contrast sediments and illustrate a natural artful way on which the Trujillo sandstone rocks balance! Figure 7

Figure 7
Figure 7

One of the most spectacular outcrops is on the park road as you descend into the canyon, figure 8 where the massive sandstone cuts, scours into the underlying shale.

Figure 8
Figure 8

Then Ogallala formation caps the Trujillo, figure 9, is late Miocene early Pliocene sandstone, silt, conglomerate- great reservoir rock!! The Ogallala is a mighty reservoir of water. The formation stretches throughout 8 states. This link will show the extensive map of the reservoir and other interesting facts about this aquifer. Ogallala Aquifer - Wikipedia

Figure 9 - Ogalalla
Figure 9 - Ogalalla

When we add all these geological formations together, they make the magnificent vistas of the Palo Duro Canyon, figure 10

Figure 10 - Panorama
Figure 10 - Panorama

The state park offers plenty of recreation: hiking, biking, theater, zip lines, horseback riding, large modern pavilion, wildlife. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the geology up close on foot, vistas by bicycle and enjoyed the dear, rabbits and turkey that wandered through the campsite. Mind the heat, drink lots of water and plenty of bug spray. It is the great outdoors after all!


I invite the readers to travel to the Palo Duro Canyon or route a northwest trip through the area. There is wonderful geology and rich history to be found on the plains of Texas.


Reference: Mitchell, Stephen, January 5. 2021. Llano Estacado in New Mexico and Texas vs. YEC and Flood Geology. Age of the Earth, Geology and the Flood. Llano Estacado in New Mexico and Texas Vs. YEC and Flood Geology - jesusinhistoryandscience

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