Night has dropped a curtain over the craggy landscape, but just before sunrise, a sliver of golden light knifes across the eastern horizon. As moments pass, the light grows. Yellow gives way to orange, to impossible purples and reds, eventually throwing off enough light that Palo Duro Canyon begins to reveal its cliffs and chasms.
We turn to the west and see that side of the canyon glowing pink as the scrub bushes appear gold when sunlight hits them. Now we understand why Georgia O’Keeffe spent time here in the early 1900s. This magical display is different from a beach sunrise. It’s an intense palette against the deep blue sky provided by the dry air of the Texas Panhandle.
This rugged land offers a great option for those of you looking for a different sort of spring break, one starring the outdoor wonders of the 29,182-acre Palo Duro Canyon State Park, paired with the history of Amarillo, about 30 minutes north. Because it’s primarily a trip to enjoy the outdoors and history, it’s probably best for adult friends or for families with older children.
You can explore the canyon on foot, on a mountain bike, on horseback (bring your own or join a group ride with an on-site stable) or in your car. There are plenty of roads, and you can get out and hike a little if you’re not up to a long expedition. Hiking trails range from easy to difficult, and they’re all mapped and explained on the park’s website. Look for the biggest hoodoo (tall, rocky column), the 310-foot-tall Lighthouse, and, in another part of the park, find a replica of the dugout house of Charles Goodnight, who established a cattle ranch here after the Comanches and other Indians were driven out.
For the best experience, stay inside the park. There are seven cabins, three on the canyon rim and four on the canyon floor. The three on the rim, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, include small bathrooms (sink and toilet) as well as microwaves and coffee pots and range from $110 to $125 a night. The four on the canyon floor are more rudimentary, with a bathroom nearby. All cabins have heat and air conditioning.
Or stay at one of more than 100 campsites in the park with water and electric hookups, in addition to primitive campsites. These vary from $12 to $26 nightly, with group sites available as well. Anywhere you stay in the park, you’ll find a big, bright sky full of stars at night and gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. If you’re not staying in the park, know that the park’s hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and with daylight savings time kicking in March 12, the week of spring break for most of Texas, you won’t be able to get into the park for sunrise if you’re not staying there.
It’s raining? Hole up in the Panhandle Plains Museum on the campus of West Texas A&M University in Canyon. It’s the largest museum in Texas, and its collection spans every era of Panhandle history: dinosaur skeletons, Comanche artifacts, petroleum drilling, cotton bales, guns, wagons and even O’Keeffe paintings inspired by the rugged landscape and deep colors of the sky.
While you’re in the Amarillo area, be sure to visit the old Route 66 district. Sixth Avenue, which follows the old route, is filled with antiques stores, galleries and funky eateries such as the Golden Light Café, where the locals are happy to chat about local gossip while you devour a first-class cheeseburger.
Everyone in the family will love the Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum, a collection of vintage travel vehicles amassed by Sisemore and his son over about three decades. Appended to an RV dealership, the museum’s free to explore. Included are a 1946 TearDrop made with World War II surplus aluminum and the 1948 Flxible Bus that Robin Williams drove in the movie “RV” in 2006 — and you can walk inside that one. All the RVs are accessorized to look like they’re in use, so those of us of a certain age get to take a trip down memory lane.
Anyone in your family love horses? You’ll want to go by the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum, put together by the American Quarter Horse Association, whose headquarters sits next door. You’ll learn about everything from horse breeding to how each part of a horse works (legs, lungs, you name it). Exhibits include fun interactive stations and photo ops, along with shoes, saddles and tack. The Hall of Fame is devoted to famous horses and their owners.
If you’re not staying out at Palo Duro Canyon, your best bet in downtown Amarillo is the Marriott Courtyard, because it’s crafted from the 1927 Fisk Building, a red brick edifice with blue statues at the top. It started out as an office building for doctors and dentists. Start there and explore the architecture of Amarillo, which was the largest cattle-shipping point in the country around 1900 and went on a building spree early in that century.
Happily, many of the historic structures still stand, and although the kids might yawn (park them at Eddie Napoli’s for some first-rate pizza), adults will love walking around downtown to ooh and ahh at the architectural wonders, including the 14-story terra cotta Santa Fe Railroad Building, built between 1928 and 1930 at 900 S. Polk St., which combines Gothic and art moderne ornamentation, and the 1932 S. H. Kress and Company store at 702 Polk St., melding art deco and Southwestern design — a combo known as Pueblo Deco. It’s a furniture store now. And don’t miss the graceful limestone Federal Building at 620 S. Taylor St.
You can eat well in Amarillo. The aforementioned Napoli’s will please pasta lovers, and its garlic rolls are addictive. Eat inside or in the backyard patio, which features live music. For upscale dining, try OHMS Café & Bar. It made the news recently when Commissioner of Agriculture Sid Miller didn’t enjoy his steak, but most of us do. Also delicious: the elk tenderloin, smoked duck breast and sesame crusted oyster appetizer. If you’re looking for relaxed wining and dining after a long hike in the park, this is the place.
IF YOU GO
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, 11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/palo-duro-canyon; $5 per adult (13 and up) daily fee
Panhandle Plains Museum, 2503 Fourth Ave., Canyon, panhandleplains.org; $10 adult, $9 senior, $5 children 4 to 12
Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum, 4341 Canyon Expressway, Amarillo, sisemoretraveland.com
American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum, 2601 Interstate 40 East, aqha.com/museum; $7 adult, $6 seniors, $3 youth 6 to 18
Marriott Courtyard, 724 S. Polk St., marriott.com/hotels/travel/amadt-courtyard-amarillo-downtown; Spring Break Texas Week (week of March 13) rooms start at $129 a night.
Golden Light Café, 2908 Sixth Ave.
Eddie Napoli’s, 700 S. Taylor St., Amarillo; napolisofamarillo.com
O.H.M.S. Café & Bar, 619 S. Tyler St., Amarillo; ohmscafe.com