Amarillo, TX: Lighthouse Trail

Hike 5.75 miles through Palo Duro Canyon State Park where sandstone buttes soar above the Grand Canyon of Texas. The payoff? Front-row sights of the 300-foot-tall spire known as the Lighthouse. Tip: Go on a weekday for quiet trails.
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Hike 5.75 miles through Palo Duro Canyon State Park where sandstone buttes soar above the Grand Canyon of Texas. The payoff? Front-row sights of the 300-foot-tall spire known as the Lighthouse. Tip: Go on a weekday for quiet trails.

This 310-foot high formation, a designated National Natural Landmark, is the image of Palo Duro Canyon State Park for most people. The 5.75-mile round-trip trail, a moderately difficult hike to the Lighthouse, can experience high traffic in peak season, and hikers share it with mountain bikes and horses. Go on a week day or off season, though, and you may have the scenic trail all to yourself.

The red dirt track winds through sticky, thorny vegetation including sage brush, yucca, prickly pear, mesquite, juniper, western soapberry and cholla. This stretch heads slightly uphill and past a couple of intersections, then up a rise with nice views of Capitol Peak and Fortress Cliffs (look for interpretive signs on each here). Early in the day, you may see mule deer in this area, and all along the trail, watch for scat of coyote, cottontails, hawks and even bobcats.

After passing the interpretive signs, you'll be hiking along the face of Capitol Peak to its end and circling around behind it. In this area, the trail is quite degraded from short-cuts and rock jumping.

You soon pass an intersection with the Capitol Peak Mountain Bike Trail, then go down a wash and up the other side, around the end of the peak, and through a larger wash. A bench at the top of a small ridge, and a bit farther along, a covered bench, both offer good places from which to contemplate the complex geology of the 120-mile long, 800-foot deep canyon. Exposed over millions of years by the waters of the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, the rocks vary in color from bright red claystone to white gypsum, yellow and lavender mudstone, sandstone and limestone, some of it as much as 250 million years old.

Just past trail post 5 comes the first glimpse of the Lighthouse, still too far away to appear very impressive. Past this, you'll top a gully and have a somewhat closer view. Pass the intersection with the Givens, Spicer & Lowry running trail, then cross another dry bed. Here, another bench provides a full view of the Lighthouse. Traverse three steep gullies before reaching a picnic table and bike rack. If you're mountain biking, leave your ride here. It is a scramble up the steep butte on which the Lighthouse rests, some of it lose and slippery, to a bench with a full-on view of the formation. You can go a short distance more and climb to the base of the Lighthouse, or just spend time enjoying it here.

Return the way you came. Notice how different light angles change the cliffs and rocks, and watch for painted buntings, canyon wrens and hawks.

TO TRAHILEAD: Take I-27 south for 17.2 miles and get off at exit 106. Follow TX 217/Palo Duro Drive east for 10.5 miles to nd Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Once in the park, drive the steep, switch-back road into the canyon. Park at the trail head just past the second low-water crossing. Note: There are restrooms right after the first water crossing, but none at the trail head or on the trail.

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 9.2

Waypoints

LHT01

Location: 34.951437, -101.667817

Head west from the floor of Capitol Peak Canyon on the Lighthouse Trail. Winding to the north are the cottonwood and salt cedar lined banks of Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, which carved these canyons eons ago.

LHT02

Location: 34.952033, -101.670617

Keep left at Y-intersection

LHT03

Location: 34.95169, -101.670829

Keep right at T following signs to Lighthouse.

LHT04

Location: 34.95168, -101.672014

Get your first view of Capitol Peak's (3,158 feet) orange and brown top towering above

LHT05

Location: 34.952243, -101.673545

Get some background info from the trailside interpretive signs

LHT06

Location: 34.956007, -101.675749

Top of wash above the sandy spread of Sunday Flats.

LHT07

Location: 34.956145, -101.677403

Spot on top of a small ridge with a bench where you can take in the scenery across the juniper and yucca stands dotting Sunday Creek to Timber Mesa and Rustlers Draw.

LHT08

Location: 34.953633, -101.683181

Just past the 2,900-foot contour line, look north to Devils Tombstone (3,209 feet) shooting up above Sunday Flats.

LHT09

Location: 34.951946, -101.68615

First view of the formation

LHT10

Location: 34.950526, -101.68882

At the top of this wash, a clear view to the striped, sandstone layers of the Lighthouse emerges

LHT11

Location: 34.949356, -101.689577

Left at Y, continuing south.

LHT12

Location: 34.947318, -101.688757

Here you're right below the eastern flanks of Capitol Peak Mesa where Sunday Creek's bends (usually dry by now) have cut a steep wall, exposing bands of four distinct geologic periods spanning over 240 million years. See if you can spot the outline of fossils in the crumbling rock layers

LHT13

Location: 34.944286, -101.692115

The Lighthouse continues to dominate the view to the south

LHT14

Location: 34.940091, -101.695397

Just past another crossing of the Sunday Creek bed, find a picnic table & bike rack

LHT15

Location: 34.937254, -101.696615

From here, the Lighthouse (3,269 feet) towers over you. Just to the east is the Castle Peak. Soak up these views as an ample reward. Return to trailhead via the same route.

Along the trail

Location: 34.954548, -101.674905

Picnic table, bike rack.

Location: 34.939941, -101.695375

Info kiosk at trail head

Location: 34.951664, -101.66718

Mule deer

Location: 34.951805, -101.669154

Capitol Peak and interpretive sign

Location: 34.951594, -101.671295

Effects of trail cutting

Location: 34.952368, -101.674004

Covered bench

Location: 34.953493, -101.683488

Woodpecker

Location: 34.955709, -101.678188

First view of Lighthouse

Location: 34.951981, -101.686471

Lighthouse view.

Location: 34.944453, -101.691942

Steep scramble

Location: 34.93889, -101.695762

Lighthouse up close.

Location: 34.937391, -101.696615

Trail intersection and signage

Location: 34.949386, -101.689555