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.