Caprock Canyons State Park
The landscape of the Texas Panhandle can be described in one word. Flat. Driving for miles across the high plains of the Llano Estacado, the view never really changes. Short grasses and cotton fields as far as the eye can see. You might think it would be nice to get your mind off all the sameness, but don’t be tempted to look away. At some point, this empty landscape will begin to impress on you the awesomeness of its size. It’s grand and all encompassing. If you’re like me, you’ll smile at the realization that there are still places in the world that exist without society’s heavy footprint.
We’ve made our way to the Panhandle with a destination in mind. Caprock Canyons State Park. The high plains reach their terminus here, ending in a jagged line. This ragged tear in the landscape, shaped by wind and water through an unimaginable length of time, is visible as you drive down into the canyon. The road leads you through curves and bends and up steep inclines, where one apex after another reveals new and impressive views. The urge to rush ahead seems to grip me in the writing of this story as much as it did during our visit. Let’s instead start at the beginning.
Not long after entering the park, we’re forced to slow down and bring the car to a stop. A small herd of buffalo have decided to schedule an impromptu meeting in the middle of the road. The individuals in front of us are members of the Texas State Buffalo Herd. Before arriving here, I had imagined that they would be kept in a large enclosure. I had thought it likely that we would be able to see them, though possibly from a great distance. Instead, they’re roaming free and only 50 yards away. Tim pulls over and I step out to take some pictures, making sure to allow my zoom lens to do the work of closing the distance. The park has notices posted about not getting too close.
As I stand there, completely focused on the buffalo, I notice movement all around me. Although they’re nicely camouflaged, my eyes lock onto one of the small darting fur balls. It’s a prairie dog! Scattered in the field around me are maybe a hundred holes in the ground, the residents mostly waddling around in the field or keeping a look out at the mouth of their dens. The buffalo don’t seem to concern them at all but any sudden movement on my part has them all darting toward home. I’ve seen prairie dogs in zoos but can’t remember seeing them in the wild. It’s an unexpected and entertaining surprise. While stopped, I see a speeding roadrunner cross the road, another first.
We continue on our way after a park ranger pulls up and encourages the buffalo to clear the road, though we pull to the side again a few minutes later when we come across a lookout point. I would recommend stopping at all the lookout points. The views are worth it.
We’ve decided to get out of the car at the Canyon Loop Trail and walk for a bit. I’m carrying my tripod, a somewhat heavy piece of gadgetry, and the sun refuses to conform to the expectations of a late November day. We end up only walking 3 miles, which is not nearly enough to get a sense of the place, but it’ll have to do. The rough, red rock elevations, dotted with green, set against the blue of the sky is a satisfying sight. An image worthy of a copy and save into the memory banks of your mind. To do it right, take your time!
During our walk along Canyon Loop Trail, and as we drive through the park, we’ve noticed the veins of gypsum embedded in the canyon’s red rock. The bright white mineral has a sparkle to it that has repeatedly drawn me in. Gems and minerals just seem to encapsulate the magic of this planet.
We continue on to the end of the park road, and the last scenic outlook, located at the start of the Upper Canyon Trail. It would have been nice to walk here as well, but we’re nearing the end of the day and we have one more trail we’d like to see. We make our way back toward the park entrance and the Canyon Rim Trail.
I wanted to come here because the first mile of the Canyon Rim Trail overlooks the narrow Holmes Creek Canyon. Somewhere, I’ve read a description that sounds very promising. The dusty trail starts right next to the RV park. As we set off, we pass the buffalo herd, studiously keeping our eyes on the ground rather than appearing to challenge them. The closest of them is only ten feet away. We’re well aware of the raised tail on one of the males, apparently a sign of aggravation.
We continue down the dusty track as the sun slips toward the horizon, all the while throwing a golden light across the west facing cliffs. The grey and bare limbed trees at the bottom of the gully glow in the light. There are moments in life that leave you astounded, and this is one of them. I think it’s healthy, to be reminded every so often of how small we really are, to feel helplessly caught in the grip of nature’s beauty. Maybe one day, we’ll all recognize that and do a better job of taking care of what we have.
As we leave the park behind, the sky turning pink before darkness comes, I think again about the many faces of Texas. There’s such variety in the landscape, so much to see. What a gift we’ve been given.