“It’s like walking through a western…” Climbing the cliff to Hayne’s Ridge Overlook Trail in Caprock Canyons State Park, Barky’s voice trailed off in something like awe. The silty South Prong of the Little Red River snakes through a mesquite and cottonwood forest pocked with clay-red to near-white shale, siltstone, and sandstone. “I always thought westerns looked fake, like obviously shot in front of a backdrop.” He theatrically spread his arms as though presenting the canyon, “But there it is!”
I chuckled, “I know, right?!” Profundity be damned.
I’d heard it before. Barky had never bought into Texan, southwestern, or cowboy culture. Raised in the piney southeast, I’m sure images of cattle drivers sleeping below desert stars or mounted rangers racing through arid badlands didn’t reflect life as Barky knew it. He had moved to Lubbock, TX, for grad school, though, and found just what he’d expected—nothing—a whole lot of dry, shrubby, dusty nothing. Yet, there’s a rugged aesthetic to the unforgiving southwest that Barky could not deny.
“How can something so beautiful be so close to Lubbock?”
Easter weekend, 2012, I swung by Lubbock to steal Barky from Texas Tech. I was underemployed, working at Starbucks while my two degrees rotted in their frames. Barky was 1,000 miles from family and 1,700 miles from his fiancée. We both needed an escape.
Backpacks loaded in my pickup, we drove about 2 hours north to Palo Duro Canyon State Park. We should have expected crowds. Most parks in Texas bustle. Palo Duro Canyon, once the last great haven of the Comanche and Kiowa, is etched just half-an-hour’s drive south of legendary Route 66. The vibrant colors and history of Palo Duro are perfectly accessible. For tourists driving east-to-west, its iconic Lighthouse Hoodoo is the welcome beacon of Llano Estacado, the gateway from the grassy Midwestern prairie into the fabled American West. Too enticing to ignore, visitors pack the park almost year-round.
To see the Lighthouse Hoodoo, we jockeyed with swarms of squawking children and mountain bikers unaware of anything like trail etiquette. Some folk enjoy this sort of outdoorsiness—safety in numbers—but, living in a big city, I’m too crowded too often. When I seek open sky, I also seek elbow room.
All campsites in the park were booked, anyhow, and the park rangers said that there were no other campsites nearby. My map begged to differ and I’ve always defined “nearby” in my own way. Only 93 road miles southeast (still just 2 hours from Lubbock) awaits Palo Duro’s forgotten little brother, Caprock Canyons State Park. Home of the Official Texas State Bison Herd (yep, it’s a thing), Caprock Canyons is everything Palo Duro promises (sans traffic).
We mapped a 10.7-mile lasso loop from the Upper Canyon Trail (Trail A – 2.25 miles) to Hayne’s Ridge Overlook Trail (Trail B – 2.5m) to the Canyon Loop Trail (Trail D – 1m) and back to the Upper Canyon Trail (Trail C – 2.7m and Trail A – 2.25m). We would end Day 1 at the South Prong Primitive Camping Area, after hiking roughly 9.5m (plus the, roughly, 5.5-mile there-and-back Lighthouse Trail we had already hiked in Palo Duro), for an easy hike out on Day 2.
From the trailhead by the South Prong Tent Camping Area (drive-up campsite), Trail A heads northwest, alongside the shallow South Prong. When we bought our permits ($10/night from the Visitor Center), the park rangers warned, “The river’s gyppy. Don’t drink it, even if you got a filter.”
The Little Red River contains extremely high concentrations of sulfates dissolved naturally from nearby salt-water springs and gypsum outcrops. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the concentration of sulfates in the Little Red River is comparable to sea water. Drinking “gyppy” water can cause severe diarrhea, which is uncomfortable enough, but diarrhea causes dehydration, which (in these arid canyons) can quickly become life-threatening. Don’t risk it. Pack in at least a gallon of water per person per day.
At roughly 1.25 miles, a spur juts southwest from Trail A toward the South Prong Primitive Camping Area. Here, we unpacked our bags and pitched camp. We repacked our essentials (including lots of water, first aid, and lunch), left everything else at the campsite, and continued on the trail.
At about 2 miles, we reached the foot of the cliffs labeled on the park’s map as, “Extremely Steep & Rugged.” The ascent was non-technical, more of an extended scramble, but exactly what we had hoped for. About three quarters of the way up, we stopped by, “JESUS RESURRECTED,” carved into the cliff. Gazing east at the trail we had just walked is one of the most jaw-dropping views in Texas.
“Not a bad spot of earth,” I called to Barky.
“It’s like walking through a western…”
Over the cliff, the terrain changes dramatically. Shorter flora like scrub oak, gray (almost white) top soil, and short grasses common in the high plains characterize Hayne’s Ridge Overlook Trail.
Back on the Upper Canyon Trial (Trail C), heading north and then west along the North Prong of the Little Red River, the terrain becomes a sun-baked badland. The shrubs grow further apart and the grasses grow scantily or not at all. The sun blazed angrily. I sucked water from my Camelbak but my mouth dried alarmingly quickly. I wore a baseball cap but wished it was a Stetson.
Again, we climbed up and over the canyon cliff. The thin-layer of sand, soil, and loose shards of rock that blanketed the trail made the going iffy. I’m klutzy, so I always carry trek poles for unforgiving trails. Besides, I hope to have functional knees when I’m old. Even with the poles, at times, I had to sit and scoot down the cliff to avoid losing my footing. (I’m not proud.)
Barky wore worn-out cross-trainers. He had slipped a bit on the ascent. I nagged him to take one of my poles for balance. He refused. Barky’s wild descent was much more unnerving than his slippery ascent. Sliding several inches at a time, I couldn’t help but imagine him corkscrewing an ankle or cracking his head open. Still, he refused to take a pole.
Then, he fell. Barky’s right foot glided over the sand, kicking-out to his left. In air, he instinctively twisted over and threw his hands down to ease the impact. He landed atop a cactus.
Always carry tweezers.
We didn’t carry tweezers.
From his hands, Barky pulled dozens of tiny spines that peppered his palms like stubble. Fat, mature spines had lodged deep beneath his fingernails. Unable to yank these out on his own, I had to perform this slow surgery for him. To Barky’s credit, he never winced or whined. In a forcedly calm voice, he simply said, “Now I know why sticking needles under people’s fingernails is a form of torture.”
We reached our awaiting campsite with sore muscles and empty stomachs but, otherwise, in good shape and spirits. (Though, I could hardly stand or sit due to screaming glutes and hammies. Plenty of water and a salty dinner somehow made that better.) Then the sun set—a deep lavender. A herd of wild hogs squealed down the trail a hundred yards or so from our tents. Coyotes howled.
The next morning, we broke camp and used the remaining water that we had stashed at our campsite to cook breakfast and brew coffee. We then packed our gear and hiked 1.25 miles southeast on Trail A to the trailhead parking lot.
Just as we reached the park’s gates, through a dense fog, we caught a glimpse of Texas’s official bison herd, descendents of calves rescued by Charles Goodnight at the insistence of his wife Mary Ann. These calves were orphaned as fortune hunters tore through the plains, killing bison by the thousands for marketable hides and, in doing so, crippling Native American populations dependent upon the herds. Goodnight’s bison (pure bison with no cattle DNA) have been instrumental in restoring this cornerstone species to what little prairie still exists in the United States. And there they grazed in the short-grass, high-plains prairie, unaware of their role in saving their species from extinction.