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Park Road 5, in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, stretches around 8 miles from the park entrance at the rim to the turnaround near the Mesquite Camp Area on the canyon floor, where it loops back around. That 8-mile stretch of public access represents just a fraction of the canyon’s approximately 120-mile length.

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Palo Duro Canyon extends far beyond what’s available to park visitors. Most of it is privately held, used by local ranchers for cattle grazing with extremely limited public access.

A new private company, Merus Adventure Park, is now giving the public recreational access to a once-inaccessible part of this natural wonder. Quietly opened in 2021, Merus now attracts guests from across the United States. 

The Overlanding Connection

“It’s just such an amazing geological place in Texas,” says Dirk van Reenen, the visionary entrepreneur behind Merus, about the second-largest canyon in America. “We’ve got Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and we’ve got Caprock Canyons State Park. But both of those parks together are only 3 percent of the entire canyon system.” His adventure park is an attempt to give people more opportunity to “see how special this canyon is.”

Located on 7,500 acres of explorable canyon terrain 13 miles west of the state park, Merus offers guided off-road tours, Jeep rentals, hiking and backpacking, caving, mountain biking and camping opportunities—including RV hookups, boondocking sites, cabins and comfy, furnished “glamping” tents.

Like so much of today’s world, the existence of Merus Adventure Park has a lot to do with the pandemic in 2020.

Van Reenen is no stranger to Amarillo. He was born and raised in South Africa, where the outdoors and vehicle-based adventures are a significant part of the lifestyle. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was 14, and arrived in the area to attend WTAMU starting in 1999. After graduation, van Reenen stayed in Amarillo, eventually finding his way into real estate. He founded the land- and real estate-focused Caprock Auctions before getting relocated to Houston to manage a large Keller Williams brokerage. Eighteen months later, the enormous real estate company sent him to Columbia, Maryland, to run one of the largest Keller Williams offices in the world.

His team was enormously successful, but van Reenen began to burn out. By 2016, “I was just really kind of done with the whole corporate big-business type deal,” he says. “My heart is in small business.”

He resigned and moved his young family back to Friendswood—part of the Houston metro area—where he used that entrepreneurial mindset to launch two other successful companies. 

In late 2019, van Reenen began feeling a desire to get his son and daughter more immersed into nature. “For several years, we had been living in the city, and a lot of the trips we were taking were kind of city-based trips,” he says. As his priorities shifted, van Reenan took action. He bought a Jeep. He pivoted his businesses to make them virtual. He and his wife, Kristin, began homeschooling the kids.

The changes were fortuitous, of course, because they took these steps just months before COVID-19 shut down the United States.

They discovered freedom during the pandemic lockdowns. “We started doing a lot of traveling and visiting different places in the U.S., and meeting people and just having this amazing experience with other people outdoors, with kids,” he says. It left them with “a really cool sense of connection.” 

Central to the experience was their embrace of the quickly growing type of adventure travel called overlanding, in which families drive rugged off-road vehicles—think Toyota Land Cruisers, Jeeps and high-clearance 4×4 trucks—over diverse and challenging terrain, camping out of those vehicles away from traditional parks or facilities. “It’s started becoming really popular in the U.S. We kind of jumped onto that trend,” van Reenen says.

He’d had a state park pass during most of his time living in Amarillo, and loved spending time at Palo Duro Canyon State Park—even on days the canyon was incredibly busy. Years earlier, he’d imagined opening an outdoor adventure park near the canyon: a quieter, private version without the crowds.

The family’s experiences during 2020 convinced van Reenen it was time. 

Nature Undiluted 

“A lot of people thought I was pretty crazy for having this idea and probably thought it wasn’t going to come to fruition,” van Reenen says. “But for me, it was a calling. There was no option but to make it happen.”

He enlisted a local real estate agent and began looking at ranches for sale near Palo Duro Canyon. When the agent called and told him to get in his car and come look at a newly available property on the canyon’s edge, van Reenen jumped. 

“I mean, 30 minutes after being on this property, I was like, ‘This is the place,’” van Reenen says. 

The property was once known as Ransom Canyon Ranch and had originally been a small part of the historic JA Ranch, which was founded in 1876 by Charles Goodnight and John Adair. Acquiring the land, van Reenen says, felt a little bit sacred, like a divine appointment.

He and his team have spent the past three years building trails, campsites, cabins, an office and rec center, and adding amenities and other infrastructure to create the concept.

“You come to a place like this to connect with nature, connect with others, connect with yourself and connect with God,” he says of Merus, which comes from a Latin word meaning “pure” or “undiluted.”

Despite the presence of vehicles on the property, van Reenen is intentional about maintaining that purity. While thousands of visitors may enter the nearby State Park every summer weekend, Merus limits its daily admissions to 200 people. Hiking day passes start at $15 for adults, with off-road passes at $25 per vehicle (plus another $15 per adult).

Vehicle use is equally restricted. Dirt-bikes and motorcycles are prohibited, as are all-terrain vehicles and the kinds of utility task vehicles (UTVs) or recreational off-highway vehicles (ROTVs)—sometimes known as “side by sides”—often encountered along the Canadian River. “We allow off-roading, but it’s mainly for street-legal vehicles. We set it up to be low-noise and slow speed,” van Reenen says. “We really wanted to maintain the integrity of the land. We look at this project through the lens of conservation. How do we do this in a responsible way?”

At higher-traffic outdoor spaces, like the accessible riverbeds north of Amarillo, heavy vehicle use deteriorates the land. “People go off trail or start pirating new trails, and the whole experience starts going downhill. So we set a lot of rules in place,” he says. In other words, no one’s out at Merus turning noisy donuts in the sand before cracking open a cooler full of beer.

It wasn’t long before Merus got the attention of overlanding YouTube influencers, who checked out the property and began posting videos to their sizable audiences. “We thought we would be a big draw in Texas, but we were really surprised how many people from outside the state started coming here,” van Reenen says of the previous season. “We’ve had visitors from just about every state in the U.S. I mean, people driving 20 hours one way to come here for an event.”

They come for the purity of the adventure. They come for the customer service and family-oriented vibe, which van Reenen says is a critical component of his business. And they come for the canyon itself. “Everybody just says it’s unique and stunning and unbelievable. They say parts of it felt like Colorado and parts of it felt like northern Arizona or southern Utah. It’s just a great, great geological ecosystem.” 

Plus, it’s a place where hikers, mountain bikers and overlanders aren’t sharing trails with dirt bikes or side-by-sides.

The relative privacy of the property makes it special. “You get a different experience at Merus than you get at the state park,” he says. “We still have tons of petrified wood everywhere. You can still find seashells in the creek beds. The flora and fauna here are just very different than the state park.”

Visitors may be coming from across the U.S., but this property just 35 minutes from Amarillo hasn’t quite embedded itself within the public consciousness. “We’d love to see more local people out here,” van Reenen admits. He envisions it as a private initiative that gives the public more access to a truly unforgettable place—another way to experience the glory of Palo Duro Canyon apart from the state park. Van Reenen wants to see friends and families deepen bonds while immersed in the best kind of adventure the Panhandle has to offer.

 “It feels like what the outdoors must have been like in the 1960s and ̓70s, you know, where you don’t really have to worry about your kids running around,” he says. “It’s carefree and relaxing. You can put the worries of the world on the back burner.”

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