Bison, Bats and Beautiful, Bountiful Nature: Welcome to Caprock Canyons State Park

For decades now in the Texas Panhandle, the bright spotlight of the adventuring public’s love and attention has been narrowly focused on Palo Duro Canyon, and understandably so. It is the second-largest canyon in the United States and world-famous for its beauty, fascinating history and abundance of recreational activities. That makes Palo Duro Canyon State Park the crown jewel of Texas Panhandle attractions.

But if you dare to look just outside that blinding spotlight on Palo Duro Canyon and venture off into its periphery, you’ll find another, more hidden—yet equally spectacular—location here in the Panhandle that is slowly but surely earning a place in a spotlight all its own.

Farther south along the 200-mile long Caprock escarpment—and roughly an hour-and-a-half drive from Amarillo—lies another of the Lone Star State’s largest and most dramatic state parks, complete with the same grandeur and majesty and light and color that’s made Palo Duro so famous all these years. 

Caprock Canyons State Park still blissfully remains hidden away from the world, far from the noise and crowds of big cities and major highways, resting peacefully among the striking thousand-foot glowing red canyon walls that give it its name.

For the many similarities they do share, Palo Duro and Caprock are still very different parks offering very different experiences. Pay no mind to the folks who’ll tell you Caprock Canyons is “just a smaller version of Palo Duro” and not really worth the drive. Let them sit and stew in their cars while they wait a half-hour (or sometimes more) just to get through the main gate at Palo Duro. There’s no gate to wait behind at Caprock Canyons State Park. In fact, the only time you’ll spend in the car there is the time you spend waiting for bison to cross the road. 

Caprock Canyons is home to the official Texas State Bison Herd, one of the most historic and culturally significant bison herds remaining in the world. Known as the last true example of the great Southern Plains Bison, these animals are direct descendants of the bison herd established by Charles and Mary Ann Goodnight on the legendary JA Ranch in the 1870s. These majestic bison now roam freely throughout the park’s 14,000 rugged acres—across its roads, along its trails and even through its campsites—leading many visitors to call Caprock Canyons the “Yellowstone” of Texas. They also cause “bison jams” on park roads whenever and wherever they darn well feel like it.

So, yes, it’s possible that you’ll encounter a bison or two or more as you explore the 90 miles of hiking trails that wind through Caprock Canyons, which connect fascinating and beautiful places like Fern Cave, Haynes Ridge, the Natural Bridge and the Honey Flat Prairie Dog Town. There are beaucoup hoodoos to view, too! Expertly guided hikes to these and other locations in the park are offered exclusively through our Saints Roost Expedition Company, while the state park’s friendly staff design and lead free, family-friendly interpretive hikes and programs.

But the bison aren’t the only animals that draw visitors to Caprock Canyons. A few miles south of the main park—hidden along the skirts of the escarpment—lies one of only two remaining railroad tunnels in the state of Texas. Built in the 1920s, decommissioned in 1989 and donated to Caprock Canyons in 1993, the 64-mile spur of the Fort Worth and Denver South Plains Railway once connected the Panhandle town of South Plains to the west with Estelline to the east. Much of the actual rail line was removed after the route was decommissioned, but just south of the town of Quitaque still stands the magnificent 582-foot long, 40-foot tall Clarity Tunnel, a gently curving masterpiece of early 20th century engineering and craftsmanship.

More incredibly, since the trains quit running back in the 1980s, a massive colony of Mexican Free-Tailed bats has taken residence high in the tunnel’s rafters. They are a true sight to behold as they exit the tunnel en masse every evening in the spring and summer months on their nightly search for food. The spectacle isn’t quite as dramatic as Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge bats—only half a million bats live in the Clarity Tunnel, compared to 1.5 million along Congress Avenue—but we tend to prefer this remote and beautiful Panhandle location. 

The state park itself remains relatively unknown to the traveling public and is therefore rarely visited. It’s a 4.5-mile hike, bike or one-way ride from Monk’s Crossing, the nearest public access point. Starting in 2022, however, the Saints Roost Expedition Company offers exclusive tours to the tunnel—both in the cool of the morning and for the nightly bat emergence in the evening. These include van tours, mountain biking tours and safari-style utility terrain vehicle (UTV) tours. 

Natural experiences aside, there’s plenty more to do, see, experience and taste around Caprock Canyons State Park. Saints Roost also provides exclusive, guided hikes and UTV safari tours across the beautiful and historic 6,000-acre Pole Canyon Ranch, a few miles south of the little town of Quitaque.

Speaking of Quitaque, stop by for coffee, tea and amazing sandwiches at the Coffee Mill on Main Street, or sit down for a hearty and delicious meal a few doors down at the charming Bison Café. And don’t miss BisonFest in late September, when Quitaque transforms into the capital of Texas Country music for a weekend.

Hotel Turkey in the nearby town of Turkey is fast becoming one of the area’s hottest spots for food, music and fun, with live music most weekends and a one-of-a-kind vibe that blends the history and culture of Bob Wills’ hometown with a modern attitude and style. Lots of folks rank it among the best little live music venues in Texas! We recommend the chicken fry or the chile relleno.

On your way back to the big city, stop for a sip at the adorable Night Owl Espresso and Tea Bar in Silverton—be sure and ask to meet Annie and Oakley—then take a stroll around the quaint Ghost Horse Gallery for fine art and unique gifts. Afterward, catch an Instagrammable Texas sunset over the dramatic canyon walls surrounding the waters of Lake Mackenzie. And start making plans for your next adventure in Caprock Canyons! 

Learn more: 

Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway:  tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/caprock-canyons

Saints Roost Expedition Company:  saints-roost.com

The Coffee Mill, Quitaque:  facebook.com/QuitaqueCoffee

Bison Café, Quitaque: facebook.com/bisoncafequitaque

BisonFest Music Festival, Quitaque: bisonfest.com

Hotel Turkey, Turkey: hotelturkeytexas.com

Night Owl Espresso and Tea Bar, and the Ghost Horse Gallery, Silverton: ghosthorsegallery.com

Author

  • Dusty is the executive producer and host, along with his wife Nikki, of the international travel series Two for the Road which airs nationally on PBS and Create TV. Born and raised in Borger, Dusty is a graduate of Amarillo College, where he studied journalism before beginning a 15-year career at local ABC television affiliate KVII-TV. He and Nikki are also the founders of the Saints Roost Expedition Company, which they started in 2022 with hopes of elevating the adventure and heritage tourism industry in the Panhandle.