At the very northernmost part of Texas, the rectangular region known as the Panhandle Plains not only gives Texas its distinctive shape but also offers visitors a unique vacation experience. The geography of the Panhandle Plains affords tourists the opportunity to partake in several great outdoor recreational activities. The region is also home to several of Texas' most iconic towns like Abilene, the “Official Storybook Capital of America," and landmarks such as the art installation Cadillac Ranch. The family-friendly vacation destination has popular state parks and features the second biggest canyon in the United States, the scenic Palo Duro Canyon.
Located on I-40 about 12 miles west of downtown Amarillo, Cadillac Ranch—an iconic attraction and art installation—consists of 10 colorfully painted Cadillacs planted nose-down into the ground. The landmark was created by a California-based group of artists known as the Ant Farm at the behest of eccentric Amarillo millionaire and art patron Stanley Marsh 3. The 10 cars used were from model years 1949 to 1964, with certain years chosen to represent the evolution of the Cadillac's signature tail fins. Originally placed along Route 66, Cadillac Ranch was moved to its current location in 1997 due to the ever-expanding city limits of Amarillo. Cadillac Ranch gained cult-like status thanks to Bruce Springsteen's ode to this odd attraction.
One of the most impressive natural attractions in the state, Palo Duro Canyon lies right in the heart of the Texas Panhandle region, just north of the town of Canyon. Also known as the "Grand Canyon of Texas," Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and over 800 feet deep—it's the second largest canyon in the country. One of the earliest homes to people in Texas, the canyon was originally created by a fork of the Red River.
The attraction spans between the towns of Canyon and Silverton and is part of Palo Duro Canyon State Park's 30,000 acres. Hiking, camping, mountain biking, bird watching, and horseback riding are among the most popular activities in the park, including the guided horseback tours and wagon rides operated by the state park.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that's certainly the case at Amarillo's Big Texan Steak Ranch, which opened in 1960 and has become famous (perhaps infamous) for its 72-ounce steak challenge. Located on historic Route 66, the Big Texan Steak Ranch offers a "free meal" to anyone who can finish a 72-ounce (4.5 pound) steak, baked potato, salad, dinner roll, and shrimp cocktail in one hour. Since 1962, tens of thousands of people from around the U.S. and even from other countries have attempted the 72-ounce steak challenge. The list of those who have succeeded is smaller.
With an altitude of over 3,670 feet (1,118 meters) and frequent breezes, Amarillo boasts some of the cleanest air in the country, making it a nice family vacation destination. The town is home to some unique attractions, as it is located along the famous Route 66. Some of Amarillo's main tourist draws include the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum, Wonderland Amusement Park, Kwahadi Museum of the American Indian, and the renowned Cadillac Ranch. Visitors can also enjoy international cuisine from Mexican to sushi and pizza.
Tour the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum
Located in an art deco building in Canyon, the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum is the place to go to learn about the area's geology, paleontology, agriculture, petroleum, transportation, and beyond in permanent exhibits. Special exhibits such as "Cattle, Cowboys, and Culture" educate the public on the shared heritage between Amarillo and Kansas City through artifacts like photos, saddles, letters, and additional items. Special events and film screenings also take place.
The museum's days and hours open vary depending on the time of year, so confirm before you attend.
Abilene has earned the nickname the “Official Storybook Capital of America" by highlighting the magic of children’s literature at engaging destinations and a yearly event. The city is home to a unique museum called the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) where you can view exhibits by award-winning illustrators or attend free family art activities every Saturday afternoon.
Another great stop in downtown Abilene is to check out the Storybook Sculptures characters, such as the Grinch and Cat in the Hat from children’s books by Dr. Seuss and other beloved writers. The sculptures are found in various locations like Everman Park, the T&P Depot, the Abilene Public Library, and others.
If you are in Abilene in June, head to the annual family-friendly Children's Art and Literacy Festival downtown to see the yearly miniature cow mascot, along with a featured children’s book illustrator and the NCCIL’s summer exhibition.
Fans of the mid-1950s rock and roll musician Buddy Holly won't want to miss the Buddy Holly Center in the town of Lubbock, where the famous musician was born in 1936. You'll see a statue of Holly by sculptor Grant Speed in The West Texas Walk of Fame inside the Buddy and Maria Elena Holly Plaza, just west of the Buddy Holly Center. Inside the center, there are various interesting artifacts related to Holly and other West Texas musicians. You can even see Holly's eyeglasses, recovered from the plane crash that killed him in 1959, along with his personal collection of records, some photos, stage clothing, and much more.
In the small Panhandle city of Quitaque, Caprock Canyons State Park & Trailway is a favorite stop for tourists seeking natural beauty—including an abundance of wildflowers in the spring—wildlife viewing, and outdoor recreation. Visitors have the opportunity to see Bison roaming over 10,000 acres in the park and Mexican free-tailed bats flying around Clarity Tunnel.
Nearly all of the 90 miles of trails (at varying levels of difficulty) are open for hiking and biking. Camping sites are available, including drive-up sites and those accessible via hiking or horseback riding. Lake Theo offers swimming, fishing, and no-wake boating.