Caprock Canyons State Park: The Complete Guide

Scenic View Of Rock Formation At Caprock Canyons State Park Against Sky
Gary Hart / EyeEm / Getty Images
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Caprock Canyons State Park & Trail

Address
850 Caprock Canyon Park Road, Quitaque, TX 79255, USA
Phone +1 806-455-1492

Up in the High Plains of the Texas Panhandle, roughly 100 miles southeast of Amarillo, Caprock Canyons State Park is a treasure trove of geologic marvels that, sadly, few out-of-state travelers (and, for that matter, few Texans) even know about. Often overshadowed by its impressive neighbor, Palo Duro Canyon, Caprock is distinguished by its rugged sandstone canyons splashed with pink and orange, deep valleys, grasslands, and roaming herds of bison—the official Texas State Bison Herd, in fact. Though the park officially opened in 1982, several groups of Native American peoples and cultures have made Caprock Canyons their home over the years, dating back to the Folsom culture over 10,000 years ago. 

Because of its relatively remote location and under-the-radar status, you’ll likely be one of few visitors at this stunning park, which is 100 percent part of its charm.  

Things to Do

Park visitors can enjoy a plethora of outdoor activities, including camping, hiking, riding horses or bikes, and picnicking. Also, Lake Theo offers fishing, swimming, and no-wake boating. And as you might expect given the park’s location, the stargazing is excellent here.  

The geology of Caprock Canyons is, in a word, astounding. The sprawling 13,000 acres of vibrantly colored canyons, bluffs, and prairie—the pink-and-cream strata of the rock, dark green juniper, and sparkling gypsum of the canyons—will take your breath away. The park sits along the Caprock Escarpment, a long, narrow rocky formation as high as 1,000 feet—between the flat, High Plains of the Llano Estacado to the west and the lower Rolling Plains to the east. 

You’ll find an abundance of rich, diverse wildlife and flora here among the cliffs, prairie, and canyon floor. Roaming the prairie is the official Texas bison herd, which are direct descendants of the last free-range southern plains bison. Aside from the famed bison, Caprock is home to abundant wildlife, like mule deer, coyotes, roadrunners, foxes, porcupines, and aoudad, among many other species. Rattlesnakes are common in this area, and the best thing to do is avoid them at all costs. Birders take note: This area also hosts a whopping 175 species of birds, including the rarely-seen golden eagle.

Best Hikes & Trails

There are 90 miles of trails to explore inside the park, and one of the best things about Caprock is that there are trails for everyone, from casual wildlife watchers to mountain bikers. Consult the trail map beforehand and, ideally, talk with a ranger when you get there to figure out which trail best suits your preference.

  • Upper Canyon Trail: This is a loop hike with two trailheads. One is at the far end of the Caprock Canyons park drive, at the South Prong campground, and the other is a mile back along the road at the parking area used to reach the North Prong campground. Be aware that this is a strenuous 7-mile trail. It’s a steep climb to the top of the exposed plateau so you should plan to bring along plenty of water and sunblock.
  • The Trailway: The most iconic hike in the park is also the longest. It's a 64-mile repurposed railway that skims the Caprock’s southern boundary, which visitors (aka hardcore long-distance hikers) can access at various road crossings (you can see them all on an interactive map). The Trailway is broken into shorter sections, ranging from 5 to 12 miles long, and is open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders alike.  
  • Clarity Tunnel: It's a 9-mile hike roundtrip from Monk's Crossing to Clarity Tunnel, and the biggest draw to this deserted train tunnel are the half-million bats who live inside. The largest number of bats are there from April to October, so plan to arrive just before sunset to watch as they all head out for their nightly hunt.

Horseback Riding

Horseback riding along the trails is one of the most popular activities in the park, especially multi-day adventures where you camp out with the animals. Some of the trails are very steep and considered difficult, so inexperienced riders should have a clear idea of where they're going or bring a guide. Drinking water for horses is available on most backcountry trails, but riders should pack in their own personal drinking water.

If you're interested in exploring the canyon on horseback, you can rent a horse from the nearby Quitaque Riding Stables.

Where to Camp

Whether you prefer a developed campground or a primitive backcountry campsite, there are a few different campgrounds to pick from at Caprock. Inside the park, there are designated campsites for backpackers, tents, RVs, and even equestrian sites for the true cowboys and cowgirls.

  • North and South Prong: These two campgrounds are considered "primitive," meaning they use pit toilets, have no showers, you need to bring in all of your water, and you need to bring out all of your garbage and waste. They're typically less busy and also located near the trailheads for most hikes.
  • Honey Flat Campground: This is a developed campsite with restrooms, fire pits, electrical hookups for RVs, and other amenities.
  • Lake Theo Campground: Like Honey Flat, this developed campground includes a number of basic camping amenities for a more comfortable trip. It's also the closest to the lake for those interested in hanging by the water.
  • Wild Horse: This primitive campsite is similar to North Prong and South Prong, but there are also corrals for campers who are traveling with horses.

Where to Stay Nearby

Not much of a camper? There’s one option for cabin sleeping inside the park and limited options in the nearest towns of Quitaque or Turkey. For a wider range of places to choose from, you'll need to head to the nearest big cities of Amarillo or Lubbock, which are each about 100 miles away from the park.

  • Lake Theo Lodge: This lodge run by the state park is a single cabin that sleeps nine. It's spacious and has easy access to the lake, making it perfect for large families or groups of friends.
  • Back to Basics B&B: There aren't many options around the park, but this homey bed and breakfast in Quitaque is just 15 minutes away from Caprock Canyons. It has a familial vibe and is perfect for winding down after spending a day trekking around the park—there's even a spa for complete relaxation.
  • Hotel Turkey: Just a bit further up the highway and 25 minutes from Caprock Canyons, the red brick building of Hotel Turkey has a distinctly Texas feel, with a restaurant that serves up nightly music with classic American fare like chicken wings. You can book a room or an RV spot with a full hookup if needed.

How to Get There

Caprock Canyons is located a little over 100 miles southeast of Amarillo. It’s about 3.5 miles north of Quitaque and close to Highway 86. The park is almost seven hours from Austin, a little over eight hours from Houston, and four hours and 45 minutes from Dallas. Lubbock, the closest city to the park, is about an hour and 40 minutes away. Note that all roads to the park and in the park are all-weather roads with paved surfaces.

A big part of the draw of Caprock Canyons State Park is its remote location—east of the park, the Rolling Plains stretch on for over 100 miles, and to the west, the High Plains are characterized by flat farmland. You won’t see much traffic out in the park and, given the lack of cars and the presence of the shaggy-haired buffalo, you may feel as if you’ve gone back to frontier times.

Accessibility

The two pavilions with nearby restrooms at the park—one by the visitor center and another by Lake Theo—are both accessible to guests in wheelchairs. Ranger-led programs and educational activities are hosted in the amphitheater, which is also wheelchair accessible.

Tips for Your Visit

  • The best times to visit Caprock Canyons State Park are either spring or fall. Summers and winters can be harsh, with January temperatures dipping well below freezing and July temperature climbing as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit (with ground temperatures soaring upwards of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit). Spring, on the other hand, is pleasant and breezy, and the area is alive with wildflowers and lush grasses. Fall foliage in the park is beautiful, with the cottonwoods and western soapberry trees turning brilliant shades of gold and orange, and the bright yellow Maximillian sunflower blooming in the canyon. 
  • To get the lay of the land before your visit, download a park map, especially if you plan on hiking or biking. 
  • The park often reaches capacity for both camping and daytime use; so, it’s highly recommended that you make reservations ahead of time. 
  • Caprock has year-round, family-friendly programming in the form of wildlife tours, storytelling hours, games, and even live music on occasion. Past (and current) programs have included Caprock Bingo, Music Under the Stars, a prairie safari, and Bat Tours, guided vehicle tours that explore the park’s Mexican free-tailed bats population. Younger kids can also join the Junior Ranger program.
  • If you make it all the way out to Caprock, it would be a shame not to visit nearby Palo Duro Canyon State Park. The second-biggest canyon in the U.S., Palo Duro is truly one of the most unique, jaw-dropping attractions in the state. Other surrounding attractions include the quaint towns of Silverton, Turkey, and Quitaque, along with pretty Lake Mackenzie and Copper Breaks State Park, a secluded slice of rugged terrain that was one of the first Texas state parks to be designated an International Dark Sky Park, as the star-gazing is legendary here.  
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Caprock Canyons State Park: The Complete Guide