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 (admittedly more 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.
The Geologic History, Flora, and Fauna of Caprock Canyons
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, the North African Barbary sheep transplanted to the Panhandle in the 1950’s—among many other species. Rattlesnakes are common in this area; 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.
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 here, and given the lack of cars and the presence of the shaggy-haired buffalo, you may feel as if you’ve stepped back in time when you're out here.
What 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.
There are 90 miles of trails to explore inside the park, including the scenic Trailway, 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 (check out an interactive map of the Trailway here). The Trailway is broken into shorter sections, ranging from 5 to 12 miles long, and is open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders alike.
On the other hand, if you want to get some elevation, the 7-mile Upper Canyon Trail is your best bet. 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; 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 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. On your way back, before you get to the trailhead, take the .3-mile detour to Fern Cave, which offers a pleasantly shady spot to cool off. Of course, there are several other trails to pick from if you’d prefer to keep it under a few miles—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.
Where to Stay
Whether you prefer a developed campground, a primitive backcountry campsite, or a hotel, there are several different campgrounds and (a few) other lodging options to pick from at Caprock. Inside the park, there are designated campsites for backpackers, tents, RVs, and equestrians alike—the North Prong and South Prong are the two primitive campgrounds; they’re equipped with pit toilets, and you’ll need to bring in your own water. The hiking trails are located near these campgrounds, and depending on when you go, you likely won’t see many people at either campground. In the southern part of the park, the Lake Theo and Honey Flat campgrounds are more developed, with showers and 30- and 50-amp hookups. And, the Wild Horse area has sites for equestrian campers.
Not much of a camper? There’s always the Lake Theo Lodge, a spacious lakefront cabin inside the park that sleeps nine. Or, you could opt to book a hotel room around Quitaque, which is just 15 minutes from the park entrance. Although, it must be said—the beauty of going to a place like Caprock Canyons is getting to sleep under the stars.
Tips for First-Time Visitors
- Know when to go. 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 (with ground temperatures soaring upwards of 130 to 140 degrees; yikes). Spring, on the other hand, is pleasant and breezy, and the area is alive with wildflowers and lush grasses; and, 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.
- Download a map. To get the lay of the land before your visit, it’s always a good idea to download a park map, especially if you plan on hiking or biking.
- Make reservations. The park often reaches capacity for both camping and daytime use; so, it’s highly recommended that you make reservations ahead of time.
- Check the Events page. 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. Be sure to check the Events page before you go to plan your visit accordingly.
- Visit the surrounding area. 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—the star-gazing is legendary here.