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Trail Running in Palo Duro Canyon

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Grand sandstone features in Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

If you want to know a place, run a mile across the landscape.

Too often the Texas Panhandle gets panned for being a flat, brown, and uneventful landscape where the very forces of inertia and gravity turn irrelevant. But anyone who thinks that needs to step out of their car and go for a run.

From the highway, this northern block of Texas appears ridiculously flat, when in fact, it is gently and consistently sloping westward at about 10 feet (3 meters) per mile. (Less than a .01 elevation on your treadmill). This Llano Estacado (“Stockaded Plain”) is where the prairies rise up to the occasion of the Rocky Mountains in the west and it’s a geological beauty.

Before I even knew what it was, I spotted Palo Duro Canyon from the airplane, right before landing in Amarillo. From the air, it looked like red lightning had struck the Earth and split it wide open into a thousand deep and colored grooves.

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Running the GSL trail in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas (Photo by AE/NGT)

I drove there the next day—just twenty minutes south of town. What struck me about Palo Duro is the way it surprises you. One minute I was speeding across those flat brown fields and the next I was hitting the brakes as the world opened up into a huge red hole. The morning sun hit the canyon walls, showing all the stripes of layered color: red, pink, orange, yellow, green and white. The strange sandstone formations reminded me of the better-known canyons of Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah.

I hadn’t planned on running, or even walking. I thought a nice leisurely drive through the canyon would suffice, but then I saw the sign “Running Trail” and remembered I had my running shoes in the trunk. Spontaneous runs are the best.

The air was a perfect 62º and the sun was already baking the plants, filling the air with the kind of sage essence that lets you know you’re definitely out West. I hit the gritty red trail and huffed my way up the first hill—this was not going to be easy.

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The GIvens, Spicer, & Lowry running trail extends 11 miles through Palo Duro Canyon State Park (Photo by AE/NGT)

The Givens, Spicer & Lowry (GSL) Trail extends up, down and around the astonishing canyon landscape for 11 miles. White markers measured every tenth of a mile, and I ran, hopped and skipped through bushes, rocks, and over puddles and lingering snow patches. For a half-mile I’d be hugging the sharp edge of some salmon-colored cliff and the next the world would open up into my very own painted desert (in fact, Palo Duro features in many Georgia O’Keeffe paintings).

“What a fun trail!” I kept thinking, comparing this athletic adventure to my usual boring jogs through city traffic. I stuck to just a 5-mile loop and when I finally trod back to the parking lot, my shoes were thick with heavy red mud. I was wearing Texas on my feet.

A pair of mountain bikers were just getting ready to hit the trail themselves, but besides them, I had not seen another soul during my run—it was just me and the riveting red landscape.

I imagine it gets too hot to run the GSL trail in the summer daytime, but I can vouch for the spring and guess that the fall is magnificent. What I did not know is that Palo Duro Canyon is home to an impressive annual ultra-race, the Palo Duro Trail Run, where runners tear it up on the park’s red trails for a distance of 50 miles, 50 km, or 20 km. This year’s race is on October 19th and while it’s still out of my league, I can’t imagine a more exciting place to test one’s physical endurance.

The trails of Palo Duro will stay with me, not only because this was one of the most entertaining runs I’ve done, but two days after the fact and I am still leaving a trail of red dust everywhere I go. I ran a few miles across the Panhandle—it was anything but boring—and now I’m tracking bits of Panhandle all over the rest of Texas.

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Two days after my run, still wearing the red Palo Duro mud on my shoes. (AE/NGT)

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