Palo Duro Canyon got its name when a member of the Coronado expedition in 1541 looked over the edge of the second largest canyon in the North American continent and was most impressed by the scrub mesquite and juniper that grew along the walls.
“Hard Wood” sounds more dramatic in Spanish than in English but it’s a pretty conservative description for a 60 mile long, 4 mile wide, rainbow colored slash in the Texas pan handle.
Georgia O’Keefe visited the canyon may times while was a member of the art faculty of the West Texas State Normal College in the little town of Canyon Texas. She described it as “a burning seething cauldron filled with dramatic light and color.” Shortly after arriving she wrote to a friend: “Last night I couldn’t sleep till after 4 in the morning — I had been out to the canyon all afternoon – till late at night – wonderful color – I wish I could tell you how big – and with the night the colors deeper and darker … I’m so glad I’m out here – I can’t tell you how much I like it.”
That sounds more fun than “Hard Wood” doesn’t it?
In addition to being a place of great beauty, the canyon has historical significance. It is a sacred location to regional Native American tribes and has been continuously occupied for at least 10,000 years.
During the Red River Indian War Palo Duro was a refuge for the Southern Plains tribes until Tonkowa Chief Johnson showed Colonel Ranald S. McKenzie a way into the canyon. The U.S. Army ended the Red River War by killing 1,400 Indian horses. Comanche leader, Quanah Parker escaped with a small band of warriors but he was on foot and without supplies and was unable to carry on his struggle.
After the southern plains tribes were defeated, Charles Goodnight established the JA Ranch in the canyon. It remained in private hands until 1934 when the state of Texas bought it and turned a portion of it into a state park.