Heading to Palo Duro Canyon? In this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know before hiking the Lighthouse Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Texas, including trail stats, what to bring, and more!
Back when we first hit the road in our van in late August 2019, our first stop was Palo Duro Canyon State Park which had been on our list to visit for a long time. But given how far it was from Austin, we had never made getting there a priority. We spent an afternoon in the park, which wasn’t enough to fully experience it, but gave us a taste of what it had to offer, and we quickly fell in love with the unique scenery. We couldn’t believe we were in Texas!
We spent our few, short hours in the park admiring the scenery from the van and from overlooks, as well as hiking the park’s most popular trail, the Lighthouse Trail, for sunset (watch our experience!). Even with the 100+ degree heat and having to hike back in the dark with one working headlamp (oops!), it was amazing and solidified that we needed to come back to Palo Duro to explore even more!
So in early 2021 we took another trip up to the panhandle and stayed a week at Caprock Canyons State Park (check out our experience camping in the canyon!) and a weekend at Palo Duro. We dedicated a full day to the park and squeezed in as much as we could, including hiking the Lighthouse Trail again, as well as hiking two other trails in the park. And it was just as amazing the second time (watch our most recent trip)!
If you plan to visit the Texas Panhandle, you must add the Lighthouse Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park to your list of things to do. And in this guide we’re sharing everything you need to know before hiking the trail, including helpful tips about the park, information about the trail, where to stay in and near the park, and more!
Looking for more things to do in Texas?
- A Weekend in Austin Itinerary
- 2 Days in Houston Itinerary
- West Texas Road Trip: Marfa and Big Bend National Park
- 5 Things to do at Guadalupe Mountains National Park
- Visiting Garner State Park in Texas: Where to stay + things to do
Reminder: Leave No Trace
Before starting your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave the places you explore even better than you found them.
- Plan ahead and prepare: Know the regulations, prepare for different weather conditions, and pack the 10 essentials.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Travel on designated trails and camp at designated sites at least 200 ft away from water sources.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Carry ALL trash with you and dig a 6-8″ cat hole for human waste, 200 ft away from water.
- Leave what you find: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
- Minimize campfire impacts: If fires are allowed, use established fire rings. Keep fires small and put out fires completely.
- Respect wildlife: Do not approach or feed wildlife, keep pets under control, and store your food properly.
- Be considerate of others: Yield to hikers going uphill and keep noises down.
- About Palo Duro Canyon State Park
- Getting to Palo Duro Canyon State Park
- Things to know before visiting Palo Duro Canyon State Park
- Lighthouse Trail Stats
- When to hike the Lighthouse Trail
- What to bring when hiking the Lighthouse Trail
- Our Experience hiking the Lighthouse Trail
- More Things to do at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
- Looking for something else to do nearby?
- Where to stay before or after hiking the Lighthouse Trail
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
About Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located in the Texas Panhandle about 30 minutes Southeast of Amarillo. It is very rural and flat in this area of Texas, but as soon as you get to the park you are met with a gorgeous, deep canyon, which is actually the second largest canyon in the United States!
Nicknamed the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” Palo Duro Canyon is 120 miles long, 20 miles wide and up to 800 feet deep. The name Palo Duro is spanish for hard wood or hard stick, which was named by Spanish explorers and refers to the hardwood shrubs and trees found in the canyon.
However, this area was explored well before the spanish explorers and it’s said the land has been inhabited for over 12,000 years, first with Clovis and Folsom peoples, as well as the Apaches, Comanches, and Kiowas.
In the 1930s, the land was turned into Palo Duro Canyon State park by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was a program created by Franklin Roosevelt to provide jobs after the depression, focusing on developing national and state parks.
And today, it’s considered one of the best state parks in Texas, with over 30 miles of trails accessible by hiking, horseback or biking, a summer musical, restaurant, lodging options, and other activities (view the park map).
Getting to Palo Duro Canyon State Park
As we mentioned above, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is 30 minutes Southeast of Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle. This area of Texas is pretty remote from many other major cities, but makes for a great long weekend or week-long getaway from other spots in Texas. Here’s how long you can expect to drive from major cities across the state:
- Lubbock, TX: 1.5 hours, 112 miles
- Fort Worth, TX: 5 hours 15 minutes, 353 miles
- Dallas, TX: 5 hours 45 minutes, 376 miles
- El Paso, TX: 6 hours 45 minutes, 414 miles (you change time zones as well)
- San Antonio, TX: 7 hours 10 minutes, 497 miles
- Austin, TX: 7.5 hours, 484 miles
Things to know before visiting Palo Duro Canyon State Park
It costs $8 per adult for the day and kids 12 and under are free. If you live in Texas or you’re planning on visiting more Texas State Parks throughout the year we think buying the Texas State Park Annual Pass is well worth the investment. It is $70 for the year and gives you free access to over 90 parks, as well as discounts on campgrounds, merchandise, and equipment rentals. The cardholder must be present, but it is good for everyone in the vehicle!
We highly recommend making reservations before visiting Palo Duro for both day passes and camping. Because of COVID, the park is currently (as of writing this guide) limiting capacity, so it’s best to get your pass in advance so you don’t risk being turned away at the gate. You can book your day pass one month before your visit.
For camping, you can book your campsite as early as possible, up to 5 months in advance. We originally planned to camp at Palo Duro and booked one of the last few spots about a month out from our visit.
The park is open daily from 7:30 AM – 6 PM Sunday – Thursday and 7:30 AM – 7 PM Friday and Saturday. Hours can vary depending on the season, so make sure to check in advance.
They have a gate that does not open until the opening time, so you will not be able to get into the park before 7:30 AM unless you’re camping.
The park has a restaurant & store
There is a little store and grill at the park, which has burgers, hot dogs, breakfast sandwiches, and other items, so if you want a break from cooking, enjoy a fresh, hot meal at the Trading Post. The Trading Post is open 9:30 AM-6 PM every day of the week.
Cell service is pretty non-existent in the park, so make sure to download Google Maps, AllTrails maps, and anything else you need for your adventure.
The park gets a LOT of sunshine and warms up very fast, so we recommend starting as early as possible. The Lighthouse Trail is the most popular hike in the park, so we especially recommend hiking this first (or close to sunset), to avoid crowds and the heat.
Dogs are allowed!
Dogs are allowed on leash on all of the park trails. If you bring your furry friend, make sure to bring lots of water for them too!
Lighthouse Trail Stats
The Lighthouse Trail is approximately 5.7 miles (round trip) and has an elevation gain of 492 feet, making it a relatively easy hike, with the majority of the trail being flat until the last 0.35 miles. The hike goes through the canyon and is fully exposed, which means you have views the entire time!
The Lighthouse Trail is the most popular trail in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, so it can get very busy. There is one other way you can get to the Lighthouse, which we hear is less crowded, called the GSL (Givens, Spicer, Lowry) Trail, which meets up with the Lighthouse Trail about 1.2 miles from the Lighthouse.
You can take the GSL trail two different ways. You can either go out and back on this trail for a total of 8.0 miles (round trip) and an elevation gain of 610 feet. Or you can take the GSL trail to the Lighthouse Trail and then take the Lighthouse Trail back and walk along a trail from the parking lot to the start of the GSL trail. This option is 7.9 miles (round trip) and has an elevation gain of 636 feet.
Either way, you will likely get to experience a bit more solitude than the main Lighthouse Trail, however, if you start early enough on the Lighthouse Trail, this shouldn’t be a problem. We did the Lighthouse Trail both visits, so this guide will focus on taking the main trail both ways.
When to hike the Lighthouse Trail
The Lighthouse Trail is a great trail to hike year-round, but your experience may be different depending on when you hike it. We have now hiked the Lighthouse Trail in two seasons, summer and winter, so we have gotten to experience it at both extremes.
The summers are brutally hot. When we hiked the trail for sunset in August, it was still 100+ degrees. Thankfully it cooled down as the sun went down, but it was very uncomfortable at first.
However, a huge bonus was the lack of crowds. When we hiked close to sunset on a weekday in August, we saw no people the entire time. It was amazing! We do hear that the summer can get busy due to summer vacations and the park’s musical, so going on a weekday, or going early or late in the day, may be best.
In the winter, the mornings are very cold, but as soon as the sun comes up, it heats up quickly and becomes the perfect hiking weather. During our visit, we started bright and early on a Saturday and had the trail to ourselves until the trek back, which was very busy. We think the combination of COVID getting people outdoors more, plus it being a mild winter day, made the park even busier in January.
We did luck out with the weather in January though, because weeks before our visit and one week after our visit, the park got a good amount of snow, even closing the park. So while winter may be great to beat the heat and possibly beat some crowds, you run the risk of the weather being too cold and making it impossible to experience the park.
For the perfect combination of some cool weather and some warmth, fall and spring would be incredible times to visit! We hear that spring break starts the extra busy season for Palo Duro Canyon, so if you can time your visit for before spring break or for weekdays after spring break, or visit in the fall months when kids are back in school, you will get a good combination of less crowds and great weather.
So while any season is a great time to visit Palo Duro Canyon and hike the Lighthouse Trail, we’d highly stress starting your hike early (or late for sunset) and going on a weekday if possible.
What to bring when hiking the Lighthouse Trail
As always, we recommend having the 10 essentials on you when doing any hike, but here are a few key items we want to point out that will especially help you during this hike!
Lots of water
We love our Camelbak bladder for hikes because it stores a ton of water and it’s easy to drink while moving. Having enough water is crucial on the Lighthouse Trail, especially in the summer!
The Lighthouse Trail is very exposed, so if you go on a sunny day (chances are you will), you’ll get lots of sun!
We’d highly recommend downloading the AllTrails map for the route you’re hiking before you go. While the trails are well marked, there is not much cell service in the area and it’s helpful to track your progress on the trail, as well as verify the route if needed. You will need an AllTrails Pro membership to download maps, which is $30 a year and so worth it!
Our Experience hiking the Lighthouse Trail
Now that we have shared a bit about the trail and park, here’s a recap of our most recent experience on the trail and specific directions for different parts of it.
It was a very chilly January morning, around 25 degrees, when we pulled into Palo Duro Canyon State Park. We arrived at the gate at 7:15 AM, before the park was open for the day and snagged the first spot in line to get in.
We checked in with the ranger at 7:30 AM, told them the name on our reservation, and began the drive down into the canyon. We wanted to hike the Lighthouse Trail first, before the park got busy, so we booked it straight to the trailhead. It’s about a 15 minute drive from the park entrance to the Lighthouse trailhead, but as soon as you enter the park, you’re immediately greeted with insane views of the canyon. And lucky for us, the sun was also rising, which made the canyon a beautiful pink color.
We arrived in the parking lot around 7:45 AM and there were only about 4 cars in the parking lot, which made us very excited for some solitude on the hike out! There are two trails that start at this parking lot, but if you’re looking towards the west side of the canyon (which is on the right side of the road when you drive in), the trail is off to the right. You’ll see a sign for the trail, a huge thermometer, and a sign warning you to have enough water.
We packed up our bags and hit the trail around 8 AM, with the sun starting to hit the canyon walls, giving them a bright orange color. The trail starts out pretty flat and the terrain is mostly just a dirt, sand, and rock combo, so overall, it’s a pretty easy trail.
However, the trail is very exposed with almost zero tree cover, so as you make your way along the trail, you’ll have endless views of the canyon. But this also means it gets VERY hot on the trail, especially in the summer, so please come prepared!
After about 2.7 miles on the trail, you’ll reach a picnic table and some bike racks, which is where the trail goes from being flat to having elevation gains. You’ll want to go to the left of the picnic table, where you’ll start your climb up to the Lighthouse. This is when things start to get tricky.
Shortly after going to the left of the picnic table, there will be a split off. When we first did this trail in August 2019, we went to the left, as it looked less rocky. However, this way required us to climb up rocks with our hands and legs, which was pretty scary. You’ll instead want to go to the right, which is a rocky, uphill channel.
This rocky channel looks daunting and while you do need to be careful, as it’s steep and slick, with loose sand, it’s not too hard. You will be climbing up rocks, but mostly with your legs, using your hands for support if needed.
Once you make it past this section, you’re almost there! You’ll pass a bench with a view of the Lighthouse before beginning another climb up a rocky path. After going up this path, you’ll reach the base of the Lighthouse, where you’ll have to hoist yourself up a bit to get up to it. This may be tricky for small kiddos, some dogs, and those with trouble lifting themselves up.
After this final small challenge, you’ve officially made it! You’ll be standing right at the base of the Lighthouse rock, with amazing ~270º views of the canyon. Snap some photos from this spot and then continue down the path that is on the opposite end of the Lighthouse, which will take you to another amazing view of the rock!
We got super lucky and had both spots all to ourselves! While it was a bit chilly and windy (wind is VERY common in the panhandle), we soaked up the views for about 20 minutes before making our way back down. The trek down started less busy, but as we got closer and closer to the trailhead, we found ourselves running into a lot more people and had to pull over often to let them pass.
When we finally made it back to the car, we were shocked to see how packed the parking lot was! It went from 3-4 cars to completely full, with people circling to find a spot and others parking across the road. We were SO glad we started super early!
After finishing the Lighthouse Trail, we continued our adventures in the park. Looking for more ideas of things to do at Palo Duro Canyon State Park? Keep on reading!
More Things to do at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
While the Lighthouse Trail may be the most recognizable trail and activity in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, there are so many other things to do there! Have more time after your Lighthouse Trail hike? Here are some ideas of what to do afterwards!
Hike more trails!
There are so many great trails at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. During our most recent visit, we hiked 2 new (to us) trails and loved them all!
Rock Garden Trail
Elevation: 777 feet
Trail Map & Conditions
We hiked the Rock Garden Trail right after the Lighthouse Trail and it was amazing! The beginning of the Rock Garden trail winds through the remains of an ancient landslide with giant boulders and rocks strewn all over the place, before climbing up to the rim of the canyon. It’s really interesting scenery and gives you a whole new perspective of the canyon compared to the Lighthouse Trail, which is mostly through the bottom of the canyon.
Although this trail is shorter than the Lighthouse Trail, it is steeper, so be prepared to break a sweat. We noticed that the first half of the trail was a lot busier than the second half, which we assumed was because families and some hikers just enjoyed the rock garden and then turned around.
The trail continues to go uphill until you reach the top of the rim. While the markers for the Rock Garden trail end here, we highly suggest going to the left and walking along the rim. There is an obvious foot path to follow, which will lead you to open areas where you can see across the canyon. It’s gorgeous!
You could continue to hike on this path for a while on the rim, but we just enjoyed seeing a quick view and then headed back down the way we came. While the trail was definitely not empty, it was a lot less busy than the Lighthouse Trail. If you can do both, we’d highly recommend it!
Palo Duro Caves Trail
Elevation: 82 feet
Trail Map & Conditions
Don’t let the short mileage or low elevation fool you into thinking this is a lame hike, this is one of the coolest experiences we have ever had! After the Big Cave (mentioned below) was too busy for our liking, we quickly decided to check out the Palo Duro Caves trail, which we had seen just days before and downloaded the map “just in case.”
We had NO idea what to expect, as this is not a maintained or marked trail on the park map, but decided to go for it anyways. After arriving at the slightly hidden parking lot, we were VERY excited to see only two other cars parked. We headed down the obvious path, although not marked, and within 15 minutes ended up finding and exploring 2 incredible caves!
The first cave was slightly more slot canyon like and you could climb to the top of it (do so at your own risk), while the other was pretty large inside and had a never-ending tunnel that was very tempting to explore, but due to running low on daylight and not the best supplies (like a helmet), we only ventured in a little bit.
And the best part? We didn’t see another person! The Palo Duro Caves trail is such a hidden gem in the park!
Elevation: 541 feet
Trail Map & Conditions
The CCC used this trail to go down into the canyon every day as they built the park in the 1930s. This trail descends 500 feet from the rim to the floor through four geologic layers and over 4 historic CCC bridges, so you not only get beautiful views on this trail, but also get to experience some of the park’s history!
Upper Comanche Trail and Kiowa Trail
Elevation: 242 feet
Trail Map & Conditions
The Upper Comanche Trail takes you through the heart of Comanche country. The trail is a loop that includes part of the Kiowa Trail, which will bring you back to your starting point.
Elevation: 137 feet
Trail Map & Conditions
The Kiowa Trail is good for all skill levels and is a nice walk along the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River.
See the The Big Cave
The Big Cave is a roadside stop (#10 on the park map!) and similar to the Palo Duro Caves trail, you’re able to explore a cave! To access the cave, you will park on the side of the road and do a short walk to the base of the cave. You’ll then need to climb up a bunch of rocks to get inside.
As we mentioned above, we wanted to do this and we waited for a while to try to get inside of the cave, but it was a bit too crowded for our liking. It’s worth visiting if you can experience it during a quieter time!
Watch the summer musical
One of the most unique things to do at Palo Duro Canyon State Park is the TEXAS Outdoor Musical, which is the official play of the state of Texas. On every Tuesday-Sunday night between June and August the amphitheater in the park transforms into a stage where performers “bring to life the struggles and triumphs of the settlers of the Texas Panhandle in the 1800s.”
The play has been running since the 1960s and costs between $22-$38 for adults, $17-$33 for kids, and $18-$34 for seniors and military. There’s also the option to add dinner as well! The show starts at 8:30 PM, but you can arrive early and musical guests can enter Palo Duro Canyon State Park for free starting at 6 PM the night of their ticketed show.
Go Horseback Riding
If you want to experience Palo Duro Canyon by horse, you’re in luck! There are a couple options when it comes to horseback riding in Palo Duro Canyon. The first is Old West Stables, which is located within the park and offers guided horseback trail rides March-November. Another option is Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West, which is located outside the park and offers year round, open range horseback riding at their ranch on the rim of the canyon.
Ride your bike
Another fun way to explore Palo Duro Canyon State Park is by bike! The 3.5 mile Capitol Peak Trail is one of the most popular bike trails in the park and in fact, it is a bike only path. The trail can be ridden in both directions, without the worry of hikers in your way, and provides a different experience both ways.
Most trails in the park are hiking and biking unless otherwise noted on the map. To see a view of all of the bikeable trails, check out this map. You can combine many of these trails into one larger loop to explore the park too!
Looking for something else to do nearby?
There is more to see in the Texas Panhandle than just Palo Duro Canyon State Park! Here are a few ideas if you have extra time while in the area.
Caprock Canyons State Park
Located 1.5 hours southeast of Palo Duro Canyon lies Caprock Canyons State Park, another gorgeous canyon that is just as beautiful as Palo Duro Canyon, but without the crowds.
We spent a week at this park, backpacking, hiking, and working from a campsite here and loved it so much (watch our experience)! The canyon has a very bright orange color and is home to the official Texas bison herd!
We recommend hiking the Haynes Ridge and Upper North Prong Loop and the Upper South Prong Trail. You can combine these all into one epic big loop too! And if you’re up for even more adventure, we loved camping in the North Prong primitive camping area. It’s a 1 mile walk each way to the campsite, but you get to sleep in the canyon! Minus the wild wind we had, it was the best!
One of the most random things to do in Amarillo, along Route 66, is Cadillac Ranch! You park on the side of a frontage road and walk out to a field where there are 10 old Cadillacs buried nose down and covered in spray paint.
This art installation has been around since 1974 and has become a popular roadside attraction when driving through Amarillo. It’s pretty wild to see how thick the layers of spray paint are on the Cadillacs! And while normally, it’s considered vandalism to spray paint things, you are allowed to spray paint the Cadillacs. Just please make sure to pack out your cans, there are a lot of old cans all over the land and as the saying goes, “don’t mess with Texas!”
While we personally haven’t visited Lake Meredith, it has come recommended to us by a few folks and is 1 hour north of Palo Duro Canyon! Here you can camp, hike, and boat on the water.
Where to stay before or after hiking the Lighthouse Trail
If you’re turning your trip to Palo Duro Canyon State Park into a weekend (or longer) getaway, here are a variety of places you could call “home” during your time in the park, ranging from roughin’ it outdoors, glamping, to luxurious Airbnbs!
Camping at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is home to a variety of campgrounds, with different amenities and prices based on your needs.
Price: $26/night plus $8 daily entrance fee
Open: Year round
# of sites: 18
RV spots: Yes
Toilet: Restrooms with showers nearby
Mesquite | Sagebrush
Price: $26/night plus $8 daily entrance fee
Open: Year round
# of sites: 47
RV spots: Yes
Toilet: Restrooms with showers nearby
Price: $16/night plus $8 daily entrance fee
Open: Year round
# of sites: 24
RV spots: No – tents only
Toilet: Restrooms with showers are ½ mile to 2 miles away
# of sites: 40
Reservations: first come first served
You will hike in at least ½ mile to the campsites from the parking areas with no designated sites. Restrooms and showers are ¼ from the trailhead. You must pack out all trash and there are no ground or open fires allowed.
Cabins at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Canyon Rim Cabins
There are 3 stone cabins on the canyon rim that would be amazing to stay in if you want something more comfortable than camping. The cabins were built by the CCC and provide amazing views of the canyon below!
All three units include A/C, heater, microwave, bathroom facilities, a fireplace, and multiple beds. A maximum of 4 people can stay in the cabins. The price ranges from $110-$125/night and they require a two night minimum stay on weekends and holidays.
Canyon Floor Cabins
There are 4 cow camp cabins on the canyon floor, which are a little more rustic than the canyon rim cabins. These cabins include basic amenities including water, electricity, A/C, heat, microwave and refrigerator. However, they do not have bathrooms or showers inside, but they are nearby. The price for these cabins is $60/night.
Glamping at Palo Duro Canyon State Park
If you’re looking for a glamping experience then you are in luck! Palo Duro Glamping offers fully furnished, secluded glampsites and campgrounds that provide a unique and more luxurious experience. Located behind the Palo Duro Trading Post, you’ll have easy access to several park trails, a world famous burger, and any other supplies you may need for your time in the park.
The lodging comes with air conditioning, rustic furniture, refrigerator, microwave, bicycles, gas grills and fire pits (which would have been nice when we visited because of the burn ban!), and covered porches. Visit paloduroglamping.com to learn more about the glamping experience and book your stay!
Accommodations outside of Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Want to stay outside of the park? Here are a few different options to check out!
Lighthouse Mini Cabin at Palo Duro Canyon Rim: This tiny house is situated on the canyon rim, just steps from the park entrance.
Lone Star Mini Cabin at Palo Duro Canyon Rim: This tiny house is very similar to the previous Airbnb and is located on the canyon rim with amazing views.
SBC Lighthouse Loft: This studio loft apartment sleeps up to 8 guests and has a super cool wall mural of the Lighthouse!
The Clubhouse: This Airbnb is 35 minutes from the park, but is too cool to not share! This spacious studio barn has such a unique exterior, very awesome interior, has a fire pit outside, as well as some furry friends!
Prairie Blossom Guesthouse: Traveling with 4 people? This 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom guest house is located close to the park and has a nice cottage interior.
PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!
Doves Rest Cabins are private overnight luxury cabins located just outside the park on the canyon rim. These look very nice, but are also very pricey.
Free overnight parking
Traveling in a van like us? We stayed at an amazing free picnic area overlooking a portion of Palo Duro Canyon that is outside the state park. While it was a 50 minute drive to the canyon, it was worth it for a free place to stay and for the stunning views!
Ready to hike the Lighthouse Trail at Palo Duro Canyon?
Pin this hiking guide to help plan your adventure!