Hike Palo Duro Canyon's Rock Garden Trail
Texas › Rock Garden Trailhead
Added by Greg Christensen
Palo Duro's most difficult, and most scenic hike.
Of all the trails in Palo Duro Canyon, the Rock Garden is arguably the most challenging, the most strenuous, and – not coincidentally – rewards hikers with the best views of the canyon. It is a five-mile round-trip hike with a rigorous incline, and is the only trail in the park that takes hikers from the floor of the canyon to the rim, an elevation gain of over 600 feet in under 2.5 miles.
A relatively new addition to the park, the Rock Garden trail was officially established by the park service in 2012. While most of the park’s visitors flock to the iconic Lighthouse, the Rock Garden’s dramatic incline keeps the trail sparsely populated. But the vistas are worth the hour or two of exertion.
When Georgia O’Keeffe made her home in the Texas Panhandle, she hiked through and painted Palo Duro frequently. She described it as a “burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.” And the elevation hikers gain in the Rock Garden offers some of the canyon's best views.
The trailhead begins near the main road, with some roadside parking nearby. It is also a short walk from the Sunflower Day Use Area. The quarter of the trail rises and falls, oscillating between inclines and declines through the rockiest part of the eponymous trail. It is the remains of an ancient landslide that today feels like an alien landscape, unlike anything else in Palo Duro.
A little before the midway point, the trail intersects with the Upper Comanche Trail, a northwest-southeast trail which is well-marked to hikers, but does not appear on recent, park-issued maps of Palo Duro. Passing the Upper Comanche, the Rock Garden continues a steady incline through its first mile where it plateaus a bit through patches of sand sage, prickly pear cactus, and Rocky Mountain juniper, offering the first of several dramatic panoramas.
The last quarter of the trail veers back into a minor tributary canyon, obscuring some views as the trail becomes a myriad of switchbacks where the inclines are at their strictest. After a final push, the trail spills out onto the canyon rim, connecting with the Rylander Fortress Cliff Trail, which winds north and south along the lip of the canyon offering more vistas, variations on a theme.
As the second biggest canyon in America behind the Grand, Palo Duro is not as jaw-droppingly vast as its Arizona cousin. But it is breathtakingly beautiful. And the Rock Garden Trail is one of the best means for hikers to saturate their senses, and see Palo Duro as Georgia O'Keeffe did: as a "burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color."
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The Rock Garden Hike is great - just some cautions at the top
A few weeks ago, a hiker was killed at Palo Duro Canyon on one of the spurs at the top of the canyon (Duck Pond). The Rock Garden hike connects to several spurs leading to rim views. A ledge on which the hiker was standing to take pictures, collasped and the hiker was killed. I hiked another spur (Tub Springs Draw) close to the Duck Pond Spur today and was astonished to see that no danger signs were in evidence. Parts of the ledge had cracks that appeared to be ready to separate. I would advise hikers to stay back at least 10- 12 feet from the edge. Looking across the canyon, one can see similiar ledges in which the upper rock ledge extends out beyond the underlying supporting soil. It is impossible to know this if you are standing on the ledge. It would appear fine on a first impression. Enjoy hiking the trail and the spurs; just be very cautious near any of the rims and stay back.
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