There is a small but particularly hardy contingent of gentlemen that roam Palo Duro Canyon. I have not yet had the pleasure to make their acquaintance in person, but they sometimes refer to themselves online as “Dirtbags“. I will respectively call them “ironmen“. These men, all several years my elder, do not merely hike, bushwhack, backpack, or explore this canyon- they run it. That’s right! Imagine making all of the hikes I have documented on the pages of this blog, and more, while running! In fact, many of their social media posts suggest they run from one backcountry point of interest to the next, across difficult terrain that I would never attempt to connect on the best of my adventures. Many of these places have taken me years to visit, and they run from one to the next in a single day! So it is with these guys, who’s endurance and physical strength I admire.
I also admire their online posts which occasionally show a small arch on the east rim of Palo Duro Canyon. A feature they coined ‘The Altar’. The Altar has been on my target list for years, but I admittedly suffer from an unhealthy obsession with slot canyons, in case you have not noticed! When planning a multiday hike with Rob Greebon (imagesfromtexas.com), however, we were looking for an interesting scene for sunset. Rob asked if there were any particularly good spots along the Rock Garden Trail, to which I instantly thought of the small arch on the rim that is, by my book, close enough. When the day of our planned hike arrived, Rob and I met at the trailhead. He asked me what I do to stay in shape, to which I responded that I run at least two 5Ks a week, but I could not help but think that even with that workout regiment, there is no way I am in as good of shape as the gentlemen that run to the sandstone arch we were about to visit!
We started our trek up the Rock Garden Trail about two hours before sunset. It was an unusually hot day for mid October, with temperatures in the mid 90s. There was virtually no one else on the trail, with only one other vehicle at the trailhead parking lot. The Rock Garden Trail is quite scenic as it climbs the east wall of the canyon, weaving between and behind massive Trujillo boulders that litter the slope of the canyon wall. The trail itself is about two and a half miles as it ascends to the rim. We stayed true to the trail until we achieved a relative close approach to the rim shy of the trail’s terminus. There we began our offtrail scramble to the top of the Caprock. We crawled our way across loose crumbly ground and found access to the plains above without too much trouble, and then skirted the rim until we found the arch.
We arrived at The Altar about an hour prior to sunset. Instantly, we started setting up our compositions and strategizing how best to photograph the setting sun either through or over the arch. First, I ventured down the steep cliff below the arch to capture a panoramic view of The Altar from below. If timed properly, it appears a well crafted morning photograph could be captured here too. The space between the arch and the actual wall of the canyon rim was pretty restrictive, so Rob and I took turns preparing and actually framing images as the sun descended through the arched window toward the horizon. I have to admit, the view was much better than I had anticipated. Although not as prominent as what I had experienced during my sunset shoot at Lighthouse Peak last month, smoke from the massive wildfires in the West (this time in Colorado) was still casting an eerily dull warm glow. This gave both the sky and the arch a pinkish appearance just before the sun sank below the horizon.
Once the sun was down, the real challenge began. Rob and I began what would be a rushed descent of the canyon wall in an effort to beat darkness. We could see a trail below and slightly east of our position from The Altar. It appeared to be about 1,000 feet away, however, covering that distance was not as easy as it might sound. We scrambled and slid our way down a highly non-advisable path that put both of us on our rears at least a couple of times, all while twilight quickly faded. In fact, with the final 10 minutes or so of visually usable light, I was actually concerned we may not reach the trail by the time darkness would descend upon the canyon. Alas, we did! We finally intercepted the Upper Comanche Trail and followed it to its junction with the Rock Garden Trail. Feeling much better about what we had accomplished, the day’s work was not yet complete, as I had handedly tweaked my left knee in a fall up the slope and we were still more than a mile up the trail To make the trek down even more interesting, we turned the corner of a switchback to see a long sinuous silhouette stretched across the trail in the heavily faded light. We both instantly froze, and in several seconds time, it became clear that it was not moving. We carefully approached and illuminated the dark figure sufficiently to conclude it was indeed, a stick! Realizing that if it dark enough for us to confuse a downed tree branches for a snake, it was past time to break out our flashlights and headlamps. In otherwise absolute darkness we finally made it to our vehicles at the trailhead parking lot, just as the pain in my left knee was intensifying.
I can not know if we followed the same route that the ironmen runners of Palo Duro Canyon take to and from The Altar. I doubt it, as I believe they go much further. Regardless, now I know, they truly are in much better shape than I am! My hat’s off to the self-proclaimed Dirtbags and ‘The Altar’ of Palo Duro Canyon!
Recently, I had the opportunity to once again visit portions of lower South Cita Canyon. Readers of this blog may recall the June post following my initial hike to the Slenderman Slot of South Cita this past spring. That hike, and the photographs captured then, were reflected in a lengthy blog entry focused on the unsuspecting sense of adventure and discovery I found in the Llano wilderness on that trip. To truly understand the uniqueness of this canyon, please read that post.
This post will not be as elaborate. It turns out that the Slenderman Slot, while absolutely an impressive slot canyon that unexpectedly exists in the Texas Panhandle, does not undergo the same brilliant convulsion of light in mid-October that we experienced in late spring. That said, this canyon is still a worthy photographic subject any time. Not only that, but the adjacent area still offered chances to explore new (to me) sights – such as the Wesley Slot.
This hike was joined by our gracious guide, Bary (Nerdy Native) and photographer Rob Greebon (imagesfromtexas.com). Our hike began much like the last one to Slenderman, from a typical ranch setting near a muddy water tank! From there, cattle trails diverged in all directions. We followed a set of trails that headed toward the tip of Wesley Point. After about a mile of walking where cows walk, through mesquite thickets on the flat ground of Wesley Mesa, a sweeping view opened up to reveal South Cita Canyon. We then began descending into the canyon along an historic, and since disintegrated road, likely built by cowboys in the late 1800s to remove cedar trees. Lumbering in the Texas Panhandle, who would have thought it, right? Check out Bary’s excellent and recent blog post on the topic.
The dilapidated road eventually faded and we had to find another route, but it is a route Bary knows well. We exited into a dry arroyo that steeply enters the canyon from about 300 feet above. A cascade of moderate sized boulder, most some 3 to 4 feet in diameter, make the land barely passable in the form of a hidden natural staircase that can only be discerned once you start a leap down the faithful path. When the slope of our descent began to level out toward the middle rim of South Cita Canyon, we began to scramble through miniature slots that are only in their formative stages. Then, as we round a sharp curve, there was the mouth of Slenderman. From this vantage point, this remarkable feature only resembles a ragged ditch, but peering into its depths you begin to appreciate the artistry of time and water. As Bary set up a timelapse camera near the mouth of the canyon, Rob and I ventured to the other side of the parent box canyon. There we photographed a much shallower and less impressive slot, Wesley Slot.
Although Wesley Slot is a significantly less impressive canyon than Slenderman, I explained to Rob as we surveyed and photographed it, how this was actually the feature that first attracted us to this area of the Caprock. It is actually Wesley Slot that is much more prominent and impressive looking in Google Earth images, and it is what first caught our attention nearly a decade ago. It was only once our small group of hikers finally gained access to this part of the canyon earlier this year, that on the ground exploration revealed the true nature of the Slenderman Slot. After garnering years of attention and strategic planning for access, Wesley is now almost completely under appreciated. Rob and I, however, did take the opportunity to capture some photos of it and another nearby slot-like fissure which contained some very deep keeper holes. Both of which sported beautifully striated Trujillo sandstone.
Faced with only steep drop offs from above, we finally bushwhacked our way around an adjacent point and down into a forested oasis at the head of the box canyon below. From there we were able to scramble through huge fallen Trujillo boulders to the mouth of the this area’s main attraction, Slenderman Slot. As we entered the cathedral entrance of the slot, we examined the cowboy rock art found in this most perfect shelter (remember Harvey?). We then took note of a bat roosting near the entrance to the narrowest part of the canyon. Then, we began to survey for light. Unfortunately, the light never really came, at least in the same fashion that it so gloriously filled this canyon the last time I was here. Back then, we witnessed and photographed remarkable light beams that shifted throughout the tight confines of this slot as the high sun angle passed over the rim of the slot. Yet, we were not to be denied. After about an hour and half of waiting, a burst of sun could be seen entering the upper chamber of the slot, and the room above exploded in warm colors of reflected light. Most unfortunately, the pit at the bottom of a 23 foot sluice that divides the lower portion of the canyon from the upper chamber was completely bogged in mud. Worse yet, the rope that Bary had previous rigged for ascending the sluice had been washed away. That made access to the upper reaches of the slot impossible. By laying on the ground, half in mud, under a narrow ledge-shaped opening, however, some brilliant slot images could still be rendered. I tried in desperation to make beams appear by tossing dust into the sunlight, but to no avail. Still, the images captured of this unique and remarkably structured canyon make a fine addition to my Llano slot canyon collection!
At some point during the past few years, and in reviewing the material posted on this blog, I have gradually came to the realization that there is a glaring omission. There is a place that I consider one the finest “secrets” of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, yet I have not posted a photograph of it on my Secrets of Palo Duro Canyon map. I have been to this gem of a site hidden in the backcountry, but I have always failed to properly capture its essence. You see, the scene at this special place is so big and vast, that it is almost impossible to render it justice. I do not mean figuratively, I mean literally with the limitations of most high quality cameras. But of course, nothing is impossible! In taking ‘B-roll’ images for this blog in recent years with my Iphone, I have come to realize that I can create wide sweeping panoramas of big scenes with it better than I can with my more conventional DSLR. Hence, a trip to appropriately capture the scene at the head of the remarkable Red Canyon was becoming high on my list. Such a photo opportunity would fill the missing gap in my “secrets” map. The question was when.
The dramatic box at the first head of the Palo Duro tributary known as Red Creek is a dramatically deep natural amphitheater that faces north. This makes favorable lighting hard to predict, and even harder to catch. The on-stage cast in this setting’s production includes a stand of healthy and proud ‘alpha’ cottonwoods (not a technical term, but my way to describe the huge trees that grow below the falls of dramatic box canyons) and at least two conifers. So, a quality photograph of this location should be timed so that the deciduous trees are not dormant and bare, but yet heat and summer overgrowth can be obstacles to reaching this off trail point. Thus, an early September morning seemed about perfect.
This day started with a courtesy view from the main lookout near the park entrance. As had been the problem for photography in recent weeks, obnoxious smoke from wildfires in the West was casting an unpleasing veil of brown and gray dullness in the skies above Palo Duro. Fortunately, a clearing line was visible to the northeast, and this gave me hope for capturing blue skies from the Red Canyon’s north aspect.
I began my trek at an access point along the Juniper/Cliffside Trail, and followed it north until it intersected Red Creek near “Red’s Rock”. I have no idea what the story of Red’s Rock is, or why it is deemed interesting enough to demark as a signed landmark, but here it is. The glaring face of Fortress Cliff was visible in the background along with the smoke-hazed sky, which I was hoping would clear before I reached the scenic grotto of Red Canyon.
Typical of most Palo Duro side canyons, Red Canyon begins as an unassuming dry creek bed. Yes, the Quartermaster sandstone is indeed red in color here, but just as it is throughout the Llano canyons. There are a few interesting formations along the way, and eventually the obstacle-free sandy water drainage transforms into a mega boulder hop. In fact, I did not remember my last venture up this canyon being quite as strenuous as this one. Of course, that was seven years ago, and I believe I was half asleep after working a night shift in Amarillo! Either way, as I entered the elevation where the dry creek transforms into a true backcountry scramble with trickling water, I actually took two bad steps that could have ended my day.
During one, my right boot slipped between two massive Trujillo boulders. I ended up knee-deep in red muddy water, but fortunately, my leg did not twist or snap! At several point along the way, the route became so rough that I began to question if I had followed the creek bed along a wrong bend. There are several side drainages that converge with the main stem, and the further along and more rugged it got, the less confident I was in my route finding, as my memory of this trek was a trouble-free short sub-mile hike. By watching the shape of the cliffs above, I knew I was on the right track. Finally, about a mile and a half in, I started to see some familiar terrain- I was only a few hundred yards away! Then, the view opened up as I walked into the natural amphitheater that is Red Canyon. The vertically dropping cliffs all around, the massive dry falls, and the sun just skimming the east rim promised to make a brilliant scene as the light shift and skies cleared.
As I scaled the crumbled and loose land slide that ascends to the massive grotto, the blue sky finally emerged and sunlight began to grace the tree tops and opposing canyon wall. The view was magnificent! As much as any view along the Caprock, this place looks like it was transported straight out of southern Utah- it just can’t be west Texas! Behold, the sweeping vista of Red Canyon!
For nearly two hours I sat there, nearly motionless, and just mesmerized by the view. It was perhaps the most quiet two hours I have ever spent in the canyon. The sound of buzzards flapping their wings while riding high upon the thermals above the opposite cliff was the only sound to be heard. As I sat and experienced this special place, my thoughts could not help but to be transformed into another time in this place. A time when Native Americans were the only humans to occupy this canyon. How is it even possible that there are not remnant pueblos here? This scene is exactly out of sacred places on the Colorado Plateau. The vast rock shelter here just seems too perfect for habitation. As I took in the view, my mind just imagined an ancient puebloan ruin merged with the landscape. Perhaps the way this canyon is constantly reshaped by landslides and erosion, it is just too dynamic for such structures to persist. I do not know, but I just can not believe that prehistoric generations of peoples, those that have left their mark in so many places around Palo Duro Canyon, had no presence here. It simply is not possible!
Lastly, I want to make a few overdue comments about the places I have documented throughout the years on my blog as “secret”. While I will not deliberately divulge coordinates or specific location information about most of them, they are not really secret at all. They are better described as off trail and potentially dangerous to access. I will not be responsible for anyone attempting to do so! Reaching them requires backcountry knowledge, route finding skills, and pure grit and determination. TPWD does not sanction off trail activity in the parks, and I am pretty sure resources available to respond to accidents are limited (although local rescuers should be commended for helping stranded and injured hikers in recent years). Should you choose to duplicate any of my hiking efforts to these places, you are solely on your own, and don’t ask me for help in finding them. That said, it is clear that those folks that love the Caprock of west Texas as much as I do, and who are sufficiently experienced in the great outdoors, do find these places. I just want to reiterate to all of my readers, that the goal of this blog is not, and has never been to brag about exclusive access to these secret treasures. I have no such access! Instead, it has only been through my own self-study and pure determination that I have photographed these places. I have a simple goal, to raise awareness of these wonderful places among those west Texans that are interested in nature and local history with the hope that more people will experience and appreciate the Llano wilderness in the future. That is precisely why I leave breadcrumb trails. Those that are willing and technically/physically able to find and enjoy these places will, on their own accord, do the research and planning required to do so safely. In the process, they will discover so much about this Plains landscape and its history, that they will strive to be responsible stewards for future generations. That is why I have spent nearly a decade writing this blog, so that you will know what is out there on the wild edges of the Llano Estacado, and so you may do your part to argue for its improved access and conservation too.
My annual pilgrimage to the Lighthouse came late this year. Ordinarily, I make the trek during the hottest part of summer, in either July or August. With all of the craziness and restrictions during this COVID-summer of 2020, however, my trips to canyon country were limited to a quick outing to photograph Comet NEOWISE in July. Of course, it was a pleasant relief when I finally did make the Lighthouse hike in mid September, with comfortable temperatures already descending onto the southern High Plains. Unfortunately, the cooler weather was not the only meteorological phenomenon occurring on the Plains. A thick veil of smoke emanating from wildfires on the West Coast greatly obscured the normally brilliant skies that the Texas Panhandle is so well known for during my visit. The grayish-red tinge tainted sky above the canyon cast an otherworldly scene onto the land, which made for an interesting photograph or two.
Otherwise, with the seemingly unnatural hues on the canyon and sky above, this adventure was far more of a ‘hike’ than a photographic opportunity. Less concerned about composing the perfect shot, I focused more on taking in this landscape that I adore. Wide sweeping IPhone panoramics were the order of the day more so than quality DSLR images.
Not all hikes can be recounted as thrilling and grand offtrail adventure, and this one certainly is not. Although it does not make the best story for an entertaining blog entry, I do enjoy these low key hikes to familiar places – especially this one. Hopefully you enjoy the scenery shared here too. Sometimes a relaxing hike can help you realize that Palo Duro Canyon (and other wildernesses), in all its beauty, has weathered many storms. The elements constantly reshape it, but it remains. Perhaps the storm we are all facing now will reshape us too. It undoubtedly has, and will continue to do so. Don’t take for granted the peace that can be found in places like this in troubled times.
For the past few weeks, nature photographers throughout the northern hemisphere have been busily documenting the apparition of Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE). I started observing the celestial phenomenon locally in central Oklahoma the first week of July, but the urban light pollution of Oklahoma City simply overwhelmed all attempts at high-quality astrophotos. I eagerly awaited the transition of the comet’s appearance from the pre-dawn skies to evening, which would make the logistics of travel to dark skies more feasible – the dark skies of home, the Llano Estacado!
Of course, who can think of a better landscape to frame in a photograph with a bright comet than the icon of the Texas Panhandle, Lighthouse Peak? It’s just the obvious choice, right? Although I had not been to a Texas state park in months, I knew it was not business as usual during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. I spent a couple days online, and then even a phone call to Austin, just to figure out the convoluted process of how to apply my Texas State Parks Pass to day entrance reservations for Palo Duro Canyon State Park as required due to COVID-19 restrictions. Finally, I was cleared to go, or so I thought. Being the rule follower that I am, and knowing that TPWD is operating under limitations, I decided to ask the park ranger at the entrance gate about photographing the comet at the Lighthouse around 10 pm. The bandana-masked ranger was firmly adamant that I must leave the park by 10 pm. I asked if that was a suggestion, or if it would be enforced, to which she stated that it would be enforced. Under normal circumstances, a backcountry pass can be acquired, but she said there were no permits at this time that I could purchase to allow my after hours presence. Disappointed to say the least, I pulled over just inside the gate, and tried to enter the park office to beg for a tent camping permit, but of course, it was closed! So then, I pulled a U-turn and went back through the line of cars at the gate again to pose my question. Once more, the park ranger informed me that any overnight reservations must be made 24 hours in advance, and that I would not be allowed to stay in the park past 10 pm. I made my way to the overview at the El Coronado Lodge to take in the view and ponder my options. I didn’t make the four hour drive to be denied my shot of the comet over Llano canyon country, so I could just risk it and hike out to the Lighthouse anyway, or I could start thinking of other vantage points along the Caprock escarpment that I could legally access. Of course, Caprock Canyons State Park came to mind, but they would have the same state-imposed restrictions. As I strategized my next move, I shot the obligatory touristy view of Palo Duro Canyon from the overview, and listened to the conversations of families that strolled up to see the canyon- many for the first time. But such views are not why you read this blog, right?!?
Panoramic touristy view of the canyon
Mad as heck about being denied the Lighthouse and comet photograph I came to get, I started the long drive around the chasm in the plains that is Palo Duro Canyon. Just after sunset, I pulled over at the roadside picnic area located on the south rim of the canyon along Texas Highway 207. Formerly known as Hamblen Drive, or even lesser known, the southeastern border of the 1939 proposed Palo Duro National Monument (sigh), this location offers a surprisingly underrated view of the canyon.
Lower Palo Duro Canyon from the Hamblen Drive overlook
Of course, I would not have solitude here as I likely would have had at the Lighthouse. A small crowd of four vehicles congregated at the overview. Some folks brought folding lawn chairs to watch the comet from a dark sky location. Yet, I was able to claim a spot along the overlook fence that was rather perfect for the occasion. As darkness descended on the canyon, the silhouettes of distant thunderstorms over New Mexico became visible on the horizon of the Llano, and Comet NEOWISE slowly began to emerge in the sky between the cup of the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the combined glowing dome of twilight and distant light pollution from Amarillo, some 45 miles away. The view of the comet was almost directly up the spine of Palo Duro Canyon, which I strangely found satisfying.
Comet NEOWISE viewed above distant thunderstorms and the urban glow of Amarillo
135 mm view of Comet NEOWISE from the rim of Palo Duro Canyon
The comet’s appearance was gradual at first. Most of those in the small crowd that had gathered strained to see it initially, and I could see it most clearly through the LCD monitor of my Canon after an exposure of several seconds. I alternated between telephoto and wide angle views of the comet, trying to pull in as many photons as my unguided camera possibly could without streaking the background stars. But then, as the sky fully darkened, around 10:30 pm, the comet became clearly visible as an apparition above the canyon walls. Its tail streamed across 10 degrees of the west Texas sky. Photographic purists may want to shield their eyes or cringe, but the below photo was composited from a 35-image stack (a technique commonly used to reduce noise in astrophotography) and a foreground landscape shot of the opposing canyon wall to the east.
A Caprock Comet (Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE) over lower Palo Duro Canyon
Comet NEOWISE in the distant glow of Amarillo and Ursa Major above
It wasn’t the coveted comet photograph from the Lighthouse that I wanted, but the view and subsequent image of Comet NEOWISE gracing the skies above Palo Duro Canyon is one I will cherish and will never forget. I know the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown our world into a tail-spin. It has had tremendous impact on all of us, and unfortunately, its impacts on our lives are far from over. Of course, I will refrain from discourse on the politics of the pandemic, which are unfortunate, but the following must be said with respect to our great outdoors and the virus. People need natural places and wilderness right now, more than ever. How ironic is it that our freedoms to enjoy the few public wild places that do exist on the southern plains; Palo Duro, Caprock, and Charon’s Garden, are being restricted even more just as people are compelled to escape urban congestion in favor of open spaces and fresh air? I understand the logistics of manning parks and potentially putting state employees at risk, but people seeking to spend time in nature generally do not do so when they are ill or feeling under-the-weather. They understand the risks, both from their choice of activities and from the contagion, and by no means exacerbate virus spread by seeking solitude to recreate in wide open natural settings. When it comes to further limiting access to public lands, restrictions should be backed up with strong reasoning and science. I am pretty sure there is no science that suggests COVID-19 presents a greater risk to hikers who choose to be in the backcountry after the park’s administrative hours!
Lastly, I managed a parting vertically-oriented shot showing Comet NEOWISE as it became immersed in the Amarillo sky glow low on the horizon, below Ursa Major. Can you see it? Also pictured are the blinking lights from a couple of planes traversing the scene. I hope you get an opportunity to see the comet in the coming days before it fades below the threshold of visibility for at least another 6,800 years. I highly recommend taking the time to drive your family to dark skies to take it in, it is a special site to behold.
Before you read this post, perhaps you should settle in and take a seat. For one, it is long. Two, it just might devolve into a rant about the accessibility of our public lands- but I will try not to go there! Otherwise, don’t sit down expecting that what I have to share is some profound truth that is sure to otherwise knock you off your feet, it is not. Neither is it an account of hair raising adventure in the most gigantic canyon comprehensible. Instead, this is the story of a minuscule corner of the Llano Canyons. Yet, this small Llano canyon prompts one of my lengthiest blog posts to-date. Why? What this little canyon lacks in physical size, it makes up for with distorted shapes and vivid colors. In fact, when illuminated by sunlight at the proper angle, it is shockingly stunning and contains an uniquely remarkable feature. Undoubtedly, my feeble writing and amateurish photography skills are insufficient to move you the way I was moved after visiting the Slenderman Slot of South Cita Canyon, but hopefully this post does move you closer toward realization that the canyons of the Texas High Plains truly are very special natural treasures. Experiences in the great outdoors are as real here as in any national park of the West. Here, a mysterious past lives right below our gaze as we look out across the rolling plains below the Caprock’s rim. We just need to be adventurous enough to explore the little crevices, fissures, and folds of Triassic sandstone to find it. When you do, this is what you may find.
First, the background of this story. South Cita Canyon is known for its scenic waterfalls. Until recently, however, evidence of photogenic slots in this major side steam of Palo Duro Canyon was slim. Like within many Llano canyons, Google Earth does suggest there are candidate slot canyons deep in this part of the backcountry, but access has been limited. Exploration of the probable slots in this area of the canyon has been wrought with complexities for years. Recently, the logistics have eased for a small group of hikers with permission to access private land south of the state park. Previous outings by long-time Palo Duro Canyon hiker, Bary (Nerdy Native), Steve the Nomad (The Pemperton Boys YouTube channel), and a few other offtrail hikers and canyoneers late this past winter have turned up some unexpected surprises in this part of the Palo Duro backcountry, including the Slenderman Slot. Slenderman is a short (65 feet) but very deep and somewhat technical slot. As you might guess, its rather constraining passageways influenced its newly found name. I was lucky enough to join a small group of outdoor enthusiasts as we trekked across Wesley Point, then along a short but steep bushwhacking route toward this Trujillo treasure. Our party consisted of Bary, Palo Duro Canyon history guru, Chris, Chris’ son, Dane, and Darla (@onemomcamping on Instagram). Before I describe the trip, I will provide this warning. If you are familiar with finding Llano slots via Google Earth and you are well versed in following my “infuriating breadcrumbs”, and you try to find Slenderman- good luck! It is NOT the obvious choice, and no, that is NOT an attempt to misdirect you! Be very careful! Also, it is only reasonably safe to access from private land.
Panoramic view from the rim of Wesley Point overlooking lower South Cita Canyon
We descended along an abandoned ranch road until we intersected a steep natural stone staircase water drainage that led us down approximately 500 feet from the rim. While the route was steep at times, it was more reasonably navigable than it appeared from above, and we made the second tiered “middle rim” Trujillo layer after about an hour of hiking. Once there, the stream bed began to erode into nicely striated baby slots before eventually winding to the head of a very narrow vertical drop. The Slenderman Slot, with trees and vegetative debris wedged in its skyward opening, eventually widened into a “Y”-shaped oasis of mixed deciduous and conifer trees bordered by steep and diverging sandstone walls.
IPhone panoramic of the top side of Slenderman Slot
Rocky outcroppings and forested oasis at the mouth of Slenderman Slot
We briefly paused to walk the rim of the slot, and Bary began conducting photography with a camera suspended from a tape measure into the dark and sinuous depths of the canyon. The eroded crevice seemed to fall into an abyss below. I, followed closely by Darla, Chris, and Dane, did not stay topside long, as we were eager to get into the depths to scout for photogenic light.
Chris and Dane inspect rock art
Entering the canyon was like entering a cathedral with high vaulted and decorative ceilings. One of the first things we photographed once inside the mouth of the canyon was an inscription etched in the stone walls that read, “HARVEY JAN 1911”, except the “J” was written backwards. To the left of the date were the distinguishable characters “OST”. Was Harvey ‘LOST’ here in January 1911? That is how I interpreted the message he left 109 years ago. Others I’ve shown the photo to read it differently, so you decide. My personal opinion is that the sandstone next to “OST” appears eroded, and that a “L” was likely there. Either way, Harvey was certainly here in 1911, so this raises many questions. Harvey’s time in this canyon, how ever long or brief, was during the era of the JA Ranch’s operation throughout most of Palo Duro Canyon. We have to assume Harvey was a JA cowboy, right? Does that make Harvey a ‘cowboy canyoneer’? Seriously, what did the JA cowboys know about the canyons that we covet today, and did they know about slot canyons we have yet to find? Did Harvey know my great great grandfather, who also was a cowboy on the JA Ranch at about that time? What was Harvey’s fate? We may never know.
A message from a lost cowboy named, Harvey, in January 1911?
Beyond the cowboy writings, the cathedral opening of Slenderman Slot narrowed and contorted into something worthy of its namesake. As I made my way around the first winding curve, my boots instantly slipped on uneven and very muddy ground. I struggled to regain my footing as I stood before a 23 foot high near-vertical ramp of sandstone. During his previous visits here, Bary rigged a rope from the upper chamber of the slot and placed a notched 2×4 at the foot of the sluice for a makeshift ladder. Reflected light was already visible at the top of the slot’s upper level, so we quickly started making our way up.
With mud-caked shoes, we shed our footwear to make the climb. We installed a human chain system to ferry camera gear up the ramp. One of us would take a position at the opening of the upper chamber. Another in uncomfortable positions at the mid point of the climb, while someone would pass fully extended tripod legs with cameras mounted up from the mud puddle on the canyon floor.
Once in the upper chamber with cameras in hand, we were able to watch light enter and illuminate incredibly striated walls. I waited here for half an hour as light descended into the depths of the earth. The view straight up toward the sky was one reminiscent of the infamous Antelope Canyon. A prelude of things to come. The preview in my Canon’s live view looked amazing, and the captures show a classic southwest canyon scene.
View toward the sky in the upper chamber
At one point, Bary and I were going to rotate photography positions in the upper chamber of the slot. As I precariously “hung out” near the vertical sandstone ramp, prepared to descend, I looked up and ahead to see an even more precarious perch of driftwood suspended within the tight confines of the upper slot. The sun was casting a fire-like glow onto the wood as it sat perfectly lodged between waves of sinuous slot walls bathed in alternating purple, orange, and yellow light. All with a backdrop of cobalt blue sky. The scene stopped me dead in my tracks, and I had to capture it. The challenge was that this portion of the canyon was probably no more than 15 inches wide, and the wood was suspended about 30 feet above the canyon floor, some 25 feet ahead of me. All of this while I was hanging on the ledge of a 23 foot drop off! No problem, right?!?! Knowing the shifting light would be fleeting, I raced against time and subjected my body to many painful positions to capture the image. I would not be denied! The final image isn’t the mantle worthy fine art piece I envisioned, as the dynamic range of the scene was unforgiving. My telephoto lens would have helped, but it was stowed away safely outside the canyon and completely inaccessible to me at the time. Still, the image is enough to preserve my mental picture of the colorful firing log and brilliant shades on the undulating canyon walls, something I will never forget. While this photo is not fine art quality, the view I saw right there at that moment was. At least I have a digital memento to remember it indefinitely.
Once satisfied I had exhausted all possibilities to capture what was sure to be the richest display of color of the day (or so I thought), I descended back into the depths below and ‘yielded the floor’ of the upper chamber to Bary. Only after bogging back through the mud hole at the bottom, did the true beauty of Slenderman Slot strike me. It was midday, and the noon hour brought what I can only describe as a convulsion of color to the canyon, the likes of which I have not previously seen in the Llano canyons. Intense light shifted from incendiary warm yellows, oranges, and reds at the opening of the upper chamber, to icy cool purples and blues in the dark lower level with glimpses of the west Texas sky above.
View upstream toward the upper chamber
Meanwhile, looking downstream, the view resembled a three and a half story-high barber pole infused in fiery red-colored spiraling stone. The narrowly winding passageway into the canyon glowed flame yellow and was perfectly accented by another driftwood pole giving the scene a quintessential desert southwest look.
During the magic noon-time hour, there was literally no angle in the canyon that wasn’t bursting with color. Never have I experienced such infinite photogenic compositions in such a compressed space. With my senses in overload, the only appropriate expression I could reconcile were the words of Georgia O’Keeffe in describing Palo Duro Canyon:
“It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and color.”
Was Ms. O’Keeffe standing in this very spot when she formulated those words? She might have been! Is it possible? Okay, it is unlikely. In fact, had anyone basked in the unworldly forms of earth and light since Harvey’s memorialized visit here more than a century of winters ago?
Content with the photographs I had captured, I was ready to pack up and head out for a long drive home. My gear was stowed away, my backpack slung on my shoulder, and we were literally on our way into the afternoon heat, when suddenly, a strange gust of wind kicked up dust that swirled up the canyon right between Bary and I. Both of us instantly looked up as if to follow the breeze, as if it could be seen, and then, swish! An unnatural specter emerged in the form of a spiraling light-filled tube that swirled into the tightest and darkest part of the slot right before our eyes. In less than a second, it was gone! We immediately dropped our packs, and began to trace out bright spots of direct light on the canyon floor. Bary then started grabbing hands full of dust and tossing it into the air. I quickly unpacked my camera, mounted it on the tripod, and began shooting. Bary’s GoPro video clip can be seen here (posted with Bary’s permission). I am still stunned by what we recorded.
For the first time, I witnessed Heavenly beams of light penetrating through a darkly lit Llano canyon. Soon, Darla joined in on Bary’s effort, and we were able to capture a number of images showing this rare phenomenon. It was almost supernatural to see the dust filled columns of light illuminated one second, then watch the particles disperse as they settled and blew in the wind like spirits from the past. Harvey, is that you still haunting this canyon?
The Spirit of South Cita Canyon in Slenderman Slot
It took me a long time to write this post, because I needed to get this one ‘right’. I left this west Texas Llanos adventure with a renewed sense of conflicting hope and frustration. A sense about these canyons that I had not experienced since my 2016 visit to the North Cita Narrows. When I have these experiences of literal awe and wonder, my mind always races to what might have been, to the opportunities lost, to what life, the economy, and culture of the Texas Panhandle would have been had the efforts of the National Park Service in the 1930s taken root. Yes, we still have great parks to be loved here in these canyons, but imagine if both cities on the Llano (Amarillo and Lubbock) were gateways to a national park!
I am not saying that the Slenderman Slot of South Cita Canyon is Texas’ equivalent of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon- clearly it is an unfair comparison. From several photogenic perspectives, however, look at the images and decide for yourself the resemblance. The Navajo Nation has capitalized greatly on tourism focused on Upper Antelope’s magical light beams. Now those canyons are overcrowded with tourists. To see that magic transpire in a virtually unknown canyon of the Llano Estacado, and to have photographed it for the first time, was an experience I will never forget. Experiences like this bring me back to exactly why this canyon ecosystem is so special and worthy of concerted efforts of preservation. Slenderman is located very close to the most remote southern border of Palo Duro Canyon State Park. The southern extent of the park is a portion of publicly owned land that, after more than a decade since its acquisition which increased the park’s spread by more than 60%, still remains restricted to public access! Past TPWD timelines for possible openings of this country have come and gone many times over, and alas, the tax paying public still remains oblivious to what is rightfully their outdoor sanctuary to respectively and responsibly enjoy. Want to see how much public land is effectively closed? Look at this TPWD map showing state owned land (green shaded area) compared to denoted trails as a proxy for the area the public is officially allowed to visit.
Or are they more aware than one might think? Readers of this blog will know that many of my posts during the past year or so have lamented the increased popularity of the Llano backcountry, especially the growing visitation to several of my favorite slot canyons in the Palo Duro backcountry. During our descent into South Cita Canyon, I asked Darla, “how did you become interested in finding these places?”. Her response shocked me, “I read your blog”. Darla is not a Llano native. Like most people, she saw this land as flat, featureless, and awful. She possessed the typical interstate and flyover attitudes about west Texas, and didn’t know the secrets of the Llano Estacado. Yet now, she has developed friendships with landowners and has had opportunities to photograph beautiful geologic and historic places in these canyons that I have not yet been privileged to see. Some of which, the landowners themselves had never explored. I never divulge locations and I do not encourage people to go into the backcountry themselves, but you see, that is the essence of this blog! It isn’t about getting the most novel photograph posted to social media. It is about history. It is about people (like Harvey), and winning the hearts and minds of modern west Texans, like Darla. It is only through raising awareness and knowledge of these special places which have been a part of this landscape for millennia, but unnoticed, under appreciated, and not adequately protected since settlement, that Texans will realize there is value in this land beyond the traditional agricultural practices that have done so much to deplete it of all things natural. In many ways this makes the Llano Canyons better than a national park. It isn’t a wilderness for those who like guidebooks, or informative roadside signs, or foreknowledge of what’s to be seen. It’s a wilderness where discovery is still possible today. True and unexpected natural wonders lye below our perception of the plains. When we recognize and appreciate that, real protection and conservation of this wilderness will become possible. The spirit of Harvey is waiting for that day in the Slenderman Slot of South Cita Canyon!
Wow, time flies! A lot has happened in the past five years. For one, my family and I moved away from the Llano Estacado for greener prairies to the east. Two, knowledge of the Palo Duro Canyon backcountry has increased among many local outdoor enthusiasts- and that is not a bad thing! Three, well, probably more things than I can reasonably list here. One thing that hasn’t changed is the exquisiteness of the slot in Sunday Canyon. The last time I photographed it was in December 2014, five years ago! A lot has changed.
Frosty Palo Duro Canyon
After my father and I experienced the warm glow of a cold winter morning on the lower CCC Trail, we struck out for a much longer stroll. We plotted a course for Sunday Canyon. I am sure time has flown by for my father too, probably much more so than for me. Although he has always been healthy and active, he isn’t getting any younger. Yet, he has managed to get into the canyon with me more than once this past year, and for his company I am grateful. He grew up exploring the canyons behind his childhood home on our family farm along Mulberry Creek at the mouth of Palo Duro Canyon. This day, however, would be his first hike deep into the backcountry of Palo Duro Canyon State Park, his first time to slot country. I had recently been looking for an opportunity to share a father-son experience in this canyon, but I thought it would include me bringing along my son, Jack. In an unexpected role reversal, it’s only natural that this hike came first. Maybe we can make it a three-generation hike soon!
Surveying the trail ahead
Boulder scramble to Sunday Canyon’s slot
By about 90 minutes into the hike, we were in the main stem of Sunday Canyon Creek. The terrain there changes from a broad sandy creek bottom, to flowing water, to a scramble up and around massive Trujillo boulders. As we ascended the box canyon below the slot, the boulders just got bigger, and the hike turned more into a climb. My father took his time and carefully progressed step-by-step, cautious not to aggravate old ankle injuries incurred running 5Ks. With his permission, I climbed ahead and entered the slot. I was just a little disappointed when he decided not to attempt the final ascent of the narrow two-tiered ledge required to make it into the slot. I thought it would be a downer for him to make the long hike out, and not see the inside of this beautiful slot canyon. Alas, he was content exploring around at the head of the box canyon, and stated several times that “there are certain things you just shouldn’t do when you are 68 years old“. Still, I regret not helping him rig some additional aids to make that final 15 foot climb.
When I first entered the slot, the low winter sun was not yet entering the mouth of the canyon with its iconic seasonal warm glow. I worked my way up and down the length of the feature getting various perspectives of the onset of color throughout as it reflected through one of the most photogenic canyons of the Llano.
Before midday, and not more than half an hour after our arrival, the warm glow I came to photograph arrived. The canyon, almost suddenly, lit up. At one point as I scouted for places to set up my camera and tripod, a non-trivial task within the tight confines of the slot, the thought crossed my mind that I should not duplicate images from past visits. It wasn’t long until I realized, that sand had sifted and boulders have moved, and some of the compositions I arranged in 2012 and 2014, were impossible to precisely duplicate now. Again, a lot has changed! However, I could tell from the Live View LCD monitor on my Canon DSLR, these were going to be good! And, the final results did not disappoint.
A lot really has changed in the past five years. During our egress along the Sunday Canyon route, we encountered a party of hikers heading in. This was the first time I have ever encountered another soul on a backcountry canyoneering adventure along the Caprock. There is no denying that the slots and other features of the Llano canyons are becoming more popular. My hope is that those that share my passion about this historic and unique landscape, those that truly wish to honor it, study it, and protect it, find ways to enjoy these places. While I will not share locations, promoting an increased awareness of the underappreciated natural value of the Llano Estacado is what it is all about.
As we returned to the trail network in the “civilized” parts of the state park, I realized how proud I was of my dad, for making an 8+ mile hike over very rough terrain. As I get older, I find myself battling more and more aches and pains all the time. Today, he gave me hope that I can continue to enjoy these canyons for MANY more years to come. Dad, I hope I can still make that hike when I am 68!
One of my favorite views in Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Winter is a special time in the Llano canyons, but then again – when isn’t? Sometimes special times are dictated by your company. One cold winter’s morn’, I was honored to have may father accompany me on a short hike to witness sunrise in the canyon. We had rushed out on the lower portion of the CCC Trail back in August, in hopes of catching a photogenic storm over the canyon. This time, we hoped to catch a different light, the warm glow of sunrise.
Dressed in layers to guard against the frosty morning, we paused to take in the sunrise at the end of a dramatic box canyon where a short and shallow slot pours off a vertical drop off. A few nearby Trujillo sandstone cliffs and rock overhangs were well positioned to catch alpenglow as the sun emerged over Goodnight Mesa.
About the time our fingers became numb from the cold, the rock overhang and opposing cliff sides rivaled the cirrus above the southern horizon in emitting warm orange reflected light. The scene looking out over lower Timber Creek Canyon was as dramatic as any canyon view in the West, in my opinion.
Sunrise glow viewed from the Lower CCC Trail
Within minutes, the sun erupted above the distant ridge of Goodnight Mesa and flooded the fleeting scene with more direct and uniform light.
Cell phone panoramic of sunrise
Once the light became more harsh on the rim, I retreated into the tiny crevice of the shallow miniature slot feature. Just enough sun was hitting the mouth of the slot’s pour out to create a warm glow that contrasted nicely with a blue sky backdrop splotted by scattered white high clouds.
The glow of sunrise on the CCC Slot
After a few quick photographs, I packed my camera gear, and we made the half mile trek back to the truck. It was a short and quick hike, but the experience will make a long lasting memory.
It is slot season in the Llano canyons! Yet, instead of lacing my boots and trekking in the west Texas backcountry, here I am- a state away tending to the business of being a parent and working professional. That’s okay. I am doing what I love. Of course, I love the High Plains canyons too. That’s why I am in deep reflection. Remembering discoveries, the revelations of our beloved canyon’s secrets, and the fact those secrets are not so big anymore, and pondering the ramifications.
My mind goes back to a distinct memory. I was a backcountry novice, and it was the fall of 2012. I recall standing above a particularly amazing slot canyon in the far reaches of Palo Duro Canyon State Park for the first time. As I stood there, my hiking partner, Tom, unbeknownst to me, took a picture of me soaking in the scene. I probably didn’t notice because I was deep in thought. I vividly remember thinking, “I can’t believe this is here, on public land” and “I can’t wait to someday share this place with my kids”.
Tom’s photo of the Caprock Canyoneer in the Palo Duro backcountry during fall of 2012.
In the years since, I have enjoyed visiting that site again, many times. Each time, my hiking partners and I have enjoyed complete solitude, and absolutely no trace of others, past or present. That is what makes places like this so special. Now, I frequently see social media posts featuring these sacred canyons. In fact, I have seen several new ones just this past week. During the past year, it seems posts on the Palo Duro slot canyons have accelerated a hundred fold. Some of my hiking friends who have contacts in the park service have heard rumors that the agency may take measures to legally enforce restrictions on visitation to these special sites due to the increased popularity. One friend actually encountered an armed ranger patrolling a backcountry route.
Is my blog to blame? I struggled with that question for a long time. In fact, I removed this blog from the internet for about one week last spring while I reasoned through the pros and cons. Ultimately, I came to realize this meager blog does not have the reach to spur this level of interest and response. Texas Parks & Wildlife themselves, however, published an article in the April 2018 edition of their magazine featuring some of the most guarded backcountry gems in the park. A strange and contradictory tactic for an agency that would in turn consider legal action against patrons that seek to enjoy these sites for themselves. While the pages of this blog have admittedly provided “breadcrumbs” helpful for a handful of highly motivated and experienced adventurers to ultimately find the coveted slots (and other hidden wonders) of Palo Duro’s backcountry, I can confidently say that no one has ever left this blog and trekked straight out to any of these places! Only through the inspiration found here, have some conducted their own independent research and homework to find the places I document. In the process, I would argue, The Caprock Canyoneer has educated and raised awareness of this forgotten outdoor wilderness on the Llano’s edge. If anything, it is my hope that knowledge and a renewed appreciation for natural adventure gained through the photographs and stories published here will somehow lead to conservation- in a place that has seen far too little.
To that end, I make this charge- the special places pictured above belong to the people. The taxpayers of Texas own them. I implore those that are lucky enough to experience these places to protect them! Protect them physically, and with your confidentiality. Few will ever find them, but those that do are those that care the most about the park, the land, its history, and its preservation. TPWD chose to capitalize on publicizing the Palo Duro backcountry. I hope that they will not in turn threaten legal enforcement prohibiting use of these public lands by those who truly love them, and those whose interest and passion for them motivates discovery of their secrets and extraordinary qualities.
There are certain photographs that are bucket-listers. Photographers dream of them. They plan for them. They purchase special equipment and arrange travel plans around the prospects of capturing them. The recent opportunity to photograph the ‘Eye of the Llano’ was one such accomplishment for me. Now as the summer draws to a close, I just missed another.
It was late in the evening when my dad and I went for a drive around the canyon. There were isolated thunderstorms in the area, but an hour before sunset, storm clouds began to gather right over Palo Duro. We made our way into the state park and began to walk out on the lower CCC Trail toward Goodnight Peak.
Storm clouds building over lower Palo Duro Canyon
As we walked down the trail, a few in-cloud flashed near a developing rain shaft, and rumbles of thunder could be heard. Since we lived in Amarillo several years back, I have envisioned capturing an image from the point of Goodnight Peak with a thunderstorm just down canyon. In my dreams, this shot would feature a sunlit east rim along Fortress Cliff with a rainbow and cloud-to-ground lightning striking down the canyon. Three years ago, I even purchased a new lightning trigger specifically to help me capture a daytime lightning strike for the sole purpose of getting this shot. As the storm clouds continued to develop, I wondered if today might be the day!
Just shy of the Trujillo capped point of Goodnight Peak, we came to a vantage of sweeping vista down the canyon. It looked like the perfect place to gain the view I needed for this once-in-a-lifetime shot, but yet offer quick egress should the storm get a little too close for comfort. Dad had never ventured down this stretch of trail before, and was soaking in the view from above the Texas amphitheater. As I rushed to set up my DSLR, tripod, and lightning trigger, I noticed him pondering the view from the rim. Quickly, I grabbed my cell phone for a picture of him enjoying the canyon scene below us. Then, I continued to prep for what I was certain would be that coveted once-in-a-lifetime picture. By the time I finalized the composition, rain curtains were cascading down the lower part of the canyon. A rainbow was brightening just beyond Fortress Cliff. The scene was perfectly set! I already knew exactly where in my office I planned to hang an enlarged framed print.
Within minutes of setting up a nice composition and engaging the lightning trigger, a brilliant cloud-to-ground lightning strike arced from the fledgling storm, and struck just above the alpenglow on Fortress Cliff. I instinctively raised my hands in the air in celebration as the crackling sound of thunder echoed up the canyon- warning us that our presence on the rim was no longer safe. Then my heart stopped! Was it the realization that the first lightning strike was too close and we were exposed and at risk? No. It was the realization that my new toy, that fancy lightning trigger, failed! Utterly disappointed, I manually clicked the shutter to capture what could have been, minus the lightning.
Imagine this image with a brilliant lightning strike hitting Fortress Cliff- that’s what I missed!
We stayed past Mother Nature’s welcome, pushing our luck in hopes that just one more bolt might replicate the scene. Alas, it never did. That one lightning strike was the ONLY cloud-to-ground strike the storm produced before rain intensified and overspread the canyon. By the time it did, we were sitting in the dry comfort of the vehicle in disbelief of what happened, and the opportunity missed. Even if the images fell short of that once-in-a-lifetime photograph, the attempt was rewarded with beautiful images. I will continue to pursue that special shot- regardless of how long it takes to capture it. If nothing else, this day’s experience taught me that it is indeed possible. You just have to be there, and have everything working properly. How hard is it?!?!
The glory of Palo Duro Canyon
Another Day… Just Walked Away
Still reeling in the failed lightning capture of the previous evening, I was able to spend the next afternoon in the canyon as well. I started to head down the Equestrian Trail to explore some familiar sites, but my heart wasn’t in it. I made it perhaps a quarter mile before a sense of melancholy came over me. The sky was gray and the prospects for colorful photography was non-existent, as storm clouds were gathering in the distant north. The storms were too far away to offer a repeat attempt at that once-in-a-lifetime shot that I missed yesterday. There, I paused upon a high spot and just took in the scene. I sat there and soaked in everything I could from this landscape that I love. Yet I was totally void of motivation to explore, to do anything more than sit still and observe. I noticed the filtered rays of the setting sunshine (soon to be eclipsed by distant storm clouds) glistening off cottonwoods along the river and filling the slopes on the distant canyon wall. The Tecovas sandstone was illuminated above Mesquite Campground to my north. The scene was peaceful, but not photogenic, and to be honest- there was nothing I hadn’t seen before.
Panoramic of lower Palo Duro Canyon from the Equestrian Trail
On my way out of the canyon, the unsettled feeling I experienced on this day was confirmed. A rattlesnake slithered across the path into a small washout on the far side. The slithering viper never alerted me, nor seemed alerted to my presence. It just slowly made its way across the dirt as if just to say, “you don’t belong here today, I do!”.
My nonchalant reaction to the canyon today was not a sulking reaction to yesterday’s failure. However, I do feel it was a turning point in my canyon adventures. There isn’t a lot left for me to labor over in Palo Duro Canyon, especially in the oppressive summer heat, and especially in less than ideal sky/light conditions. Perhaps a new season of my relationship with the Llano Canyons is afoot. I have long wanted to extend what little influence I might have toward conserving this region into a venue beyond the scope of this meager blog. It may take years to do so, but it may be time to start focusing my energy on those goals. That does not mean I will no longer wander in this forgotten wilderness- of course I will! I just feel as if the current cultural and political climate are ripe for a more thorough treatment and debate on access and protection of the Llano canyon country. Until I formulate these thoughts, I’ll keep trying for those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.