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.
It was dark, with only the light from a full moon, when we started on the Lighthouse Trail. Our target, however, was not the icon of the Panhandle. It was instead one of the most prominent peaks in Palo Duro Canyon State Park that most hikers skirt around on their way to the Lighthouse. Guided by the light of the moon and our headlamps, Barry, Jack, and I were about a quarter of a mile up the familiar trail when a pack of coyotes began singing an early morning symphony up Capitol Peak Canyon. That’s when I knew, we were going to have an especially great day!
The ascent up Capitol Peak is actually easier than it looks. I know that statement may encourage a few less-than-prepared hikers to attempt it, but there is actually a fairly worn path, or at least what works for one, well traced by a steep arroyo. There was just enough light for us to discard our headlamps by the time we reached the peak. We were immediately greeted with a remarkable scene of the descending moon over Capitol Mesa to our southwest.
Pre-sunrise view to the southwest from atop Capitol Peak
Pre-sunrise view northeast of Capitol Peak
The plan on this morning was to shoot sunrise from atop the peak, but fortuitous timing with the lunar phase made for outstanding photogenic opportunities in both directions. Barry and I passed each other hurriedly and precariously on the narrow sandstone edge just below the pinnacle of the peak- alternating between setting up our cameras toward the west, then the east, then toward the west again, all as the lighting quickly changed and was accented by shifting colors in passing clouds.
With every passing minute the color intensified all around us. The moon gracefully setting in the southwestern sky beyond the dramatic colorful forms of Capitol Mesa and the Sunday Canyons, and the sun teasing to burst over the east rim just north of Fortress Cliff- 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Finally, just as the first rays of sunlight began to illuminate the upper elevations of the distant canyon cliffs, the brilliant colors of the Tecovas sandstone layer exploded to life.
An explosion of color in the Tecovas layer looking toward Capitol Mesa & the Sunday Canyons
The sun edging over the east rim. YouTube time lapse video here
The show was far from over at sunrise. We stayed perched on top of Capitol Peak throughout Golden Hour as the new morning light spread up the canyon. It was a dramatic scene as valleys filled with illuminating rays and dark shadows persisted behind obstructing canyon walls.
Panoramic view toward the Sunday Flats
By the time we started our descent, the number of hikers just starting their morning journeys on the Lighthouse Trail was increasing. We watched several groups heading out to beat the day’s summer heat. The route down looked more treacherous in the daylight! Below are images of Jack and I ready for the descent (Barry’s photo used with permission), and then Barry leading the way down the steep slope.
About mid way down, I managed to get a good panoramic of Barry paused and arranging his pack. I wish I would have realized just how dramatic the terrain looked in the composition, and how well framed the sun was emerging over Fortress Cliff, because I would have had Barry pose more appropriately! However, the image is great for scale and dramatic effect!
Panoramic of Barry and the dramatic descent of Capitol Peak
Barry’s photo of Jack and me
Alas, this morning sunrise hike to Capitol Peak far exceeded my expectations. It was a great hike, with great company. The scenery was first class when it comes to the multitude of potential photogenic angles. Barry commented that there were photo ops at literally every direction and every perspective, and that was a true statement. It was as if we needed multiple DSLRs on tripods that could be activated remotely to get all of the shots that presented themselves. Between the two of us, however, I think we captured the glory of this beautiful summer morning pretty well! The hike was not all a cake walk. I took a pretty good fall and slide at the top of the Tecovas layer (which I hate just for that reason). The fall put a superficial ding on my camera body, and one onto my body as well. Oh well, it isn’t a good hike until there is a little blood!
When I think of the critters that occupy the Llano canyons, I don’t necessarily think of snails. Yet, it was a snail that captured the attention of my son, our hiking friend Barry, and I on one hot summer morning. About a week prior to our adventure, a hiker was scouting new routes up the east/north rim of Palo Duro Canyon, when he encountered an interesting piece of rock art. The distinct image of a snail was etched into stone along an obscure back country arroyo. The hiker posted a picture of the find on social media. I have researched rock art sites in and around Palo Duro Canyon for years, but this one was unknown to me. Needless to say, I was excited to find and document the imaged gastropod myself!
With just a little bit of guidance from the discovering hiker, we quickly found the snail which was hiding in plain site on a large calved Trujillo boulder. The rock containing the snail image sits on a steep slope, and was actually not very easy to photograph. The snail itself is very near the current dry water course, and there are at least two other etchings on the same rock, both are apparent English initials. Barry conducted a fairly thorough search of nearby rocks, and found no other rock art sites.
Snail rock art site in Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Snail & “XXT” initial with adjacent arroyo
Of course, we have no way to know the origins of the snail petroglyph. Was it etched here centuries ago by a Native American? I don’t know. Reading up on rock art in the greater American Southwest suggests some Indian cultures did indeed draw snails, and the spiral pattern seen on this particular example’s shell was a common geometric design in Native American rock art. The proximity of English initials raise some doubt. Were these so called ‘cowboy art’ initials? Again, we have no way to know. One appeared to read “XXT” and the other “LW”. I thought there was another set of initials that were eligible, but they could not be distinguished. Our eyewitness impression was this- it seems highly unlikely that modern vandals would hike into this portion of the canyon to sketch, of all things, a snail, onto this particular rock.
I would like to use this opportunity as a call to action for local landowners and property stewards. There are many rock art sites in the area of Palo Duro Canyon, many more further south along the Caprock and along the Canadian River. Although many exist, access to them is strongly guarded by private ownership, and rightfully so given the disrespect we see similar sites afforded by thuggish vandals and graffiti artists elsewhere. As a Texas Panhandle native, however, I can tell you almost no modern residents have knowledge of the history written in these stones. It is the objective of this blog to not only document the existence of such sites in the Llano canyons in a respectful manner while maintaining their anonymity, but to provide a little context to them when possible so that today’s residents realize the depth of natural and human history here- which dates to some of the earliest occupation in North America! Why don’t we acknowledge that? Why don’t we educate our youth about High Plains geology and history? The opportunities to teach kids an appreciation for nature and history on the southern High Plains is immense, and we are missing it!!! That’s a topic for which I have a great passion (being a Texas Panhandle native that became a physical scientist), but better discussed in a future blog entry all to itself. Stories of Native American shamans, serpents and creatures etched in stone, and depictions of historic events that shaped our region of Texas into what it is today are all told by the rock art in the canyons of the Llano Estacado. What makes Llano rock art sites different from those in the West is that our’s are perishable, particularly vulnerable to weathering, erosion, and destruction from natural forces. They will not survive indefinitely, and so, it is prudent to document and photograph as many of them as possible while they are still here. I ask my readers, if you happen to know of or have access to one of these precious sites, please consider allowing them to be photographed and their stories told.
I would like to give a huge thanks to Jim for providing intelligence on this wonderful find in the state park, and congratulations!
“What else is out there?“. That is a question I have asked on the pages of this blog many, many times. Typically my asking is rhetorical, at least in a sense. But the natural features of the Llano Estacado’s Caprock Escarpment continue to amaze me. While so much of it remains behind barbed wire and no trespassing signs, there is plenty of room for new discoveries, new surprises. The fact that a truly remarkable photographic treasure could be deeply hidden within the most remote recesses of the west Texas canyons should surprise no one less than me, yet it still does. Most surprising, is just how unknown some the of Caprock’s true treasures really are. Potentially iconic landscapes remain yet unseen. Is it possible that literally no one has laid eyes on some of these special places, at least since settlement? I am beginning to think that it is!
Barry walking through knee-high grass in the flood plain
A sludgy trudge down a swampy creek was how Barry and I started our day on a mild summer morning. Once we entered an unnamed creek bottom below the rim of the Caprock on a remote private ranch, we found the main stream overflowing from copious spring rains. Lush green grass covered the floodplain and obscured the normal flow of water from muddy top soil. It literally seemed as if we were walking on a floating carpet of knee-high vegetation as bull frogs croaked and dove for cover as we approached. We had walked for miles, battling an infestation of horse flies all the way, before we entered the upper reaches of the creek bed. There, the character of the terrain changed from a broad shallow drainage to a narrow stretch of winding vertical sandstone walls. Once in the narrows, we turned to parallel an innocuous arroyo.
Barry trekking through vertical sandstone walls
There was absolutely nothing notable about the junction of the main stem creek bed and the side creek that intersected it. In fact, juniper branches obstructed a direct passage of the narrow water channel. Achieving a relative high point, we could look down into the side creek and see what appeared to be a small natural amphitheater with a well hidden slot emerging from a faux rim of Trujillo.
The slot could only be approached from above, so we walked up canyon a few hundred yards and then descended into the minor side canyon, landing at the head of a shallow sinuously weaving slot. Working our way down the narrow passage (GoPro survey of the slot from above), we climbed down into a deep cylindrical keeper hole which was partitioned by a remarkable spiraling sandstone arch. The arch offered an eye-level window view into a deep cavern before falling into a vertical drop which ended in another water-filled keeper. You can take in the scene in this short GoPro clip.
There is nothing immediately impressive about this arched slot, except that it harbors an arch! In my experience hiking the canyons of the Llano Estacado, this is one of the most uniquely photogenic and potentially iconic features I have encountered. Barry and I dubbed it the ‘Eye of the Llano’. The Eye itself is not large, probably measuring about four feet in width and three feet in height, but it looks larger than life when photographed. The Trujillo sandstone leg upon which it is perched is a good two feet thick, so it seems unlikely to be fragile and vulnerable to destruction by flash floods. The wall behind the Eye is beautifully striated with the imprint of many years of erosion from flowing floods, and is wonderfully illuminated by indirect sunlight.
Vertical composition of the Eye of the Llano
Composited multi-exposure panoramic of the Eye of the Llano
If this post seems vague and particularly short on logistical details of our hike, it is by design! There will be no breadcrumbs to follow offered here. The Eye of the Llano is the epitome of a hidden secret. I even debated whether or not to post this adventure account, but ultimately decided such adventure IS the essence of this blog. The sole purpose of the Caprock Canyoneer is to feature the most spectacular natural beauty to be found in the forgotten Caprock canyonlands wilderness, and to educate west Texans about special places that lay beneath the Llano- out of sight and out of mind of modern west Texans. I can’t think of another place in these canyons that sheds more light on the uniqueness of the Staked Plains.
Spring proved to be a very busy time, both at home and professionally. So, I had not been able to make it out to the Caprock since spring break. The weather was unsettled as well, with frequent storms and above normal rainfall, which even prompted occasional trail closures at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Now it was June, and storms once again were in the forecast for the park. Finally having a weekend reprieve from my own responsibilities, I was excited about getting an opportunity to photograph dramatic skies over the canyon. I was torn between a desire to capture a storm over the park proper from the rim (hopefully with lightning and a rainbow) or perhaps a beautiful sunset with distant storms visible from the Lighthouse. Not that would be my decision. Mother Nature would determine what photographs she would afford me. So, not knowing exactly what would transpire, I made the four hour drive west to Llano country!
When I arrived at the park, I was greeted by the musical Texas cowhand assistant at the gate, and clear blue skies! There was hardly a cloud to be found! By the time I worked my way down the canyon to the Lighthouse trail head at 6:45 pm, I could barely see the fuzzy outline of a few small towering cumulus clouds in the distant south, but absolutely no sign of the imminent thunderstorms that were forecast. Now I had a decision to make, do I wait on the rim for the apparently low possibility that the pitiful looking little clouds on the horizon blossom into a photogenic storm over the canyon, or do I hike out for a boring sunset at the Lighthouse? My decision, I chose to accept the fact that all I might get on this hike could be a sunburn and the enjoyment of a quiet sunset at the Lighthouse, and I trekked out!
Once I started the hike on the Lighthouse Trail, I was immediately struck by an apparition I had not seen in the canyon for nearly a decade. The appearance of lush, green, and colorful vegetation, the likes of which I haven’t seen here since the summer of 2010. The valley of Capitol Peak Canyon was bursting with waist-high fields of wildflowers. The color contrasted nicely with the sandstone canyon walls to give a unique landscape unlike any of the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau- certainly a phenomenon novel to this ‘near-west’ canyonated tableland. Thanks to all of the spring rain, the canyon was alive with color, and it was refreshing to see.
Of course, that also meant it was hot, humid, and full of swarming horse flies! Within a mile of the onset of my hike, I had shielded myself as best as possible with a cold cloth. While this may seem miserable, it wasn’t. As I cleared the valley and rounded the north side of Capitol Peak, that familiar feeling of entering my happy place settled over me! The brilliantly colored Tecovas covered canyon walls reminded me of just how much I love this place. I recall praying as I walked that I never forget the sense of home this canyon gives me. I managed to achieve the Lighthouse in 45 minutes. That has become my standard transit time to the familiar monolith. This time, however, it hurt. I felt very out-of-shape by the time I crested the final scrambling ascent below the Lighthouse. Once there, I paused to catch my breath on the park bench, then slowly wandered along the west side to look for photo perspectives. I was hoping there would be more wildflowers there, but alas, there were not.
Panoramic from west side of the Lighthouse
Still too winded (or just too lazy) to walk back around and climb up below the Lighthouse to the north, the normal angle of approach, I opted to just go straight up from here. I ascended the dirt and rocks straight toward the sandstone fin behind the peak from the west. There I ran face-to-face with another photographer. It was just us, so we waited there for sunset to approach. As the promise of more dramatic light offered by the disappearing sun approached, I scaled the sandstone fin and took up a position at the ready to capture it. There, I set up my Canon DSLR, and shot a short time lapse video with my new GoPro.
Facing the west-northwest to photograph the sunset, it was all clear, and boring. Yet the scene never gets old. The sky turned a pale golden yellow as the last rays of light illuminated the icon of the Texas Panhandle.
As I descended from the fin, the fuzzy clouds now down canyon to the southeast were becoming more defined. Still unsure how the weather would pan out through the remainder of the evening, I scrambled back down to look for an angle to include the developing storms and the Lighthouse in the same field of view. It wasn’t easy to do, but returning to the west side of the mesa below the Lighthouse, I was able to gain a composition framing the cumulonimbus alpenglow behind a dramatic foreground as the thunderstorm erupted like a bomb.
As darkness spread throughout the canyon, I made tracks back toward the trailhead, and lightning increasingly sparked from the atmospheric power on display beyond the east rim of the country’s second longest canyon system. About one mile away from my car, I paused to set up the camera once again to capture nature’s light show above Capitol Peak and Fortress Cliff. It wasn’t the stormy canyonscape I had envisioned six hours earlier when I left Oklahoma, but I can say I am not disappointed!
A ‘boring’ hike to the Lighthouse? Ha, I guess there is really no such thing!
Thunderstorms beyond Capitol Peak and Fortress Cliff