By Courtney Kemp
There is something about summertime in Texas. The sunsets shine a little brighter and the iced tea flows a little more freely. The warmer temperatures also signal that it is time to unwind, slow down and take the time to relax with family. So when the days got longer, we knew it was time to pack up the car and embark on our first family vacation of the season.
This year as our son, Jake, prepares to enter high school and our daughter, Susana, middle school, we wanted to take advantage of the freedom summer provides by enjoying spontaneous weekend getaways full of memorable experiences for everyone. My husband suggested that we unplug from our busy schedules and explore the great outdoors together. After reviewing Fodor's list of America's 10 Best State Parks, we set our sights on Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in the U.S. While the Grand Canyon takes the number one title, Palo Duro Canyon is conveniently located in our own backyard; just a road trip away outside of Amarillo!
Adding to the stress-free spirit of our adventure, we secured a hotel room in the heart of Amarillo. With our overnight bags packed and hotel secured, we were ready to hit the road!
As we turned onto Highway 287 and said goodbye to the congested city life, the journey to this gem became part of the amazing experience. The open road was a welcomed relief as we took in miles of open space. Jake couldn't believe the unobstructed views, and we passed the time by singing along to our favorite old country songs and counting the number of trucks and farm fields we passed along the way.
We arrived at our home for the evening, in the heart of Amarillo. While only 20 miles from the natural masterpiece, we found ourselves enjoying modern comforts - like a pool and spacious accommodations - in close proximity to the canyon.
We checked in to the hotel and enjoyed a swim before spending family time relaxing around the hotel's fire pit. Being outside under the stars seemed to have a way of encouraging summer camp style conversations, laughter and leisure. Jake and Susana discussed which summer movies they were most looking forward to seeing, and we all left behind talk of work, chores or school. Instead we were living in the moment, joking about who would scream the loudest if we saw a snake and placing bets on who could eat the most s'mores.
As we enjoyed this moment under the changing night sky, Susana and Jake began to discuss our hike options for the following day, reviewing all of the options on our trail map. Jake wanted to take in scenery, Susana wanted to spot some wildlife and my husband wanted a relaxing experience. We decided the Rojo Grande hike, which offers shady trails along the canyon river, would satisfy all of the criteria.
The next morning, my husband and I woke up extra early and grabbed a cup of coffee. A few minutes later we woke the kids - we're not sure if it was the anticipation for the day's activities or the smell of freshly brewed coffee that encouraged them to get going earlier than usual - and we all put on our hiking boots and geared up for a sunrise hike.
Energized and ready to conquer the day, we made our way to the trails for a morning of extraordinary hikes.
Our journey to Palo Duro Canyon took us through expansive Texas grasslands that stretched for miles. Then suddenly, the open prairie fell away and the canyon came into view. We were shocked to be on the edge of the canyon. The road snaked its way down and gave way to the rugged beauty and ruddy earth tones of Palo Duro Canyon. Magnificent. It left us speechless.
While the view of the canyon from the road was awe-inspiring, the experience of walking through the canyons and experiencing it up close was an incredible highlight. Touching the porous canyon walls and hearing the gentle rustle of tree branches swaying in the breeze brought the picturesque views to life. And when we thought we made a wrong turn, Susana viewed the map and ensured that we were on the right course - proving that she could set the course and stick to it.
After taking in the sprawling views, we decided to check out the family-friendly Pioneer Nature Trail, which looped down to the river showcasing another level of views and experiences. The river provided relaxing scenery with tall grass, green trees and bushes with the rolling, rocky canyon in the distance. This calm destination provided the perfect spot for us to dip our toes in water, have a breakfast picnic, and enjoy each other's company.
Feeling invigorated and accomplished by our morning adventure, we returned to our hotel to relax for the afternoon and shower before exploring another more artistic side of Palo Duro Canyon: "TEXAS" the musical, the state's official play.
Recommended by our concierge, this uniquely Texas experience brings the story of the Panhandle's early settlers to life with a cast of more than 60 actors, singers and dancers. The setting alone for this outdoor musical is worth the ticket as you are seated in an immense outdoor amphitheater carved and nestled into a natural basin with unobstructed views of the canyon around you. We arrived early to enjoy the full "TEXAS" experience, complete with a chuck wagon barbecue dinner served on the amphitheater's covered patio.
With full bellies, we settled into our seats for the start of the show. In the distance, atop a 600 foot cliff appeared a lone horseman carrying the Texas flag. This image, with a burst of fireworks and swell of music, signaled the start of this visual voyage. We were captivated! Dancers twirled and the music and songs kept us tapping our toes and clapping throughout the performance. You know that the performance was engaging and memorable when even your teen and pre-teen children walk away with smiles on their faces.
By the end of the show, the sun had set and the dark night sky was above us, providing another visual treat as we gazed up at the thousands and millions of twinkling stars in the clear sky. Susana told us that she was going to miss the canyon and these endless skies. It was her first time to witness such an extraordinary starry sky. We felt the power and vastness of nature at that moment. Simultaneously feeling small compared to the scope of the canyon and the endless sky, yet also so connected to each other and the world around us.
As we prepared to return home from our canyon getaway, we took a few moments to reflect on our experience. The hikes, outdoor musical, starry night sky, fire pit conversations, swimming and shared family experiences were the perfect cure to our busy lives.
As we drove away, Jake had the best advice: "So, we're doing this again next week, right?!"
For more authentic Amarillo experiences, check out how to eat and play like cowboys and cowgirls in the Texas Panhandle.