Why is more than half of Palo Duro Canyon State Park closed to the public?
The park is closed for four reasons. First, since the 1980's, Texas Parks and Wildlife has leased out state park land to ranchers for cattle grazing. Though Palo Duro grazing leases say that visitors should still be able to enjoy recreation on those pastures, some ranchers worry careless hikers might inadvertently release cattle. Some agreement, then, must be reached between the park and its lessees before the area can open. Second, park administration has been clear that the park is closed to protect "sensitive cultural and ecological resources." Some closed portions of the park do have Native American artifacts and sacred spaces. We are not advocating that TPWD open those areas. But other areas have no known cultural or historical significance, and an archaeological survey of the entire park is impossible. It's also hard to believe that ecologically sensitive areas are too fragile for hikers but not also threatened by cattle, hogs, and hunters. Third, the park says that it does not have the roads or personnel to rescue hikers from the Palo Duro backcountry. The park is, however, able to ticket hikers in said backcountry within an hour of discovering them on trail cam. Proposed trails follow a network of roads, some of them maintained very regularly. And wilderness, in its very definition, involves risk. Many wilderness areas in national forests and national parks have no roads or motorized vehicles allowed, and they have terrain that makes rescue difficult. The public is still allowed to enter htose areas. Fourth, the park is waiting on yet another Park Use Plan/Master Plan before it moves forward with any development. The PUPs that have been in place for the last twenty years have been deemed inadequate.
But wait! Palo Duro Canyon State Park staff say the backcountry is actually open! What's going on?
There are actually two "backcountry" areas in Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and the difference between them is mostly a linguistic one. The "backcountry camping area," just past the Equestrian trailhead at the end of Park Road 5, is a 10-acre parcel where backcountry camping is still allowed in the park. This area IS open. The "backcountry" we are talking about at Open Palo Duro, though, is 15,000 acres of land that does not currently have developed trails or camping facilities. This acreage does have older trails and picnicking/ and camping areas from the 40's-60's, maintained ranch roads throughout, and the Canoncita addition and Gilvin Ranch House, but it is NOT open to the public.
Can Texas Parks and Wildlife lease public land to the highest bidder?
Yes. In 1981, the Texas State Legislature passed a law that allows TPWD to lease land for grazing. Bids for grazing leases for PDCSP were first taken in late 1981 and early 1982.
How long have these lands been closed? Have they ever been open?
Many of these areas were popular hiking and horse riding spots until the early 2000s. Cathedral Peak, Monkey Hall, the Kneeling Camel, and North Cita Creek were all regularly visited. In April of 2018, Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine even featured an article on the Palo Duro Canyon backcountry. A reporter and his guides explored hidden Palo Duro spots, setting off a wave of visitors looking for them. If these areas were closed, TPWD magazine staff were not aware of the situation. After 2019, however, backcountry camping policy at Palo Duro Canyon State Park changed. In January of that year, backcountry camping was limited to a 10-acre (2-block) section at the end of the Equestrian trail. Campers registering for the backcountry were told that they would be ticketed if found elsewhere.
Did the State Park ever have plans to open these areas?
Yes! Trails were planned throughout the closed areas, along with backcountry campgrounds and, in Canoncita, a research, learning, and meeting facility. You can see these plans in the Open Records section of this website, or by clicking below.
What will happen if I hike in a restricted area?
You will be ticketed and told to leave the area.
What is the fine for entering a restricted area?
The fine has consistently been $216 for "entering a closed area of the park."
What's Mesquite Park?
Mesquite Park is the mesa top just south of developed trails in the park. It sits between the canyon carved by the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River and North Cita Creek. Visitors must go over or around Mesquite Park to reach North Cita Canyon and Canoncita.
Where is North Cita Canyon?
North Cita Canyon is a canyon and creek system just south of the developed area of the park. Yes, Palo Duro Canyon State Park has an entire additional canyon that is as at least as astounding as the one you see while driving into the park.
What is Canoncita?
Canoncita is a ranch house and land parcel donated to the Amarillo Area Foundation by the Gilvin Family in 2001. The AAF subsequently sold the parcel to Texas Parks and Wildlife for over $1 million. Money from that sale was then put into an endowment for the park to use to renovate the ranch house and maintain the land. The ranch house renovation used most of that money as its first two phases added meeting and sleeping areas. Canoncita has not opened to the public, however, since 2001 or since the renovation was mostly competed in 2014. Park staff live in the ranch compound today, and its used for park personnel meetings and housing for hunters participating in the two drawn winter hunts in the state park. Even after the $1 million+ renovation, the well at the ranch house is in disrepair, and there is no safe drinking water at Canoncita. Hikers found in Canoncita have been recently cited.
Will opening more of the park negatively impact wilderness and culturally important areas?
This is a nuanced question with a nuanced answer. People do tend to leave trash and graffiti in public spaces. And, on the surface, closing those areas solves the problem. But human nature complicates things again; even when an area is closed, people will still go there. The Palo Duro Canyon backcountry, then, is already feeling the impact of visitors. A limited permit system would allow the park to keep track of who is out there and when and where they are going. It would also help focus potential rescue efforts, and thus keep places and people safer.
How do you know all of this information about closed areas of the park?
We research, talk, and listen. As soon as we learned most of Palo Duro Canyon State Park was closed to all visitation, we talked to the park and submitted Open Records Requests when the park would not answer our questions. We try to talk to the park, other hikers, mountain bikers, volunteers, our legislative representatives, and surrounding ranchers to learn more about these issues and discover possible solutions together. You can access our Open Records page by clicking the link below.
Is the park working on a new Park Use Plan?
Yes. As of Spring 2022 Palo Duro Canyon State Park was on a waiting list to get a new PUP. Texas Parks and Wildlife has a limited number of park planners, so there may be a significant wait before PDC State Park's turn. After that, it could take two years or more before a new PUP is approved.
Is this a money issue? Does the park need more funding?
All of our state parks need more funding, and Palo Duro Canyon definitely needs more money for trail maintenance, park development, and additional staff. While PDC State Park's visitation has more than doubled, its staff have been cut in half; the park is operating on a skeleton crew. Less than half of the state park's revenue from visitor fees actually says at Palo Duro. Our local Partners group does donate and volunteer at the park, but they do not address trails. If you'd like to help, you can donate to the park or contact your local representative. The link below will help.
What have you done so far to help open Palo Duro?
Our group of hikers and researchers loves and protects Palo Duro Canyon. This includes following leave no trace principles and teaching them to others. We have explored the backcountry and know what it can do to help our local communities and people throughout Texas. We are dedicated to getting the word out about the PDC State Park closure; the park is quiet about the issue. We have submitted records requests, sorted through the documents those requests generated, met with park personnel, called our local state representatives, submitted testimony to the Texas House Committee on Culture, Recreation, and Tourism, and created this website. We attempted to form a nonprofit in partnership with the state park to fundraise and volunteer to improve trails, but were stopped from doing so by PDC State Park personnel.
Why are you doing this?
We are doing this because we love Palo Duro Canyon and its backcountry, because we believe that a limited permit system is a safer option than trespassing and tickets, and because public land belongs to the public. The Palo Duro Canyon backcountry belongs to the people of Texas.
How can I help open Palo Duro?
You can contact the park and your local state representatives to ask them to keep more of Palo Duro Canyon State Park revenue at Palo Duro, to fast-track the new PDC State Park Park Use Plan, to make sure that the new plan includes trails into the backcountry and that those trails are eventually built, and to open Canoncita to public use as the Gilvin family intended. For more information, click the link below.
What if I have more questions?
This is a complicated problem, and its impossible to communicate all of its intricacies here. So, if you have more questions, please email us via the link below.