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Cover Story - Posted March 30, 2010 8:22 a.m.
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photo by Candace West

Your Guide to Playing in the Panhandle

Spring is here and that means it’s time to get back outside. For the outdoor adventure seeker, it means planning a one-day hike, a weekend excursion or a weeklong trek in the wilderness. It means throwing your bike on a roof rack and driving to the nearest trail or taking your kids on a leisurely drive to check out the wildlife. Whatever your interest, we’ll tell you what the Panhandle has to cure your cabin fever.

(For larger images, click on the photo gallery to your right.)

1. Palo Duro State Park
11450 Park Rd. 5
Canyon, TX 79015
806.488.2227

It’s only fitting to start here. Nicknamed the Grand Canyon of Texas, its size gives the Panhandle its claim to housing the second largest canyon in North America (after the Grand Canyon, naturally). Officially opened on July 4, 1934, the Palo Duro State Park is located 12 miles east of Canyon and maintained by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. It spans more than 20,000 acres of rugged terrain, stretching 800-feet deep into the earth and stretching 120 miles long. The canyon formations were carved out by the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River centuries ago, revealing the archeological history of the area and providing a magnificent view from the rim. Inside the park are 25 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails, as well as tent campsites, picnic areas and restrooms. Furnished cabins are also available to rent for those who don’t necessarily want to sleep outside. On the southern end of the park is a large horse trailer parking area with a corral and watering station for equestrian camping. (Horses can be rented for day use at the Old West Stables inside the park.) The Palo Duro Canyon is a haven for multitudes of wildlife, like white tail and mule deer, wild turkey, coyotes, rabbits and rattlesnakes. By summer, much of the vegetation will be in full bloom. Upon driving along the entrance rim of the canyon, look for the longhorn steers, part of the official Texas State Longhorn Heard. Season: Park open seven days a week year-round
Palo Duro Canyon State Park

2. Copper Breaks State Park
777 Park Rd. 62
Quanah, TX 79525
940.839.4331

Located 13 miles south of Quanah (or 11 miles north of Crowell on TX 6), the southern boundary of the park is bordered by the Pease River, a tributary of the Red River. Total acreage reaches nearly 1900 with 70 acres in lakes and ponds. There are 9 ½ miles of equestrian trails and areas for equestrian campers on the north side of the park. There is a separate trail for bikers and backpackers, as well as tent campsites and picnic areas. Lake and ponds have water. Season: open year round.

3. McClellan Creek National Grasslands Recreation Area
12 miles east of Groom, TX (off I-40)
580.497.2143

The area has nearly 1,500 acres of recreation space, managed by the USDA Forest Service under the Cibola National Forest, and offers 40 campsites (17 with hookups), as well as fishing and wildlife-viewing opportunities at Lake McClellan when it’s full. (Call ahead in case the area is suffering from a drought.) Much of the grasslands are undeveloped, though there are a number of smaller hiking trails to enjoy. Season: open year round
Lake McClellan

4. Caprock Canyons State Park and Trailway
PO Box 204
Quitaque, TX 79255
806.455.1492

Opened in 1982, the park is located three miles north of Quitaque, just 100 miles southeast of Amarillo. Bordered on the north by TX 256, the park entrance is on the south and most accessible by traveling north through Quitaque on RR 1065. Lake Theo, 120 acres and 30-ft deep (when full), is open for no-wake boating, fishing and swimming. The entire park is a little more than 15,000 acres, including a 64-mile converted Rail-to-Trail area, and gets its name from the rugged, southern high plains landscape. Caprock Canyon boasts 13 trails, more than 90 miles of hiking, biking and riding trails, some with steep climbs and descents, which is ideal for the more experienced adventure seeker. There are several tent camping areas with grills and picnic tables (along with a few primitive sites), as well as an area for horses in the Northeast section of the park. Expect to see a variety of wildlife, like mule deer, coyotes, more than a hundred species of birds and the rare Golden Eagle. The official Texas State Bison Herd – the largest herd of buffalo in the state park system – also calls the canyons home. The park includes a boat ramp, fishing pier, a swimming beach and seasonal concessions. Season camping/hiking: open year round.
Caprock Canyons

5. Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge
PO Box 549
Muleshoe, TX 79347
806.946.3341

As the oldest national wildlife refuge in Texas, it’s a trip worth taking. Muleshoe NWR was established in 1935 as a wintering area for migratory waterfowl and cranes. Roughly 320 species of birds have been identified in the refuge and can be viewed in larger numbers in the spring and fall seasons. Muleshoe NWR has nearly 6,000 acres of land protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a camping area near the refuge headquarters. Muleshoe has three sink-type lakes with no outlets that tend to run lower in seasons of drought, so it’s best to call ahead to check water levels if you’re interested in wildlife viewing. (The exception is Upper Paul’s Lake, which is spring fed.) In addition to primitive camping, available on site are fire pits, grills, picnic tables and restrooms, as well as a one-mile nature trail. From Muleshoe, take TX 214 south 20 miles, then west 2 ¼ miles on Caliche Road to the headquarters. Season: open year round
Muleshoe NWR

6. Ceta Canyon Camp and Retreat Center
37201 FM 1721
Happy, TX 79042
806.488.2268

Just 30 minutes southeast of Canyon, Texas, Ceta Canyon is 316 acres of land purchased by the Northwest Texas United Methodist Conference in 1925 for the purpose of establishing a camp. And while the facility is an ideal set-up for retreats, reunions and outdoor education programs, it’s also open to the public for camping, hiking, catch-and-release fishing, and access to sporting activities, like basketball, volleyball and challenge courses. Camping season: June-July, retreats available year round.
Ceta Canyon

7. Lake Meredith National Recreational Area
419 E. Broadway
Fritch, TX 79036
806.857.3151

This 10,000 acre reservoir was created to supply water to 11 surrounding cities and is cradled by 200-foot canyons carved out by the Canadian River. Ultimately, Lake Meredith provides the Texas Panhandle with a spacious place for boating, fishing, camping and hunting. When not in a drought, the lake is a boating hotspot, whether for a leisure afternoon spent fishing or for more intense activities like waterskiing and swimming. Surrounding the reservoir are a variety of camping areas, some with an overlook, some along the shoreline, and some in wooded areas. Reservations aren’t required and campers are invited to stay up to 14 days in a 30-day period. When the water levels are up, Lake Meredith is an ideal place to fish for bass, crappie, and trout. You’ll find horseback riding and hiking at Plum Creek and McBride Canyon, located on the southwest and southeast ends of the lake respectively. Off-Highway Vehicles can be driven in the all-terrain areas of Blue Creek Bridge and Rosita Flats, where you’ll find additional picnic areas and a primitive camping spot. Season: open year round
Lake Meredith

8. Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge
3 miles south of Umbarger, TX, on FM 168
806.499.3382

On US 60 between Hereford and Canyon, just 30 miles southeast of Amarillo, is an area protected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that sits in what’s called the Central Flyway. This is a route traveled by migratory birds, like loons, geese, cranes, eagles and owls, and makes for an ideal wildlife viewing area. Nature trails are open for the quieter observer, especially those with cameras. Expect to see other wildlife as well, native animals like deer, prairie dogs, coyotes and turkeys. While it’s okay to gather feathers or other gems animals leave behind, resist the temptation to interact with the animals. Following NWR rules is mandatory for your safety as well as the wildlife. Pack a lunch and plan to spend a peaceful time in the refuge.
Buffalo Lake NWR

9. Lubbock Lake Landmark
2401 Landmark Drive
Lubbock, TX 79415
806.742.1116

Located on the northwest edge of Lubbock near the intersection of Loop 289 and US 84, this 336-acre park is a day-use park only with two hiking trails (one that is handicapped accessible) and three picnic areas. The Landmark is an archaeological and natural preserve maintained by the Museum of Texas Tech University. The Nash Interpretive Center has an auditorium, a children’s education center and gift shop. The park is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Guided tours are available. Season: open year round
Lubbock Lake Landmark

10. Lake Mackenzie
141 North MacKenzie Road
Silverton, TX 79257
806.633.4318

Water enthusiasts can enjoy fishing, skiing, tubing, and canoeing when levels are up, which is a friendly reminder to call ahead before you go. (The lake is stocked by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.) If water levels are low, take advantage of nearly 35 miles of ATV trails or simply enjoy an afternoon of wildlife viewing along the designated nature trails. The area is home to mule deer, wild turkeys, pheasants, bald eagles, bobcats, and more, as well enjoying various rock formations.
Lake Mackenzie

11. Wildcat Bluff Nature Center
2301 North Soncy Road
Amarillo, TX 79159
806.352.6007

For leisurely day hikes, consider the 600-plus acres of grasslands on the western outskirts of Amarillo. There are four trails at Wildcat Bluff (all less than one mile, one of which is handicapped-accessible) that weave around wildflowers, cottonwood trees and an overlook that is part of the historic Santa Fe Trail. Also on site is a nature center with native wildlife and reptiles available for viewing as part of their conservation education program, and the staff hosts night hikes once a month. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for children and seniors, and free for little ones under three. In keeping with conservation, dogs and bikes are not allowed.
Wildcat Bluff

12. Buffalo Springs Reservoir
9999 High Meadow Road
Lubbock, TX 79404
806. 747.3353

Five miles southeast of Lubbock, on the North Fork of the Double Mountain For of the Brazos River is Buffalo Springs Lake, maintained by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It’s a place for bass, catfish and crappie fishing, as well as tent camping and an area with hook-ups. The Llano Estacado Audubon Society maintains a 1.7 mile nature trail that decends 155 feet into a canyon, along with six off-road biking trails in the surrounding area. As an added bonus, there’s a nine-hole, three-part golf course.
Buffalo Springs Lake

13. Pitcher Pump Bike ‘N Hike Ranch
Gate entrance at West 9th and Helium Rd.
Amarillo, TX 79124
806.356.0096

While only open three days a week, Pitcher Pump is a combined 20 miles of great biking, hiking and trail running on the western outskirts of the city limits. The area is managed by the Girl Scouts High Plains Council, so the $5.00 per person/per use fee goes to a good cause. The ranch is open from daylight to dark on Tuesdays and Thursdays and from 1 p.m. to dark on Sundays. Take note that Pitcher Pump is closed to the public during June and July when the scouts are full swing in their resident summer camp.
Pitcher Pump

-- the AM Team

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