Six months and 1,500 hours – that’s what cyclist Chris Podzemny approximates he and the rest of the Palo Duro Corps of Engineers devoted to constructing the new Rock Garden Trail at Palo Duro Canyon State Park. At 2 p.m. Saturday, a crowd will gather to celebrate the completion of the 2.48-mile trail that leads to a view of the canyon from Fortress Cliff, with a ribbon cutting, sign planting and guided tour.
“The right word [to describe the trail] is immersed,” says Chris, a cyclist and runner. “You get immersed in the canyon. You’re starting at the very bottom of the canyon, down by the river, and all the plants and all the animals move up and you have these beautiful red cliffs… The view from the long draw crossing is really amazing. It is very awe-inspiring.”
The Palo Duro Corps of Engineers is a group of volunteers made up of “trail runners and mountain bikers that have an interest in our trails in general and come out and help us maintain the trails and do repair work on existing trails,” says Cory Evans, Palo Duro Canyon State Park superintendent.
When the Fortress Cliff property was purchased by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, one of the stipulations was to create access to the top of Fortress Cliff. Since this past summer, the Palo Duro Corps of Engineers have sacrificed nearly every weekend to work on this extensive project, and the 1,500 hours of ground construction doesn’t even factor in the time it took to scout and mark the route, and clear the vegetation, Chris says.
Check out Chris's video of the 17-minute descent from the top of the Rock Garden Trail to the bottom of the Canyon!
“The guys came out with rakes and shovels and crow bars, anything they might need to move soil around,” Cory recalls. “We laid it out in a sustainable way, so it required following topography the best we can. [There was] a lot of manual labor out there, scraping and raking and digging.”
Chris, a Palo Duro Canyon State Parl volunteer for more than 15 years, spearheaded the project. By the time he contacted fellow volunteer and PD50 race director, Kevin McClish, Chris already had his plan for the trail in place. After one year of “going through the red tape,” securing permits and approval from agencies and organizations, it was time to begin. A year and a half ago saw the removal of vegetation to clear way for a path, and then the dirt work began in June. As of this past weekend, it is ready for use, but the trail is far from complete, Kevin stresses.
“We blazed the trail through, and improved it and improved it, but it’s an ongoing project,” Kevin explains. “It’s a rugged trail and it will require continual maintenance.”
Located between Park Roads 5 and 6, across from the southern entrance to the Sunflower Day Use Area, the Rock Garden Trail escalates up Fortress Cliff, a 600-foot elevation gain. With a rough terrain consisting of rocks and boulder, and more than 20 switchbacks, Cory insists the trail is not for novice hikers and cyclists, but is much better suited for athletes familiar with and confident on a landscape such as the Rock Garden. But the trail is open to all cyclists and hikers, and the sights can be appreciated by all.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Cory says. “That 600-foot elevation gain is going to be a lot different from the other trails in the park. The twists and turns at the bottom are going to be technical. You definitely want to be a fairly seasoned hiker or cyclist to tackle it.”
While it may not ensure an easy ascent, Cory claims the view once you climb to the top of Fortress Cliff is stunning, and the chance to see rare wildlife along the way, such as the Aoudad sheep, in addition to bobcats, coyotes and mule deer, and a potential visit from one of the Park’s Western diamondback rattlesnakes. After six years of volunteering with building trails, Kevin saw his first wild hog while working on the trail.
“For the cyclists and avid hikers, I think it is going to be a well-received trail, a well-used trail,” Cory believes. “Just for that view, for those willing to make that climb up to the rim, it’s going to be spectacular up there.”
However, it’s not just the view from the rim that is a draw. For Chris, it’s the history of the trail that has pushed him further to consummate the trail. Eight years ago, he first learned about the rock garden trail that was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Through his research, he also discovered the story of an old warrior, who the JA Ranch cowboys referred to as Smokey. According to legend, after the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon in 1874, the Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne, who had previously found refuge in the canyon, were driven to reservations; yet Smokey stayed behind and made a safe haven for himself in the area where the Rock Garden Trail currently runs through. The ranch hands called it Smokey's Rock Garden. In the 1930s, the CCC began constructing the park trails, and the same area where Smokey once resided became a trail, which can be found on early park maps.
“It’s the history behind the trail, the fact it was the Comanche and Kiowa that originally used this trail or trails in the same area to get about in their daily lives,” exclaims Chris. “You can see their lifestyle up there. You can see what the CCC did up there. It’s a bonus. The real deal is the canyon and you really get to see it, and [the trail] has made it more accessible. The view has always been there, but we’ve made it where a lot more people can enjoy a view of the canyon other than through the window of their cars.”
by Drew Belle Zerby
After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.