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TEXAS STATE PARKS

Natural Economic Assets

Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Armstrong and Randall Counties, Texas

STATE PARK PROFILES

Palo Duro Canyon State Park
Armstrong and
Randall Counties

Panhandle Plains Region

One of the crown jewels of the state park system, Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located in the Texas Panhandle about 25 miles south of Amarillo and 15 miles east of Canyon. The park encompasses a sizable portion of Palo Duro Canyon, the “Grand Canyon of Texas” and the nation’s second-largest canyon.

The Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River formed Palo Duro Canyon over millions of years. The canyon extends for 60 miles through Randall, Armstrong and Briscoe counties, averaging six miles in width and reaching depths of up to 800 feet.1 Caprock Canyons State Park, some 80 miles to the southeast shares similar topography.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park now spans more than 26,000 acres, making it the second-largest state park in Texas. It is also one of the most frequently visited, with 301,931 visitors in fiscal 2007, including 47,626 overnight visitors.

The impressive landscape of the Palo Duro is largely invisible as one drives east from Canyon. Only as one approaches the park entrance does the drama of the setting reveal itself. With two recent acquisitions on the park’s southern edge made possible with the help of the Amarillo Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, Palo Duro Canyon State Park now spans more than 28,000 acres, making it the second-largest state park in Texas.2 It is also one of the most frequently visited, with 301,931 visitors in fiscal 2007, including 47,626 overnight visitors.3

Palo Duro Canyon State Park is one of relatively few Texas state parks that generate more revenue than expenses. In fiscal 2007, the park generated $1,000,131 in revenue against $628,017 in operating costs for a surplus of $372,114. This was the 4th largest surplus of any state park in Texas in that year.4

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) developed the park during the 1930s. Visitors enjoy a panoramic view of the canyon from the historic visitor center and can spend the night in one of three recently refurbished cabins constructed by the CCC. The park boasts dozens of miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, including one of the signature hikes in Texas, the six-mile Lighthouse Trail. Horseback riding is popular, with guided equestrian tours provided by Old West Stables, one of several independent concessionaires operating in the park.

In fiscal 2007, the park generated $1,000,131 in revenue against $628,017 in operating costs for a surplus of $372,114.

Palo Duro offers a full range of camping options, from cabins and RV sites to primitive campsites and remote backpacking. Park visitors can enjoy birding and other nature watching. A road constructed by the CCC provides a scenic drive along the canyon floor.5

Almost as impressive as its scenery is the fact that Palo Duro Canyon State Park is managed and operated by just 16 full-time equivalent employees. Given its large area and the heavy year-round flow of visitors, the Palo Duro staff’s ability to keep the park in operation is remarkable. The park averages only two to three employees on duty at any given time. This arrangement can pose logistical challenges, since at least one employee must manage the front gate from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. When maintenance problems or law enforcement situations arise, an already challenging arrangement becomes even more difficult.

Horseman with Texas Flag in Palo Duro State Park in Armstrong and Randall Counties, Texas

As with many other state parks visited by the Comptroller’s review team, staff at Palo Duro Canyon said that they would be unable to keep the park functioning without volunteers. The park host program allows long-term volunteers to donate their time and services in exchange for an RV campsite in the park. The park is also supported by an extremely committed volunteer organization, the Partners in Palo Duro Canyon Foundation. The group hosts a Web site and publishes a quarterly newsletter, and its members staff the park gift shop.

“Volunteers keep us alive,” says park superintendent Randy Ferris, who estimates that hundreds of people donate their time at Palo Duro each year. Ferris reports that in recent years, the park has received about as much funding from Partners in Palo Duro as it has from the state.

On Palo Duro Canyon’s economic impact, Superintendent Ferris takes the long view: “As long as it’s been here, the canyon has supported people.”6 The prehistoric Clovis and Folsom people hunted bison and mammoth in the canyon more than 10,000 years ago. The Kiowa and Comanche lived in the region and used the canyon as a base for their raids on encroaching settlers. Following the defeat of the Comanche in the years after the Civil War, much of the canyon was part of the J. A. Ranch operated by legendary Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight.

In the 1930s, local community boosters including the Canyon and Amarillo chambers of commerce were instrumental in the establishment of a park at the canyon. These boosters helped persuade President Roosevelt to designate Palo Duro as a CCC site and send crews to develop the park.7 These community leaders recognized the historical, cultural and ecological importance of the canyon – as well as the economic opportunities the park would provide.

Today, Palo Duro remains important to the Panhandle economy. According to Jerry Holt of the Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council, regular surveys of tourists to the region consistently rank Palo Duro Canyon State Park highly in visitor satisfaction.

Holt calls Palo Duro Canyon one of the region’s primary tourist attractions, and notes that his organization features it “very prominently in virtually all of the literature that the Convention and Visitors Council sends out.” For example, a recent print advertisement for Amarillo-area tourism that ran in publications such as Texas Monthly and Texas Highways included a photo of the scenic canyon.

Holt calls Palo Duro Canyon one of the region’s primary tourist attractions, and notes that his organization features it “very prominently in virtually all of the literature that the Convention and Visitors Council sends out.”

Many of the region’s visitors come from other states. According to Holt, most out-of-state inquiries about the Amarillo region come from Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. Given that expenditures and tax revenues generated from out-of-state visitors represent new money for the state, the park’s ability to attract such visitors is very important.8 Ferris estimates that in an average year about half of all overnight campers in Palo Duro Canyon are from out of state. He also notes, however, that thus far in 2008 out-of-state visits have fallen to about 25 percent of the total, undoubtedly due to high gas prices that have prompted many to vacation closer to home. Many state parks visited by Comptroller researchers reported similar patterns.

Even so, Palo Duro has experienced a net increase in visits during 2008.

In addition to its impressive natural amenities, thousands of visitors are drawn to the park each summer to enjoy the nightly performance of the musical drama Texas!, the state’s official play. Texas! spotlights the history of the Panhandle region and is performed on Tuesday through Saturday nights from June through August at the park’s outdoor amphitheater. The Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Canyon, produces the play. The foundation shares a portion of the production’s proceeds with the park, and both entities benefit from cross-promotion. Play attendees also can opt to enjoy a dinner prepared by the Big Texan Steak Ranch before the show.9

Palo Duro State Park contributed $9,397,441 in sales and $4,796,420 in personal income
to Randall County
in 2006.

Bill Anderson, executive director of the Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation, emphasizes that Texas! is a major economic driver for the city of Canyon. During the months that the play is in production, Anderson’s organization employs about 120 actors, stagehands, theater professionals and other individuals for the production.10 According to a 2002 analysis produced by West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas! contributes more than $34 million to the regional economy through direct and indirect production and visitor expenditures.11

According to a study conducted by John Crompton and Juddson Culpepper of Texas A&M University, Palo Duro State Park contributed $9,397,441 in sales and $4,796,420 in personal income to Randall County in 2006. The park also created 224.4 jobs and generated $18,795 in sales tax revenue for the county in that year.12

Summary Economic Impacts
Palo Duro State Park, Armstrong and Randall Counties

2006 County Sales 2006 County Resident Income 2006 County Employment (Full-Time Equivalent) 2006 County Sales Tax Generated
$9,397,441 $4,796,420 224.4 $18,795

Source: Texas A&M University.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Direct Spending (Fiscal 2007)

Revenues Operating Expenses* Net Income
$1,000,131 $628,017 $372,114

* Includes salaries, operating expenses and minor (non-capital) repair.

Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Endnotes

  • 1 William Conroy, “Palo Duro Canyon” in The Handbook of Texas Online (Austin, Texas, Texas State Historical Association) p. 1, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/PP/rkp4.html. (Last visited September 18, 2008.)
  • 2 Interview with Randy Ferris, park superintendent, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Armstrong County, Texas, June 19, 2008.
  • 3 Data provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, “State Park Sites, Acreage, and Visits,” with Texas Comptroller’s office calculations.
  • 4 Data provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, “Revenue Less Operating Costs, FY 2006-2007,” with Texas Comptroller’s office calculations. Amounts may not total due to rounding.
  • 5 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, “Palo Duro Canyon State Park,” pp. 1-4, http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/palo_duro/. (Last visited September 18, 2008.)
  • 6 Interview with Randy Ferris, park superintendent, Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and data provided by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, “Site FTE’s.”
  • 7 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, “Palo Duro Canyon State Park,” pp. 1-2.
  • 8 Interview with Jerry Holt, Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council, Amarillo, Texas, June 19, 2008.
  • 9 Interview with Randy Ferris, park superintendent, Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
  • 10 Interview with Bill Anderson, Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation, Amarillo Convention and Visitor Council, Canyon, Texas, June 19, 2008.
  • 11 Letter from Barry Duman, Neil Terry, and Joshua Lewer, West Texas A&M University to Betty Propst, Texas Panhandle Heritage Foundation, April 15, 2002.
  • 12 Texas Coalition for Conservation, The Economic Contributions of Texas State Parks in FY 2006, by John L. Crompton and Juddson Culpepper, Texas A&M University, Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences (Austin, Texas, December 2006), http://rptsweb.tamu.edu/faculty/Crompton/Crompton/Articles/3.10.pdf. (Last visited September 18, 2008.)
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